Traditional Trades: New England Woodcarver

Woodcarver Eric Bogdahn creates works of art in his Rhode Island studio.

For most of us, a prospective trip to Nantucket Island—whether for business or pleasure—comes with a certain level of exuberant expectation. No matter the season, the whaling port of old offers visitors the opportunity to step back in time to an authentically preserved maritime community—a community that, despite the fairly recent sprawling development of massive summer homes, continues to offer a glimpse of and refreshing appreciation for the beauty of a past era preserved.

Yet for woodcarver Eric Bogdahn, a first-time visit to Nantucket came disguised as a haphazard whim. Five years of working in the office of registration at the Center of Adult Education in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had begun to take its toll. “I think I just needed a break to figure out which direction I was headed. A friend’s parents had a room available on the island, so I decided to go down just for the summer and paint houses.”

Change in Class

Unfulfilled with more monotonous labor, Eric decided to enroll in a woodcarving class at one of the local woodworking shops. The class he selected just happened to be taught by Paul McCarthy—the same man whose proficiency at woodcarving in Scituate, Massachusetts, garnered him a feature article in an issue of Fine Woodworking in the early 1980s; since that time he has gone on to teach literally thousands of aspiring woodworkers in various disciplines.

Early on in the course of his classes, Eric discovered an overwhelming passion for the craft of woodcarving. “Not only did it come naturally to me under Paul’s instruction, but I really enjoyed the creative freedom it offered.” Additionally, it seemed woodcarving wasn’t the only thing Eric was excited about, as a classmate named Noelle had caught both his eye and his heart. “We started dating, then quickly married,” says Eric.

Bogdahn got his start making quarterboards on the island of Nantucket.

Family Business

Noelle, who had already established a small clientele before meeting Eric, was well-accomplished at a multitude of woodworking techniques. “Honestly, Noelle had all the finishing skills when we started out,” Eric says with admiration. It was her attention to detail that inspired Eric to dive into the meat and potatoes of most aspiring woodcarvers around the island: milling and carving quarterboards. “They’re those little signs carrying a property’s name that owners place over the doorway or gable end of their home,” Eric explains. “A very popular item around Nantucket and Cape Cod.”

Each fully carved quarterboard received two coats of oil primer, followed by three coats of enamel paint, then a gold-leaf overlay. Eric estimates that in their busiest year they probably made about 150 quarterboards. “That directly translates into thousands of hand-carved letters,” he says.

Over the next 10 years, the couple doggedly pursued their own woodcarving business, with much success. The quality of their shared labors helped secure further commissions for larger projects, such as fireplace mantels or surrounds, and some architectural furniture such as cabinets and built-ins. Additionally, some of their most popular commercial pieces welcomed the thousands of seasonal visitors ambling off island ferries into town, most notably the Ralph Lauren Polo clothing store on Main Street and the Nantucket Nectars snack depot on Straight Wharf. “Talk about great exposure,” says Eric.

A carving in progress.

On the Move

Despite the couple’s success, the work schedule—which averaged 12 hours a day, six days a week—kept them from truly enjoying the fruits of their labor. “Living on Nantucket was similar to living in a small town,” confides Eric. “There’s not much else to do, especially during the winter season.” That’s when they first considered the need for a change of pace.

Noelle, who had a bachelor of fine arts degree from Carnegie Mellon University, was yearning to do something different, so she decided to go back to school to get a masters in elementary education from Lesley University in Boston. Once finished, she taught on the island a full year before they decided to resettle elsewhere.

Eric and Noelle chose to relocate to Providence, Rhode Island, where Noelle was able to secure a teaching position, and where the expectant parents could be closer to Eric’s retired parents in nearby Charlestown. Before leaving, Eric had lined up some large commission projects to help smooth the transition. “I didn’t want to turn my back on those big jobs,” he recalls, “nor did I want to have to commute to and from the island to work on them.”

After completion of those projects and the relocation of his family, Eric decided to set up a small shop in an artist compound in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Past clients and repeat customers continued calling from Nantucket, requiring four to five trips back to the island over the first year. Although Eric enjoyed the work he missed working with others.

Bogdahn carves the Nantucket sleigh ride into a mantelpiece.

Seeking Solace

Search for a new work environment brought Eric to the door of Rick Cantwell of Fairhaven, Massachusetts. An established woodworker for more than 25 years—complete with an actual degree in furniture making—Rick immediately hit it off with Eric. “Rick’s work is fantastic, and it’s completed with such amazing efficiency despite higher levels of difficulty and detail,” Eric says. “He has made a profound impact on me and my work in a professional sense.”

Now Eric splits his time between his commission work and furniture making. “I’ve been very fortunate to learn from guys like Paul and Rick,” says Eric. “Both have helped me push my work toward a higher level of quality.” Not only that, but Eric now savors more satisfaction from the craft than ever before. “Learning to work more quickly and efficiently, I can produce in one hour what used to take me two days,” he recalls. “Carving small details now comes very naturally, without even thinking about them, and that gives me a great sense of joy and pleasure.”

Now more secure in their surroundings, Eric and Noelle have purchased a 100-year-old Craftsman-style house in neighboring Rumsford, Rhode Island, with plans to renovate as they go, starting with the home’s mechanicals and then finishing with fine woodworking—the “real fun stuff,” as Eric calls it. Their daughter, Ella, turns seven this year, and everyone’s happy. “We have easier access to more diverse activities, which we can all enjoy doing together,” Eric says.

Commission work continues lapping at his doorstep, as Eric describes some of the projects he’s completed over the past year: hand-carved rosettes with a crab relief, an eighteenth-century reproduction fireplace mantel the owners wanted hand-carved out of chestnut, and an architectural rendering of a furniture-grade cabinet. “I just recently finished a 52″-tall heron with fine feather detail and jeweler-grade glass eyes that free-stands on the client’s carpet via use of an internal wire frame and magnets,” Eric says excitedly. “It came out absolutely perfect!”

Stephen T. Spewockis a freelance writer who lives in Massachusetts.

Tags: Eric Roth Nantucket New Old House NOH Spring/Summer 2010 Stephen T. Spewock woodworking

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