Wooden works of art

Jay Freeland outlines a Santa face on a 2-by-4 block of wood as he prepares to carve a Santa.

From their rosy cheeks and jolly bellies to their twinkling eyes, woodworker Jay Freeland gives each of his hand-carved Santa Claus figurines a distinctive look.

From his log cabin home in Kramer, Ind., in rural Warren County, Freeland begins each figurine by sketching basic features on blocks of wood, usually leftover 2-by-4 pieces.

“I just start detailing them out,” he said.

After he makes his preliminary sketches, Freeland begins carving out the finer, more intricate features of each Santa. He paints and stains them, and then gives each one a unique number, which he writes on the feet.

Although the process of creating them is always the same, no two are alike.

“They’re all just a little different,” Freeland said.

Freeland estimates he’s made 40-50 of the figures in the last decade. He gives them as gifts and sometimes sells them.

Freeland, who specializes in one-of-a-kind walking sticks, began carving 10 years ago as a way to combat boredom after he sustained an injury that left him paralyzed.

“I had to figure out something to pass the time,” he said.

In addition to being bored, Freeland had some favors to return to family and friends who volunteered their time to help him build his log home.

“I thought, ‘How could I pay them back?’” he said.

So, Freeland began working on his first walking stick, an odd-shaped limb he spotted when a friend was using it to stoke a fire. Freeland began giving his finished creations as thank-you gifts to those who helped build his home and to others who helped him when he needed it.

Freeland’s walking sticks are adorned with different figures, including hummingbirds, Native Americans and eagles, but his signature design is the porous pattern of the top of a morel mushroom.

Freeland’s hobby has grown from a way to pass time to something that demands a lot of time.

“I’m carving all the time,” he said.

He often finds there aren’t enough hours in a day or months in a year to carve all the projects commissioned of him.

“I’m two years behind, at least,” he said.

A small Santa figurine takes Freeland about two weeks to finish, but a walking stick can take months or even years. Freeland jokes that those who tell him to “take his time” might have to wait upwards of seven years.

A selection of Freeland’s work was on display at the Attica Public Library during November. Norma Fink, library director, said the display was popular among library patrons.

“People seem to enjoy looking,” Fink said. “There is a lot of detail in his work.”

From California to Ohio, Freeland has shipped walking sticks to several states, and one moved with its Attica owner all the way to England.

Some of his work can be identified by his logo, a small carved section of Mudlavia folk art, which pays tribute to the world-renowned hotel and mud baths of the 1800s located in Kramer near Freeland’s home.

After the holiday rush, Freeland plans to take on his largest project so far. He plans to carve four large cedar logs into a custom headboard and four-post bed.

With no formal woodworking training, Freeland thinks the best training comes through learning from and finding inspiration in the work of others. Freeland is particularly motivated by the work of the late Bill Day of West Lebanon. Day was known for his hand-carved wooden bowls.

“He did such wonderful work,” said Freeland, adding he believes in trial and error when it comes to his woodworking.

“You just have to start,” he said. “If it doesn’t turn out, you can throw it away and start over.”

While he enjoys creating wooden works of art as a pastime for the present, Freeland likes the idea of making things that will be here in the future.

“They’re going to be around for a long time after I’m gone,” he said.

Recommended for you