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Uplifting feathers

Princeton carver sees joy in each feather he delivers

By Bill Vossler

Jim Olson is working on carving one of the feathers that he often gives away, to much acclaim. Photo by Yvette Olson

When carver Jim Olson of Princeton saw feathers being carved out of wood on a Facebook wood club he follows, he thought they looked neat.

“I heard a saying ‘If you find a feather, it means angels in heaven are watching over you like guardian angels.’ So I decided to carve a bunch of feathers out of basswood, and see how people reacted.”

So he did. And they reacted wonderfully.

Jim’s interest in wood carving began in the Army in Germany in 1972.

“I watched German carvers, and visited carving shops, seeing people were carving coats of arms, so I started using 12 by 14 inch poor-quality ammo box lids, the only wood I had, like a large picture frame,” he said. “Typically the shield had a knight’s helmet on top and a banner on the bottom with the family name and garlands on both sides. The shield was in four parts, so for whatever interested the family. For a farmer, carve maybe a barn, silo, tractor, plow, four pieces of information on the shield. People used them as family crests.”

Most difficult was getting the design on the wood in the right proportions. “At first a friend did the drawing and I transferred it to the wood. But as a kid I did a lot of drawing and was a pretty good artist, so after  I knew how to draw them on wood, I did, and they worked just fine.”

The first carving Jim did back home from the Army was Santas.

“Some friends were carving them, and I thought they were neat. I used some warped or cracked basswood I had glued together, then cut out the basic shape of the carving. I added details so they matched front and back. For instance, if the arms are carved one direction in front, they should be in the same orientation in the back. The facial detail is the most challenging.”

That led to gnomes, elves, and woodsmen. “The woodsmen are eight to 10 inches tall, with sticks on their back and walking on snowshoes. They are one of my most favorite carvings. The woodsman is the only one that is mostly the same all the time. Hand-carved and hand-painted, they have different statures with different looks on their faces. In those ways each one is unique.“

He also makes gnomes and elves, including nisse elves. According to “Norwegian Nisse Elves,” “the nisse live in the houses and barns of the farmstead, and secretly act as guardians for the family. If treated well, they protect the family from evil and misfortune, and might help with chores.”

One of Jim’s favorite carvings is of a large woodsman. Photo by Jim Olson

“Gnomes and elves each have a lot more detail to them, especially on the faces. “My parents were from Norway and Sweden, where nisse elves are special, so I carved some and at one family reunion I gave one to everyone.”

Many carvers have specialized tools for their carvings, and Jim does too. “One time one of my sons said, ‘You’re working too hard with just a utility knife, so he bought me a set of really nice carving tools. The problem is keeping them sharp. So I’m still using basically an X-Acto knife and utility knife to do my carving, because when they go dull, I just switch blades. I haven’t learned how to sharpen those nice carving tools.”

Jim donates many of his wooden creations.

“After seeing the feathers on the Facebook page, I carved some feathers, and people thought they were neat. My sister wanted some for her husband’s parents, and others. I shared feathers with a couple of people at church. One guy was really impressed. He said, ‘I could use these for the homebound or dealing with loss.’”

That gave Jim the idea to give feathers to the Wheels on Meals he delivers. “It’s uplifting, and makes people feel better. It’s not religious, so the people I’ve given them to have felt really good, especially after I share the angels legend. That’s why I’ve focused on feathers for the past few months. My sister-in-law, with a major health issue, was really touched by one I gave to her. It’s a simple way to pass on good feelings to people. One woman said, ‘You gave this feather to me just at the right time.’ Many people have been very impacted by receiving them.”

He has donated many Santas to a silent auction in church to raise money. “Also the Kinship mentoring program in Princeton, and a fundraiser for the police silent auction.”

Jim said feathers are easy to do compared to some of his other carvings.

“They relax me while I sit and carve away at them, using basswood. Carving them out of pine would be much more challenging than the basswood. The grain of pine is not as fine, so you get chips or splinters. Basswood isn’t always perfect, but it’s usually very good, so I basically cut my feather blanks out of really clear basswood. Many woods could be used, but basswood has a soft fine grain, and is easy to carve. I find pieces with no knots in them, which is a positive, and people like the natural tan of the basswood.”

He starts by outlining the feather on basswood an inch and a quarter thick. “I can use the band saw to cut three pieces from it. It’s often curved, some left and some right, and in an hour I can carve four feathers.”

This is the kind of feathers that Jim Olson carves and often gives away. Photo by Jim Olson

Jim has carved some specific feathers. “A couple lost their son, and they saw an eagle watching over them, so they asked if I would do an eagle feather. Which I did.”

Jim has also done turkey feathers for hunters, pheasant feathers, and cardinal feathers.

“Cardinal feathers are really tiny. The story goes that if you see a cardinal when someone has passed, it’s a sign the deceased is remembering you or watching over you. I don’t usually paint other feathers, but I decided to add red watercolor to some of the cardinal feathers and see if people would be interested.”

“I don’t consider those angel feathers, but they are interesting to see. I’m willing to try a bunch of different things with my carving.”

Painting the pieces can be challenging, Jim said. 

“I wouldn’t want all the cuts I made overlapping or bleeding with different colors into others. So I paint the entire carving one color, like off white for the beard and hair on Santas. After a couple of those coats, I add the other colors, and do two or three coats of each of the colors as well. I stain it and put polyurethane spray or shellac over it so it has a nice finish to it. So painting takes as long as carving.”

Jim does carve with a variety of woods. “Like red cedar, which my cousin gave me. It has a nice coloration and a beautiful natural finish of red with some white, so I don’t have to paint or stain that. But for now I’ve run out of that.”

Jim also likes using cypress knees for carving.

“Cypress roots grow like a bubble coming out of the ground. Usually rounded, they work really well to carve gnomes. They are really popular because they are a natural color and have a nice grain. A friend is looking for more for me.”

Jim said he knew he was getting better at wood carving when a friend said so.

“He was carving Santas and they were much more rustic looking. When he saw some of mine, he said, ‘Oh my gosh, yours look so much better than mine. I cut deeper into my figures, and took a little more care in painting them.”

Gnomes made by Jim Olson can have many different looks. Photo by Jim Olson

On the other hand, Jim’s friend made some carvings for him that Jim really likes.

“He carved me a couple of things he really liked and thought I would like, so I have five or six of his carvings in my house. His are almost like an old-fashioned piece of folk art. Mine are like that too, but look very different from his.”

Sometimes the carving just doesn’t quite work.

“With certain carvings a gnome eight inches tall might have a tall curvy pointed hat four inches long. Sometimes part of it might break off. So then I usually just either carve it shorter or try to glue the part on. If it doesn’t stay when I continue carving it, I just have to toss the piece. That doesn‘t happen very often. Soft wood doesn’t break off like harder wood, but that kind of wood I think might break off if you drop it. But basswood is softer, and doesn’t break easily. Sometimes I realize I shouldn’t have carved the hat first, because then the tip can break off more easily. Sometimes when I make a mistake and carve the wrong line, I usually correct it. If it’s a beard on the Santa, for example, I work around it on the coat next to the beard, making it different than it was originally going to be.”

Jim would encourage people who have never carved before to start out small.

“Just try it. You can see what people are doing on Facebook. At first your work might look rustic and rough, but you get better at it. If it doesn’t work out for you, that sometimes happens.”

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