Hereford man's whirring clippers turn carpet into fancy artwork BALTIMORE COUNTY

April 16, 1993|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

Dan Gauger bends over a piece of white carpet on his workbench like a sculptor studying a block of virgin white marble before the first mallet blow.

An electric clipper whirs in his hand. He cuts his first groove through the thick pile. The clipped nap disappears up a vacuum hose.

Another stroke and another, trimming here, smoothing there. Soon a flower takes shape as the 43-year-old Hereford resident carefully sculpts a three-dimensional bas relief into the pile.

Although fancy carpeting is his bread and butter, Mr. Gauger's personal favorites are decorative pieces for wall hangings, such as a full-length picture of Confucius and an intricate design copied from a door panel at the Vatican.

Some are carved, others inlaid like mosaics. Several decorate the renovated barn that he turned into a workshop.

"I did them to show what I can do," he said. "I would love to have a one-man show in a gallery sometime, but I'd have to do another 10 or 15 pieces, and I don't have much time to work on them now."

Complicated designs, such as the Confucius picture or the door panel, are done from full-size drawings with holes punched along the lines so it can be outlined in chalk on the carpet.

Others, particularly flowers, he does freehand, making a rough sketch in chalk on the carpet or just taking clipper in hand and starting to cut. A deep-pile carpet is ideal because it allows various levels of carving to give greater depth to the finished work.

Even though Mr. Gauger grew up in the rug business, it wasn't until 1985 that he learned the art of rug carving from Sacramento rug sculptor Roy Beach, known in the trade as "Mr. B." In carving, he found his niche.

"I loved it. You couldn't get the tools out of my hands and I still feel that way," said Mr. Gauger, who was raised in Carney and graduated from Perry Hall High School.

Following his father into the carpet installation business, he worked as an installer for one company for a decade before starting as an independent contractor. He still installs carpets, but not your standard living-dining-family room package.

He has become the carpet-maker to the rich and famous. His custom-made rugs have taken him to the White House, the vice presidential mansion, the governor's office, the homes of Bill Cosby and Ethel Kennedy and to a 150-foot yacht anchored off Cannes.

Once on his own, Mr. Gauger specialized in making carpets bordered with decorative or contrasting material. He highlighted the contrast by using clippers to bevel the seam. Still, he said, he was never satisfied.

Then in a trade magazine he found Mr. Beach's ad for a three-day course in carpet sculpture. "It was $5,000 for the three days plus about $1,500 in tools. I thought it was one of those California scam deals," Mr. Gauger said. "I talked to him on the telephone every day for weeks before I decided to do it. I still talk to him at least once a week."

Mr. Beach had spent 25 years learning the art of bas relief carpet sculpture and wanted to pass the knowledge on to younger people. Part of the deal, Mr. Gauger said, was Mr. Beach's promise to teach only one student in any region, "and I was the only one in the Baltimore-Washington area."

"There are only a handful of us around the country -- as few as 30 to 40 who know how to do bas reliefs like this -- and most of those who do it haven't gone as far as I have with it," Mr. Gauger said.

His prices run from $25 to $50 a square foot for labor for carving on a floor carpet with an intermittent design. The prices jump to $200 a square foot or more for a decorative piece with carving the focus.

"I feel that they are artworks, and they're going to be around for a hundred years, while a carpet is going to be used for 10 years or so and then be replaced," Mr. Gauger said.

Within a year of completing Mr. B's course, Mr. Gauger converted his business to a custom-carpet workshop in the barn beside his log-cabin home.

Besides carving carpets, he has experimented with inlaid carpets, mosaic pictures and designs, using the wide variety of textures, colors and thicknesses of carpeting available in wool and synthetic fabrics. It's like having the unlimited palette of a painter, he said.

A hot glue process called "thermo-welding" makes the carpet seams invisible and permanent. As a result, not even small pieces -- like the single strand of Berber carpet he used as a pearl necklace in a carpet picture of a 1920s flapper -- will come loose.

As Mr. Gauger moved beyond routine carpet installation, he started to receive commissions to work with the most difficult materials, including sisal, coir and sea grass, which are natural fibers, and Wilton, a special type of woven carpet.

"They are the most difficult to work with, to cut, seal and handbind them. They unravel immediately if you do it wrong and so few people know how to deal with it," he said. "There are a thousand installers, but they don't know how to do it so they send the work to me."

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