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Lifelong woodcarver offers lessons in the ancient art

Doug Bathke estimates he has collected up to 300 tools in 55 years of woodcarving. He also has learned skills born of patience and experienced the joy of taking a simple piece of wood and turning it into a unique creation. Listening to him describe his hobby, it seems to be a form of meditation.

“Woodcarving is a subtractive art, because you’re taking material away and you concentrate on not taking away too much,” he explained. “You can become fully absorbed. I find it a really relaxing hobby.”

For the past 46 years, Bathke has shared his hard-won knowledge with others by offering woodcarving classes. Forty years ago, he moved those classes to the Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum at 180 Thompson St., North Tonawanda. He begins another series of classes there on Saturday, continuing Feb. 10, 17 and 24.

The class series is offered for beginners (ages 18 and older) from 9 a.m. to noon. Bathke also teaches a series for intermediate/advanced carvers from 1 to 4 p.m. those same days at the museum.

The cost for the beginner class is $100 and includes instruction, a tool kit to keep and project materials. Students will be introduced to tool safety, sharpening, material selection and finishing. A new project each week will include carving in the round and relief carving.

The intermediate/advanced class fee is $85, with admission requiring Bathke’s approval. The project is a Celtic Cross carving and students must bring their own tools.

Deadline for registration and payment for this museum fundraiser is Wednesday; call 693-1885. Bathke only accepts 12 students in the beginner class and 10 in the advanced session, so that he can give hands-on help. He offers another woodcarving series at the museum each fall.

“Over 1,000 people have taken these courses over the years,” Bathke said. “Some have never touched a knife again, but others are winning ribbons in competitions. It feels pretty good to see them do well.”

Bathke said he believes it takes two to three years of practice for a beginner to be ready for the more advanced class.

“You get so much information in those first classes and it builds, it’s a process,” he noted. “And, you could become a professional if you’re good enough at it. I get quite a few art teachers who take my classes, maybe some who have experience in sculpture, but few have any experience in wood, and they really enjoy it. That makes me feel good to see them there.”  

Bathke, 69, recently talked about his lifetime passion against the backdrop of the museum, where he currently serves as a trustee. He has filled every office in the non-profit organization over the past 35 years as a board member, including past president.

Bathke and a few other members also can be found displaying their woodcarving skills throughout the year at museum events. His classes serve two purposes –  they raise money to help maintain the museum and they help preserve the ancient art of woodcarving.

Q: Do you use different types of wood?

A: Only basswood, which is from the linden tree and grows around the Great Lakes area. It cuts really beautifully. The farther north the trees are found, the tighter the grain. My hometown in central Wisconsin had nice basswood. We’re lucky to have that resource here, too.

Q: So you’re a Midwesterner. Is it a popular past-time there?

A: Not really any more popular there, but it is more popular in certain areas of the country. We have two or three woodcarving clubs in Western New York, with over 400 carvers. I just went back to my high school reunion in Wisconsin and the guys I talked to seemed to be doing more wood turning with a lathe.

I belong to the National Woodcarvers Association and there are clubs all over the country. We get visitors from all over the world at the museum, and when I’m demonstrating woodcarving, I’ve had people tell me they wished they lived around here to learn more about it and I encourage them to go to the National Woodcarvers Association website.

Q: How did you get involved?

A: I come from a family of hunters and fishermen, and I’d use a hunting knife as a kid in the fields to work on a piece of wood. When I was in high school, my Dad went to a meeting at his church and saw a woman, Anna Hitzig, demonstrating woodcarving and he came home and told me he thought it was something I’d be interested in.

So, every Saturday afternoon, all through high school, I would carve with her, and learned how to read grain and use knives. I mostly carved animals in those days. She was an excellent carver. As I got older, I took different art classes and joined carving clubs.

Q: How did you end up in Western New York?

A: It was love. I met my wife, Deborah, at college in Wisconsin and she was from Lockport. We came here in 1972 because she found a job right away as a teacher, then I found one. I retired in 2006 after teaching social studies for 28 years at North Tonawanda High School. Before that, I was an industrial arts teacher.

Q: What’s the benefit of learning woodcarving through a class?

A: When I started, there was one book on how to do this. Now there are multiple books and CDs and everything, and it can be very confusing, if you don’t know how to hold a knife. With our classes, students can take off at whatever speed they want to. I am not God’s gift to woodcarving, but I can save someone three to five years of stumbling through by themselves.

It’s up to each student to take it to the next level. It’s practice, practice, practice.

Q: What sort of tools do the beginners start with?

A: A knife and gouges, which enable them to do relief or plaque carving.

As they practice and accumulate tools, they decide what type of work they like to do and what type of tools they’ll need. You want a quality tool that will hold an edge and last a lifetime. They should buy their tools one at a time to see what they’ll use.

Q: What do you like to carve?

A: I’ve carved everything from a half-inch-long fish to a carousel animal to signs. I did a couple of signs that I donated to North Tonawanda High School, a 4-by-8-foot one that reads ‘Home of the Jacks’ with a lumberjack head on one side and NT logo on the other, and a round sign with the NT logo in the center for the podium for graduation.

Museum carvers made a round wooden sign in 2000 that you see on the wall at the Niagara County Legislature meetings to thank the legislature for their support for the museum. It’s all relief carving and we tried to show a little of the history of the county with it.

I’m working on carving a little deer right now, about eight to 10 inches tall, a buck. I don’t sell my work, I give it to family and friends as gifts.

Some carvers specialize in just birds and they might even get into power grinding. Some birds look like old decoys from the 1920s, kind of a crude, folk art style, while others might carve a bald eagle so realistic, it looks like it could fly away. And you see everything in between.

Q: How do people learn more?

A: The Niagara Frontier Woodcarvers Club meets at our museum at 6:30 p.m. on the second Tuesday of every month. Anyone is welcome to join us. There are no formal classes, people just bring the projects they’re working on and sit and visit. It’s a friendly club.



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