Don Clay doesn’t do wood carving for a living. He does it to have fun. The 87-year-old has lived in Hotchkiss since the spring of 1976. He worked three years of his vacations to build his home. When retirement came from the phone company in Denver, Don had his home ready to move into. It was just six years ago that Don married Dot, and they enjoy their life together on Willow Heights.
Don’s dad had some woodworking tools around the family home. But it wasn’t until Don retired that he developed his wood carving hobby. He wanted something to fill up his spare time. “It’s a good hobby and kills a lot of time, and retired people have a lot of time to kill,” he shares.
One of his and Dot’s favorite adventures is to go on winter trips to an RV park. One year he took some classes, which were really more like fun get togethers, to learn more about his craft. There were more than a dozen people in the RV park in Tucson who would gather every Wednesday night and share their tricks of the trade. He learned which tools worked best in wood carving and how to do carvings in an easier way.
Since that time, he has honed his skill with each figure he has done. His home is filled with shelves and cabinets displaying his works of art. He dates his carvings on the bottom of the base.
He’s done many western era carvings. At the Hotchkiss Community Holiday Arts, Crafts and Business Fair, his booth was filled with characters out of the old west. There was a shotgun wedding scene and the Red Dog Saloon where a mouse is seen eating some cheese by a sign that reads, “Free food.” Another carving from 1989 shows a miner with a stubborn donkey.
Don enjoys doing these whimsical caricatures. He doesn’t make his characters have “a fancy face.” Don says, “You gotta have a little humor with it. Cowboy caricatures are my favorite. Their faces can be darn near anything, and they don’t have to be good looking gals or handsome young men. They can be anything and be doing anything.”
One carving takes Don back to his days as a lineman for the phone company. He’s carved many of the linemen and given them away as gifts.
Indian Kachina dolls, gargoyles, dragons, a nurse bringing a bed pan… Don has mastered them all. They represent a lot of intricate cutting and he warns you have to be really careful or you can break off a piece of the sculpture easily. They can’t withstand being “manhandled.”
Moving from the comical to his other carvings, Don does intricate detail to accurately portray the correct number of feathers on a bald eagle and to detail the rough hide of a buffalo. He burns bird feathers and buffalo fur on the carvings.
“The bigger it gets the harder it is. There’s more work to do,” he says. “You individually burn the hair on the buffalo to give it the rough look.”
Don continues, “You originally burn the shape of the feather, then the quill, then each one of the ribs of the feather which is time consuming.” But the results are exquisite.
People have noted the detail and asked where he developed his patience. That came from tying cables with hundreds of strands. He’s never lost his ability to do meticulous detailed work.
When he taught an adult class on how to do wood carving, everyone received their block of wood and a Band-Aid. He knew that many students would be drawing a little blood as they did their carvings. He doesn’t teach carving to children or teens, believing they wouldn’t have the patience required to avoid cutting themselves.
He has shown his work in Creed, and in the North Fork Valley at the holiday fair and the county fair both in Hotchkiss. A carving showing a poignant scene of a lone Indian on his horse making his way to a reservation shows his diversity. It won a blue ribbon at the Delta County Fair.
He recently made 52 church crosses for the Hotchkiss Community United Methodist Church, which he attends. He not only donated his time to make the crosses, but gave all donations from the sale of the crosses to the church’s building fund. “That was a fun project,” he said.
Don has one piece of wood that he didn’t have to change. A root came off a vine in the Arizona desert and hit a rock. Then it changed directions, and hit another rock and changed directions again. Then it came back and went another way. Don found it and made it into a rattlesnake. “Most of the work was done on that before I ever started.”
This fall, he took up a new kind of woodworking. It’s known as Intarsia. He draws a pattern of an animal with numerous lines deliniating where different kinds and colors of wood will go. Then he makes about 10 copies of the pattern. He puts one copy on contact paper and glues it to the piece of wood. Then he uses his scroll saw to make each piece. He bevels each one and glues them back together like a jigsaw puzzle. He says it’s similar to making a quilt.
Don searches out different kinds of wood to use for the Intarsia pieces he creates. He selects walnut, bloodwood, dark walnut, apricot, yellow core, aspen and others.
Intarsia, Don says, does make for an interesting hobby.
Don has two work shops at his home. Off his living room is an enclosed shop for the detail work. There he holds the wood he is carving inside a small box to keep sawdust to a minimum. Out in his garage are his three saws — table, band and scroll — plus a sander and a planer. The garage is where he makes a lot of sawdust.
“You learn quite a bit about animals and what Mother Nature put on this earth if you start doing animals,” he comments.
Don Clay has always been into woodworking. “That’s something that you can hand down. It never rubbed off on either of my kids though.”