Carving the past

Carving the past

Highland County man expresses creativity with wood

Story and photos by Tim Colliver

Story and photos by Tim Colliver

In a little woodworking studio just north of Buford, Dwight Thomas can take an ordinary chunk of wood — maple, black walnut, hickory — and in a matter of weeks he’ll transform that lump of lumber into a masterpiece of a wooden animal, piece of furniture or a reproduction of some Native American article.

“When I went to school, I liked the artistic things,” he said. “Part of my family heritage is that when the two Thomas’ brothers came over from Wales, they ended up in the Toledo area, and the one brother named Henry married a full-blooded Pottawatomi bride which would explain why I love doing the Native American pieces — it’s in my blood and family history.”

Thomas doesn’t limit himself to only “Indian” crafts, but has also created 65 muzzle-loaded custom built rifles, native-type bows out of hickory and osage orange wood, and cedar-lined feather boxes that are available at Spirit Winds Trading Post in Amelia.

He also, by his own admission, “dabbles” in creating one-of-a-kind furniture pieces, such as a seven-foot walnut dining room table he built last Thanksgiving for one of his grandsons.

It all began in 1961, he said, when he got a job at the Vulcan Corp. Heel Plant in Portsmouth making shoe lasts, which he said was the wooden form that holds the stretched leather for the manufacture of shoes.

“When I started, they taught me to make the models that they put in the lathe to duplicate a pair of shoes at a time,” he said. “I was a model maker using the measurements and the designs for the toe fit.”

He worked in that industry until retirement in 2007, taking his fit and design model making talents to other shoe manufacturers in the country as the American shoe manufacturing industry began to disappear in the mid-1980s, according to the Scioto Historical Society, to outsourcing to China.

He said he was living in Massachusetts toward the end of his working days and in Boston, he recalled a statue of an Native American chief who was holding a pipe in his hand that had a pair of animals on it.

“I liked the idea of blending nature with the peace pipe,” he said. “So I sketched out an idea and put a buffalo on the stem and the bear on the bowl, and the final product is all one piece hand-carved out of walnut, and it’s joined at the mid-section with a connector made out of curly maple — those animals are not glued on to the pipe, it’s all a one-piece carving.”

Another of his reproductions is a replica of ceremonial-style tomahawk that he said was unearthed in central Ohio in 1930, with the “flint knapping” done by Harold Elam, of Springboro, to resemble the original article.

He said he hand-carved the handle with the serpent all in one piece out of walnut with ivory, bone and copper inlays, the inspiration for the serpent coming from the Serpent Mound effigy in northern Adams County.

Many of his creations, which he says he does purely for relaxation and enjoyment, are time-consuming, and he figured if he approached it like an eight-hour a day job, he could easily put two to three weeks’ worth of work into them — 160 to close to 300 actual hours.

He said he enjoys the challenge of creating something out of what looks like a block of wood, with one of his biggest challenges being a replica of a Native American raven bowl, which he saw during an episode of “Antiques Roadshow.”

It caught his eye, and after taking a photo of the item off of the TV screen, set about carving and sculpting a reproduction out of walnut. The show said the original item came from Alaska from the seller’s great-great-grandfather in 1877.

“I just do it for relaxation — if I’m not doing yard work or gardening, or fooling with the chickens,” he said with a smile. “That ‘honey-do’ list can take a lot of time if you’re not careful.”

Salt Magazine