Bird Models from a Contented Carver
JESS BLACKSTONE of Concord, New Hampshire, carves authentic bird models—small wooden creatures you could hold in your hand—that have "flown" to most of the forty-eight states.
In 1939, fed up with eleven years of painting signs, tired of traveling, and yearning for a house of his own, Jess began to look for a profitable scheme to gain a job he liked that would let him settle down.
Today, Jess Blackstone's birds have become his major source of income. He has quit traveling, married a trim brunette, and bought his own home.
How did it happen?
"I had two talents when I was busy trying to give up painting signs," Jess recalls. "One was knowing how to paint signs. The other was a knowledge of New England animals and birds. I wanted to put both of them to work.
"First, I thought of being a cartoonist for Walt Disney. I liked his animals. But in 1939, Disney was laying off; there wasn't any cartooning job for me then.
"In traveling about I ran into a fellow who had been a cartoonist, though. He had turned from cartooning to making model birds. I thought he had a good scheme, so I worked on it."
JESS TOOK the idea of bird modeling home to his father, who then lived in Melrose, Massachusetts, and with him worked part time carving wooden birds. The two men gave some sample models to their friends, carved a few birds on order, and began to find the secret of making money from their work.
People who ordered birds at first did so, they said, because Jess and his father happened to be turning out the most lifelike models available in the area.
Jess had made those first models as much like real-life birds as he could—like the birds he had seen as a boy, when he was working on Boy Scout bird identification merit badges. Jess has held to the aim of reality ever since, and credits that decision for a large portion of his success.
Jess wanted to sell his birds on a large scale from the start. The problem of how-to-do-it was postponed for him at first by his draft board. Jess went into the army in 1941, thus ending the first phase of his bird-making career before he had a chance to expand.
Service time only increased Jess's desire to be his own boss, however, and he had free time then to think out his business problems. Selling model birds to friends, Jess knew, would not produce enough income to support him in a single state, and he wanted to get married. Adequate sales volume was the goal he kept in mind for his bird business during those army days.
PERHAPS JESS was lucky; maybe his thoughts on large sales volume pointed him in the right direction. In any case, he heard, upon discharge, that the state of New Hampshire had begun to sponsor the League of New Hampshire Arts and Crafts, a nonprofit organization to aid craftsmen in that state sell their products. The League planned to set up a state-wide series of craft stores, and charge ten per cent to handle craft products.
Jess found out, however, that you had to be a permanent resident of New Hampshire in order to sell your products through the League's stores in Concord, Kean, Conway, and other New Hampshire towns. Jess lived in Massachusetts!
He had thought over his plans in the army, and, with the goal of large sales volume, knew the League would be the answer to his sales problems.
Jess left his home in Melrose, moved to Concord, New Hampshire, invested some army money in a small house and barn near there, and soon was a major fixture in the New Hampshire craft organization.
Jess sells his model birds through the League stores today and at the League's annual fair. He charges from $3.75 to $7.50 for them (the stores add on their ten per cent). His output of birds is from 500 to 800 each year, providing him with about $3,000 profit.
IN ADDITION to the money, Jess likes the fact that making model birds is a job that can be done any time of day, any place.
"I can get up at six in the morning and work, or do the birds at night," he says. "Sometimes when my wife and I go on a picnic, I take the birds along. There's a pond behind my place with a few good shade trees. Summers I go down there and whittle."
The flexibility of his bird-business, on which Jess spends from twenty to forty hours a week carving and painting, allows him to take advantage of any other profitable work which may come his way. Recently he has been spending twelve to fifteen hours a week working for the League as an instructor, teaching others how to carve. He helped a friend set up a pottery works a couple of years ago. Occasionally he does odd repair jobs for persons in the neighborhood. An additional $1,000 to $2,000 came to Jess through these miscellaneous jobs. Still, making model birds is Jess's main business, and like most folk who enjoy their jobs, Jess has made his into a way of life, not just an occupation.
To maintain his knowledge of birds, Jess often goes bird spotting. You might find him early some morning wandering about with a pair of binoculars, looking for a new species in the fields, or re-etching in his memory the coloring of his familiar bird friends. Jess carves not only familiar birds, such as the chickadee, but also Canadian geese, heron, ducks, and pheasants. He charges more for the rare birds, because they are usually harder to carve and paint.
OVER THE years, Jess has experimented with different materials and methods of making realistic birds.
First of all, he has tried many different materials, but believes wood is the best bird model material for realism. Jess has tried plastic, but believes birds can't be made realistically from that material, which turns out shiny and hard to paint.
Recently when Jess and I were talking about wood, Jess mentioned his church-wood birds. A few years ago a church in West Concord burned down and the pastor asked Jess to make some bird models from charred sections of that 100-year-old structure. The preacher thought members of his congregation might like to have colorful mementoes of their old church, and he was right. The wood was very hard and dry, but Jess was able to carve realistic models from it; church members prized their models highly and talked about them, and Jess, as a direct result, got many orders for his regular models.
Jess once tried high speed machine production of model birds. Some years ago he was hired by a now defunct Boston firm, to experiment with mass production methods. Jess used wood and tried carving birds on an automatic shaper, which had finger-like routers to duplicate a standard model. That didn't work well; the birds came out lopsided or couldn't be made fast enough to justify the use of such expensive equipment. Jess also tried to teach production workers to paint model birds in a hurry, and after trying for two months, gave the job up as hopeless. Proper painting, Jess says, just takes time.
Jess has concluded that the best way to make and sell bird models is to do the job by hand and sell to interested persons who are willing to pay something extra for a job well done.
WHEN BIRDS are made by hand, as Jess thinks they should be, the initial outlay for tools, materials, and bird information, will not exceed $30 for everything required. The equipment required can be divided into painting and carving tools.
If you want to do professional work, Jess suggests, get the best brushes you can find for painting, in several sizes from "0" to ½-inch flat. Nothing is more discouraging, Jess says, than attempting to paint with fuzzy, shedding, or unresponsive cheap brushes. (Experience painting signs taught him that!) Allow $5 to $7 at least for good ones. You will have better results too, Jess maintains, if you use good quality paints which contain rich and lasting colors, requiring rich pigments. A small set of artists oils in assorted colors can be obtained at most paint stores for $5 to $6, less brushes.
The next item of painting expense, will be a good bird identification book in accurate color. Set aside $8 to $9, Jess says, for bird information. Two good books are: "Birds of North America," by J. J. Audubon (a classic set of paintings by the famed naturalist, recently reprinted; MacMillan, 1953, $8.95); and "Stalking Birds With a Color Camera," by A. A. Allen (National Geographic Society, Washington, 6, D. C., 1951, $7.50). Although good bird pictures are relatively expensive, you will need them if you carve more than the most familiar birds.
Finally, get a can of semi-gloss and a can of high-gloss varnish of good quality.
For carving, a set of sturdy wood carving knives is required. They will cost you fifty cents to $1 each. The following tools are useful, and will be described in detail later: A 6-32 screw tap (a tool used for cutting screw threads in metal, about thirty-five cents at any hardware store), a few sheets of assorted sandpaper or emery paper (fifty cents), a few beautician's abrasive boards (the kind women use to file their fingernails, about twenty-five cents a pack), an inexpensive hand jig saw (fifty cents to $1), and a small hand drill with twist drill bits (about $2).
The only thing else you need, Jess concludes, is a few scraps of soft wood, like white pine.
JESS WORKS on five or six birds at a time. First, he draws an outline of the bird to be carved on a white pine block about 5 by 2½ by 2½ inches, with the grain of the wood running along the five-inch dimension. He marks a side view and a top view of the bird silhouette on the wood, then saws along these lines with his jig saw, leaving a rough form of the wooden shape to be carved.
The chickadee drawings show the type of outlines Jess uses. He would make such outlines from bird photographs or drawings.
When the bird has been sawed, Jess shapes the bird with a pocket knife, or a special knife blade he has fitted into a large, easy to hold handle.
As the bird gets down to size, Jess smooths the wood with sandpaper to final shape. Jess uses two kinds of sandpaper here: The beautician's abrasive boards for sharp corners, such as wing tips, and rolled-up sheets of fine emery or sandpaper, which form an instrument like a rattail file, for the larger smooth areas.
When the bird is completely sanded, Jess simulates feathers on the wooden body by drawing the standard 6-32 screw tap from the head, down grain, to the tail of the bird. The tap, intended for cutting steel, easily cuts a series of line parallel lines in the wooden bird body, which, when painted, look remarkably like layers of feathers.
If you have seen wooden birds before, carved without using this trick, Jess thinks you will be amazed at the increased realism its use provides. The reason Jess is careful to have the grain of his wood running from the head to the tail of the model is so the screw tap can cut these realistic lines in the bird body most effectively.
THE GREATEST skill Jess uses, however, is in the actual painting of the birds. His accuracy in this painting—from the vivid blue of the kingfisher to the black bonnet of the chickadee—is what has made his work famous.
Patience is required here, and close adherence to the bird identification book too, Jess says, unless your knowledge of bird coloring is very accurate.
To start painting, Jess applies a coat of base paint to the sanded body in colors which nearly approximate the overall hue desired (using a half-inch brush). Jess uses the artist's oils here. You will get better results with them than ordinary enamels, Jess believes, because artist's oils aren't glossy and mix well.
Gradually, from the base colors up, Jess paints on feathers with a delicate camel's hair brush (size "0," or slightly larger), building up layers of color from the tail, just as feathers overlap on real birds. He may outline major feather areas with a thin black line to emphasize feathering, or leave less prominent areas with texture suggested only by the screw tap lines. (For specific painting instructions for a chickadee, see the figure.)
1) Black. 2) White. 3) White with slight tinge of red-brown. 4) White with very slight tinge of brown. 5) Dark grey-brown. 6) Medium grey-brown. 7) Dark grey-brown and alternate white stripes in wing feathers. 8) Dark grey-brown. 9) White under tail. 10) White feathers in center of wing. Bird's bill is very dark grey. Paint eyes brown with black pupil.
Between each major layer of color, Jess leaves one day's drying time, making a total of perhaps five days to complete painting a bird. Since he is working on at least five birds at a time—usually many more when painting—he can work on one bird while others are drying.
Jess semi-gloss varnishes the body of his birds and high-gloss varnishes only the bird's eyes, to make them shine. Some bird carvers, Jess finds, put heavy coats of high gloss varnish over their entire bird models, and thus create an unnatural effect.
Finally, Jess inserts small wire or wooden legs in the painted bird models and mounts the whole assembly on a wooden base. (Jess often finds his twist drill necessary in this final operation to drill holes for the bird legs in the painted body and base.) He prefers driftwood as a stand for his model birds, because an artistic effect is achieved that way, but he often has trouble finding pieces small enough to use and substitutes a small branch, limb cross section, or carved block. He paints the bird legs, sketches bird feet on the base, and the model birds are ready for sale.
NOW THAT Jess has reached a large volume of sales he has been able to analyze the types of people who buy his products. Usually they fall into one of three groups: (1) persons particularly interested in accurately colored bird models—amateur naturalists, members of the local Audubon Society, Boy Scouts, and the like—who learn to identify birds in nature through Jess's models; (2) persons, like decorators, who use the birds for specific artistic purposes, such as placement in flower arrangements, dinner table decorations, etc.; and (3) others who buy his product for its curiosity value, such as a souvenir of the New England area, or as gifts for their friends. If he were not selling his bird models through the New Hampshire craftsman's organization, Jess believes he would appeal to these three groups by contacting local Audubon Society groups, florists, and tourist gift shops directly, either by letter or personal visit. As it is, Jess does receive many mail requests for his birds, which have been carried to western and southern states by tourists and have been seen by others there. Jess, as he works today, turns over such mail orders to the League store in Concord, which wraps and ships the required models for him.
Jess has come a long way with his hobby since he quit painting signs in 1939. Looking back over the past years since then, Jess says he has found what he was looking for, a job he liked that would let him settle down. He can support his family now doing what he likes—and knows he can. And what more could a man ask than that?
Note: To account for inflation, multiply prices by 8 to 10.