At first glance, you may see just a pesky weed growing along the side of the road. But 89-year-old Norman Woodard will tell you sumac is a special shrub deserving a closer look.
His “quiet hobby,” as he calls it, began over 20 years ago when he realized that he had no plans after his retirement. So he decided to choose an avocation — woodcarving. He signed up for adult classes at Hennepin Technical College in Minnesota, and has been increasing his skill and deepening his passion for carving ever since. He now meets with his woodcarving groups twice a week.
Norman takes advantage of the sumac that grows naturally in the lowlands of a pond in his own backyard in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. “The difference between sumac and other wood,” he explained, “is the appearance and the result.” Years ago, he picked up a piece of sumac from a woodpile and completed his first sumac carving — an owl. He has grown to admire the species and now uses it for half of his work.
While most carvers avoid sumac because of its small size and soft center, Norman is attracted to sumac and its unique features. He considers it an extremely attractive shrub, inside and out. Its deep red and orange leaves are especially stunning in the fall, while cutting into the wood reveals its rings. Norman describes them as “uniform, almost perfect — not wavy like other types of tree rings.” The “stripes” alternate between dark and light circles. And, according to this woodcarver, “the color is more pronounced; the light is lighter and the dark is darker.”
Woodard does more than admire these stripes: he depends on them, because they are always the same size. He cuts the wood in different ways, based on how he wants to show off the stripes — often horizontally instead of vertically, because it most advantageously enhances the look of the layers.
Norman sticks with clear finishes so the striking natural appearance of the sumac is not hidden by paint or stains. He explained that sumac has an intriguing “glow,” which picks up different colors.
To achieve his signature look, Norman breaks his sculpting process down into six simple steps. First, pick the wood. Second, “see” what you can create from it. Next, pencil an outline on the wood and use a band saw to form the general shape. This brings you to the fourth step: carve! “It’s important,” he says, “to get it the way you like it.” The next step is sanding until it’s smooth. The final stage is to finish your sculpture with clear lacquer coats, followed by a rubout, to create the perfect look.
Norman’s “tabletop” carvings average 6″ tall. He prefers creating large, graceful shapes as opposed to tons of detail and facial features.
Norman Woodard sells some of his work, but mostly he loves to give his creations away to his grandchildren and friends or to offer them as prizes for fundraising events. After 20 years of experience in this hobby, he has some advice to offer his fellow woodworkers: “Don’t expect it to be perfect, and you have got to have patience.”