He carves, she paints

Some hobbies reveal an undeveloped talent.

Which explains how Charles and Delores Menk, of Sleepy Eye, have carved out and hand painted a collection of more than 100 Santa Claus figures and a number of other wooden items for the past 30 years.

Charles and Delores Menk display some of the more than 200 wood carvings of Santa Claus and other subjects Charles has carved and Delores has painted during the past 30 years of their hobby. Photo by Steve Palmer

After Charles retired from 34 years of working at Del Monte’s canning company, Delores encouraged him to find a hobby, and in 1988, he decided to take a woodcarving class with New Ulm’s Community Education program. He quickly discovered it to be satisfying and rewarding, and for the next three decades, the wood chips have not stopped falling on his basement workshop floor.

At the first class he took, students had to carve a Santa Claus, and Charles has been carving various versions of the jolly fellow ever since. “I just enjoy doing him I guess,” Charles said.

He continued to explore his artistic talents by attending more classes on college campuses in North Dakota and Iowa. His sharp eye for detail and an ability to use carving tools has allowed him to expand to carve other subjects, which include snowmen, Indians, Santa-themed cowboys, Christmas ornaments, and some intricate 3D-look relief pieces.

He said he generally stays away from carving animals simply because it’s too easy to break skinny legs.   

All of his carved Santas have unique facial expressions or clothing attire which makes them different from one another. Some Santas may have a familiar large belly and thick, white beard, while others might be tall in stature or thin and wearing glasses. Usually, it can take  up to as much as 15 to 20 hours to finish a carving, depending on how detailed and what size he’s carving.

Charles explained that soft basswood, which has less grain, is the best wood for carving.  Butternut is good for carving, too. He usually buys different pieces and thickness sizes of cut out or rough out wood when he attends carving shows to make his interesting creations.

He gets his project ideas from his own inspiration or maybe from a magazine photo.  Sometimes, he’ll take a photo of something he’s seen at a show that he likes and try to duplicate a similar carving.

In the hand of a woodcarver, Charles holds a Minnesota-shaped Santa Claus that he carved using the tools on the table. Photo by Steve Palmer

When his carving is completed Delores gets busy with her paintbrushes for the next stage of finishing the item. As the painter, she has a vision for bringing the character’s personality to life.  She uses acrylic paints and a spray varnish on each piece to seal it and preserve the paint on them.  “I’m pretty fussy when I paint,” Delores stated.

As a team, it’s a process repeated over and over, as they take pride in finishing more than 200 pieces, which all have a calendar year put on them.

At Christmastime, the tree in the Menk’s home is decorated with 90 percent of Charles’ ornament carvings. The Menks don’t sell their woodcarvings but rather get more enjoyment giving them away as gifts. For many years, their grandchildren would receive carved ornaments as Christmas presents. Their son’s Christmas tree also is loaded with wooden ornaments.

Charles said he only carves during the long winter months, as yard and garden activities need his attention in summer. He also belongs to a group of carvers in Blue Earth called the “Royal Chislers” that meets once a month.

Charles knows there are fewer carvers who enjoy the hobby today from when he first started. Instead of appreciating the time of just being with yourself that goes along with carving he agreed with comments that the majority of people might be more interested in their hand held devices.

Charles has a handful of his carvings, including some of the numerous Christmas ornaments in his collection. Photos by Steve Palmer

He purchases his sharp carving tools at shows, with each tool having a specific purpose when working with wood.  He also wears a Kevlar glove to protect his fingers and hands from cuts when carving. If he makes a mistake Charles is not worried.  He said with a laugh, “Oh yeah, mistakes with carving can happen, but it’s still a good piece of firewood.”

Out of the woodcarving collection, the Menks keep some of their favorites on display year around.  Charles lists his cowboy Santa carving and another is Santa’s goodbye kiss to Mrs. Claus as special pieces of his work. He also likes his carving of Chief Sleepy Eye and the bolo tie clips of a Santa face and Minnesota Twins logo.

Charles and a handful of his carvings, including some of the numerous Christmas ornaments in his collection. Photo by Steve Palmer

Carving small “comfort” birds for a pastor who takes them to hospice patients is gratifying, and giving a handmade gift to others for a special occasion is a pleasing experience.

Despite all of his skills, Charles explained the most difficult task to overcome on his Santa figures is carving the eyes. “It’s a challenge to get the eyes to be on the same level and getting a pair of ears to look good can be tricky too,” he said.

“This kind of hobby can be a lot of work sometimes, but it’s still fun and a good thing for both of us to do together,” Delores commented.