Waterfowl artist carves out woodworking niche

Visitors to Hawaii are likely to return home with leis and macadamia nuts as souvenirs, but when Daniel Ross visited the islands a few years ago, he was more interested in purchasing native wood.

Ross is a woodcraft artist living outside Millerstown. “Hawaiian Koa is very expensive here,” he explained. In his woodshop, he keeps a collection of around 60 species of wood that he uses in bowls and vases with a process called segmented wood turning.

“This is what I do when I’m not flying, when I’m home trying to relax,” said Ross, who spends three out of four weeks of the month as a commercial pilot flying through major cities on the East Coast.

Ross first ventured into wood carving at age 11 after a hunting trip with his father. “I saw wood ducks for the first time and thought they were beautiful.”

That initial carving launched him into a decades-long hobby of bird carving. At age 15, Ross’ mom introduced him to Dick Wolfe of Liverpool, who showed him “a whole new world of ideas and ways to carve.”

Ross started attending the Ward World Championship in Ocean City, Md., where hundreds of wildfowl carvers compete each year. He competed in the youth level before moving on to the novice level. He took a break from carving during college but has been active in the advanced level of the competition since 2008. He won two first place awards at that level, including a Mandarin duck carving that won first place in its species this year.

Ross said that not all of the categories of wildfowl carvings are used as real decoys, but they still should float.

While real wildlife inspired Ross’ passion for carving at young age, his foray into segmented wood turning is more recent. About five years ago he was “playing on the lathe” and unintentionally created his first basic piece. From there he discovered a whole community dedicated to segmented wood turning, a process in which many wood pieces are glued together and turned on lathe to create bowls, plates and other vases with unique patterns.

Ross makes the segmented wood bowls with as many as 300 pieces glued together, using wood species like acacia from Australia, black poisonwood from Cuba and local, native wood. “Sometimes it’s hard to cut into them because they’re so pretty,” he said of his wide-ranging collection.

Some of the wood species he would like to use are difficult to import because of costs and trade agreements. Ross said he’d loved to visit Africa and South America to bring home “amazing species” like Brazilian tulipwood, which is around $1,600 for a one-foot board in the United States.

To the average person’s eye, there’s a great distance from the rectangles of wood in Ross’ shop to the curving, patterned creations in their final glaze which can be found throughout his house, but he said he sees the figure in the wood before he starts carving.

“I like to pair colors of wood to make it sharp,” he said. Many of his bowls juxtapose thick black lines of ebony with bright reds that come from redheart, bloodwood and padauk.

Ross sells his segmented woodturning pieces to family, friends and co-workers and enjoys doing commissioned work. Profit is not a primary motivation for him, though. “It’s rewarding to make something with your hands and do it on your own terms.”

He takes many breaks while working on a project to allow time to process what he’s doing.

Ross’ next big project will be carving and painting a golden pheasant, a Chinese game bird. He purchased and shipped a male and female of the species to his home last year. The male has striking red, blue, orange and tiger-striped feathers. Ross plans to begin a wood carving of the bird once it reaches full breeding plumage in the fall.

“It’ll be a challenge to carve it because it doesn’t look normal to us, so people question the authenticity,” he said.

Ross keeps the pheasants in his own small aviary, where he also has wood ducks and silkie chickens. The chickens are not for carving inspiration but to incubate the pheasant’s eggs so he can raise more golden pheasants. “They are big balls of warmth. They will try to hatch anything they sit on,” he said of the silkies.

After carving the golden pheasant, Ross anticipates carving more game birds but doesn’t have specific plans. “There’s always so many things I’d like to be working on. Time’s a constraint,” he said. “I do a lot of dreaming and thinking while I’m flying.”