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Taking Shape | Summer 2007 Out Here Magazine

Leo Lambert uses traditional carving tools to create a blue heron for the Adirondack Carousel.

Carver's clever eye and steady hands create artistic beauty from wood

By Noble Sprayberry
Photography by Kevin Jacobus

Countless intricate carvings. Dozens of students introduced to the magic of woodworking. Each is the responsibility of Leo Lambert, whose own rise to master craftsman began with a casual conversation and a dose of ego.

Chatting in his print shop with a paper salesman, Lambert agreed to take a look at the man's woodcarvings. "So, he brought some stuff in and I had the audacity to think I could do that with my eyes closed," he says.

At home, he opened an Audubon field guide and found an image of a scarlet tanager, a small songbird. He took his jackknife and went to work.

"I carved it with a poor piece of wood. I painted it with house paint," he recalls. "I stuck wire into it and twisted it to make feet I used tacks to make eyes. I thought this was the greatest piece of work the world has ever seen."

And like most craftsmen, he wanted to show off, and a local event for woodcarvers seemed ideal. "I went to the show and looked around and quickly realized I'd better keep my little carving in my pocket and not mention it," Lambert says.

He's come a long way since the late 1970s. Lambert, 69, went to work as a professional woodcarver in 1992. He not only teaches carving but his commissioned pieces often leave him working long days, though he'll take lengthy breaks between jobs.

Carving knives in professional kits — such as Lambert uses — run in length from 8 to 10 inches. A beginner set of knives generally measure 5 inches.

And after all the years since that first scarlet tanager took shape, his passion for his craft has only grown. He's studied the anatomy of plants and animals. He draws inspiration from art history. He can explain the intricacies of fine art.


Living with his wife, Hazel, in Woburn, MA, he pours his passion for the craft and skill into a range of projects created with traditional hand tools.


Recent commissioned pieces include a crucifix, a 7-inch polar bear, and detailed ornamentation on a church pipe organ.


Besides teaching at the Homestead Woodworking School in New Hampshire, he also runs a class at a local senior center. He's visited most area elementary schools, Boy Scout troops, and other organizations to teach what he believes is a skill with universal appeal.


"There is nothing more personal than making something with your hands," he says, "and everyone is proud to make something themselves."


When teaching children to carve using bars of soap, results are immediate. "When you go into a classroom, the kids are climbing the walls but once we sit down and do this you can hear a pin drop," he says.


Adults are no different. He teaches a four-step process: form, shape, modeling, and detailing. Each builds on the other.


Form is the initial band-saw cut, which may or may not resemble the end result. It's the equivalent of a home foundation. Think of shape as the studding and framing of house. Modeling introduces the detail in a muted form, similar to the subfloors or rough walls. The details are the elements that spark a reaction — the final bits that showcase the whole.



Sense of Accomplishment


For people interested in learning, he recommends buying a beginner set of knives, named more after the size of the knives than the skill level. Knives in this set are generally 5 inches in length from handle to blade tip and suitable for working with small objects. Comparatively, knives in professional kits run in length from 8 to 10 inches.

Lambert prefers to carve basswood or Eastern white pine, because their grain makes them easy to shape, and neither readily cracks.

While the tools are important, good wood also matters. Lambert suggests basswood or Eastern white pine. The grain of both woods makes them easy to shape, and neither readily cracks. Avoid yellow pine, which is ideal for construction projects but not carving.


Most importantly, challenge yourself from the very beginning.


"Rather than start with something simple, I always give my students something that they would think they'd never possibly be able to do," he says.


By striving for dramatic results, and with proper teaching, students feel a greater sense of accomplishment.


One student in his class at the senior center tackled a bust of poet Robert Frost. Two others produced detailed landscapes.


And though decades removed from that first scarlet tanager, Lambert still feels the same passion he sees blooming in his students.


"When I'm carving, I can't even hear the things going on around me," he says. "Wood is warm to the touch, and it's a living medium. A living organism. To take a piece of wood that someone else would throw on the fire and to give it near immortality … It's a great feeling."


Noble Sprayberry is a freelance writer in Dallas.