Fire in the royal palace, a masterwork destroyed, and the skills required to replace it lost in the mists of history. Thus began the challenging woodcarving life of David Esterly. An American with degrees from Harvard and Cambridge, he became fascinated with the work of 17th Century woodcarver Grinling Gibbons after he saw his first piece behind the altar of St. James Church in London.
He decided to write a book about the famous carver, but felt the need to experience handling the tools and carving for himself. This began a self-taught career spanning four decades of extraordinary work. Easterly’s one man show, the Art of Subtraction is currently on display at Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, NY through March 10, 2013. www.mwpai.org
Esterly’s work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio, and called, “some of the most astonishing work being done in wood today.” by Fine Woodworking Magazine.
Ferns and Foliage in Progress
His recent book, The Lost Carving, a Journey to the Heart of Making, describes his experiences recreating the famous carving by Grinling Gibbons lost in a fire at Hampton Court.
Esterly uses 130 different gouges and prefers English lime wood, similar to American basswood but finer grained, to carve paper thin ornamental foliage and flower petals. For centuries it was believed that no one could duplicate the skillful execution of the Gibbons style, but Esterly does it with a flourish.
Florals in Vase
I first became of aware of Esterly’s carving in the 1980’s. I hoped to ask him to do a guest appearance on my PBS woodcarving show, but at the time he was carving in England. He continues to work in his studio in Upstate New York creating carvings that take a year or more to complete and command six-figure prices. If you get the chance visit his show in Utica, or see his work at www.davidesterly.com
Just an update on what I’ve been up to. In the fall Ellen and I fulfilled a long time dream of hiking across England coast to coast following the ruins of Hadrian’s Wall. The wall was built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in A.D. 122 to hold back the barbarian Scots. (My distant ancestors.)
Here I am near sunset looking west along the Winshields Crags at the northernmost edge of the Roman Empire.
Along the way we visited Carlisle Cathedral, originally built in 1133. The Cathedral is noted for its medieval woodcarvings – some of the few that still survive. These were carved in the 15th century. I’ll add some other carvings we saw in the future.
Coming soon: Who is the greatest woodcarver on the planet? You’ll find out who gets my vote! I’ll try to arrange an interview and photos.
The National Weather Service is predicting another storm bringing 12-18 inches of fresh snow. I love it! It’s so beautiful…as long as you don’t have to go anywhere. It’s a good time to tuck in and do some woodcarving. Traditionally winter is when the Swiss and German woodcarvers did their work because the snow prevented any farming.
Winter storms fascinate me. I love to hear the wind howling through the pines while I work by the fire. My cabin is over half a century old, built by an old craftsman who understood the importance of old fashioned solid construction. He built it with his own hands and it sheltered his family for decades. Now it protects me and mine.
It can be disconcerting to hear the walls and timbers creak under the pressure of the storm. It always brings to mind the age-old bond between a person and his home. If it should fail on a night like this, then you would be left at the mercy of the storm, a grim prospect indeed.
Fortunately, this home was built right and tonight I feel a gratitude for that old craftsman who knew how to do things right.
“Whatever happened to Rick Bütz?” I was surprised when I came across that question on the internet not too long ago. So I decided to learn how to let people know what I’ve been doing. The first step was to find a talented young website designer. The second is to learn how to add a blog to my website. I’m very excited about this new way to keep in touch with people about woodcarving.
To answer the question: I’m still carving and I still love helping people learn how much fun carving can be. Lately, I’ve been carving part-time, developing new ideas and techniques.
Relief Carving of a Coat of Arms
For many years while I was carving, I also volunteered on our local ambulance squad. I really enjoyed the challenges of medicine and took more and more courses to improve my skills. Eventually I went back to school and became a Physician’s Assistant with the intention of being able to do more to help our veterans.
For the past ten years, I’ve been working with the Veteran’s Administration helping men and women who have served our country. I’ve been fortunate to meet some great people and help with their medical care. I’ve met a lot of carvers too. It’s been great fun.
I’ve also been working on a lifelong dream of writing fiction in my spare time. I’ve just finished a historical thriller that takes place during The Great Chicago Fire of 1871, called Firestorm. Right now it’s with my agent in New York, and I’ll let you know when it’s being published. In the meantime I’ve started working on some new book ideas, and will be running some of them by you in later posts.
So welcome aboard! I plan to be adding instructional videos for sharing woodcarving tips, projects and techniques with you – just as soon as I can figure out how to do it. Let me know what you’d like to see.
I guess it’s no secret — I love woodcarving. For one thing, I love working with my hands, feeling a well-honed tool carve cleanly through the wood, and smelling the fragrant wood chips. I can just feel the tensions of daily life melt away.
Sometimes, when I’m really involved with a project, I almost feel like I’m in another time and place, a simpler world where the pace is set by the rhythm of tools carving through the wood, rather than by clocks or calendars. I always come back refreshed, with a new perspective on life.
Woodcarving has also given me the chance to meet a lot of new friends — especially through teaching. There’s something exciting about introducing people to carving and watching them discover the rewards and satisfactions for themselves. That’s why, when I was asked to help create a weekly public television series on woodcarving, I welcomed the opportunity to share my enjoyment with others.
Woodcarving is a simple art. You only need a few tools and basic techniques to get started; the rest comes with practice. But, once you have these basics, you’re only limited by your imagination. You always have new horizons to explore. You can carve for a lifetime and never be bored.