A few years ago, Rob Jones might have
been in the same boat as a coworker who came in and began talking
about a tree that had come down in his yard and, when split for
firewood, "looked just like ribbon candy."
Luckily, he knew enough about wood and
woodworking at that point to recognize something good when he saw it:
he filled his Honda Civic with firewood and traded with the coworker
-- for five sticks of the high grade curly maple. ("He didn't
want to part with it. He wanted it for the firewood," Rob
With those five sticks, Rob carved a
lobster, "for the challenge." It followed on the heels of
his first carving project, a lobster claw chosen because it was
something that "tourists might buy" - in Maine, where Rob
lives, "tourists are the only ones with money," he says.
He moved back to Maine a few years ago
after a stint in the Navy. Rob's original motivation for joining the
Navy had been to get money for art school through the GI Bill, since
he's been drawing his whole life, but marriage and kids "put the
kibosh on college stuff." Instead, when he moved back to Maine,
he got a job as an electromechanical technician and ended up daily
using tools that could also be used for woodworking -- an area where
he has no educational background.
"Using those tools piqued my
interest," Rob said, and he decided to try out woodworking with
the lobster claw project, a belt sander, and a Dremel rotary tool
"with a few little bits." "I'd never seen anybody
else's woodcarving before, but I ended up with a perfect claw, and I
thought 'I can do this.'"
A year and a half later, after carving
the lobster -- some of it during a car ride (his wife was driving),
while Rob sat in the passenger seat and used a needle file and tiny
blades -- he entered the woodcarving competition, something else he'd
never head of, at the Maine Sportsmen's Show, and went home with both
best in show and people's choice awards. "I was hooked from that
point on," Rob said.
Although he has entered more
competitions since that time, and learned about woods like basswood
and tupelo, Rob thinks his background lacking in formal woodworking
knowledge and training has made him more innovative. He cites as a
personal hero the early 20th century Ohio woodcarver Ernest Warther,
and quotes him as saying, "I know little of the rules of
woodworking, so I'm free to violate them."
In Rob's case, one way that attitude
has manifested itself is in his choice of wood: he prefers to carve
with woods like curly maple, cherry and other traditional woods. One
of his few basswood carvings was a bass fish made as a wedding
present for a bass fisherman at the request of the man's fiancee. "I
thought it would be funny to carve a bass out of basswood," Rob
said. "Of course, I couldn't bring myself to do just a simple
carving. I spent hours doing the scales so they were just absolutely
Many of those hours were spent carving
in his recliner chair while watching TV, using a chisel set that "you
got a set of six for $20. I took one chisel and sharpened it really
good, and had a chisel, an X-Acto® knife, and some sandpaper, and I
did all the scales."
In addition to his unusual carving
locations, Rob has created what he calls a "slice"
technique for his creations. "You take a seashell, like a
spirally conch, and use a Dremel cutoff wheel to slice it into
quarter-inch layers." Then, using his drawing skills, Rob
creates what look "almost like MRI drawings" to transfer
the pattern into wood. He uses standard thickness lumber, precuts
layers into the stock, and then carves an exact replica of the shell
When finished, Rob says, he can put a
seam down the middle of the wood carving and hold it together with a
dowel peg. When opened, you see the entire shell, "carved inside
and out. When you hold it up to your ear, it does that effect where
it makes that sound" sometimes compared to the ocean.
It was the development of this
technique that led Rob into his latest woodworking endeavor: musical
instruments. "I saw a brass instrument in the shape of a bell,
and I thought, 'Holy cow, that would be a piece of cake with this
technique I've learned,'" he said. At a music shop, he saw a
French horn and, because "I always seem to gravitate to the most
complex thing to try," he rented the French horn for $60 a
month. Rob finished building his first wooden French horn in two
months -- the rental cost for his model was a motivating factor.
"I thought, 'The first question
somebody's going to ask is, 'Is it playable?'" Rob said. He had
done his best to make the inside hollow, with the outside at perfect
dimensions, and the French horn is playable -- although Rob describes
it as "quiet" and "bad sounding."
That was merely
motivation to improve: now, Rob is building wooden instruments on
perfect pitch, including a trombone and his current commission,
Rob himself plays only the banjo (yes,
he built one for himself), but he has others help him create YouTube videos, posted under the user name 58scallop, of his completed projects being played. (One of the buglers
who has placed a commission, for a replica of President Kennedy's
funeral bugle, has played "Taps" at Arlington National
Cemetery thousands of times.) A lot of variables go into the
instrument building, including that, "because wood is more
flexible, it absorbs a lot of extra resonant frequencies," Rob
said. "You end up with more of a pure tone."
Right now, Rob's mostly concentrating
on the musical instruments, with a goal of making woodworking his
full-time business in the next three to five years. "I can work
all day [on woodworking] without eating, and work until two in the
morning until I realize I have to get up and go to work at 6:30 in
the morning. I've only been making instruments for two years, and
carving for 10 years, and I'm only 36 years old. I can't wait to see
what will happen in the future when the shackles of time are taken
away and I can go full throttle on this."
Meanwhile, Rob's making innovations in
his shop, too. Although most of his tools are "the cheapest
stuff," including a band saw, a belt sander and a recent
purchase of a machinist's lathe, he also bought a CNC router with the
profits from the $8,000 sale of his carved lobster. He'll use it
rough out his seashells, then make their detail carvings with a
Dremel rotary tool. "I've gone through five Dremels," Rob
said. "And how I use it is unique. I use my knee as a workbench
and rest my hand on my knee and the piece I'm carving on my knee."
He's able to do this because of the
dust collector" he created with scrap plywood, a floor fan, a
high efficiency furnace filter, and an old computer chair. The dust
collector rolls on wheels, and Rob can sit in the chair and power
carve, using his knee as a steady-rest while looking down through the
glass. The fan sucks any dust into the filter so he doesn't have to
wear a dust mask or safety glasses, "and I have a big glass
surface to put my tools on."(When he's not
using this apparatus, he wears a double-sealed respirator.)
He also enjoys showing his works and
his works in progress to people. "A motivational tool for myself
is the reactions I get from people when I show them my stuff. It's so
much fun to see the reactions. It fires me up."