Tradition grows one cut at a time

Carver's work includes Santa keys and reindeer whistles

December 10, 2006|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,[Special to The Sun]

Tom Crowl removed several wooden blocks of basswood from a white plastic bag and set them on a table. Holding a piece of the wood in one hand and a small chisel in the other, the 44-year-old began working.

"When I carve, I never make a mistake," the Westminster resident said as thin wood shavings fluttered to the floor. "I just change my pattern."

Crowl was carving one of more than 100 ornaments, whistles, keys, figurines, wine barrel lids, faceless angels, and wine stoppers that he creates out of basswood, oak, cherry and mahogany each year.

What began as a hobby in 1993 has blossomed into a carving career that has gained Crowl international recognition, a listing with other top woodworkers in Early American Life magazine, as well as commissions from people all over the world.

For Crowl, who doesn't enter his work in competitions, the accolades come in the form of public admiration.

"One of the neatest things about my job is that people in the United States buy my Santas and then give them to someone in Ireland or Germany," said Crowl, who sells his pieces for $19 to $200.

"It feels good knowing that someone might be displaying my stuff from such a long distance. But I think it's great that my stuff appeals to people everywhere."

Sandy Oxx, executive director of the Carroll County Arts Council, attributes Crowl's success to his unique artistic perspective.

"Tom is unique because he's both a visual artist and a performing artist," Oxx said. "He's a magician and a carver. And I see a touch of his magic and his whimsy in his carvings."

Crowl began carving Santa Claus statues that range from 6 to 12 inches after purchasing a book on the subject.

"I never read the book, I just looked to see what tools I needed," he said.

Then he purchased a carving knife and some wood, and without any formal training, Crowl began carving.

At first, it wasn't easy.

"I cut my left knuckle really bad and had to have several stitches," Crowl said.

A decade later, Crowl still has injuries, but he's perfected his work through trial and error, and his items are in high demand.

"People would see what I made and ask me to make something for them," Crowl said. "They like my Santas and spool ornaments because they have a vintage appeal."

As the interest in Crowl's wares increased, he began taking his carving tools with him as he performed his show at local fairs and festivals.

At one festival, a representative of the Early American Life magazine based in the suburbs of Cleveland saw his work. Later, Crowl was listed in the magazine's Directory of Traditional American Crafts.

To be included, craftsmen in categories such as baskets, clocks, furniture and woodwork send in samples of their work with a detailed description of what they do, said Jeanmarie Andrews, editor of the magazine.

Then a panel of professional judges from such places as the American Museum of Folk Art and Colonial Williamsburg and select the best for the listing.

"Our judges understand the scholarship and workmanship of the entries," Andrews said. "So it's a prestigious thing to be included in the directory."

At first, Crowl carved predominantly Santa statues. Over time he added several other items.

One of his creations - a Christmas key - he made originally so his son could let Santa Claus into the house.

"My son would ask me how Santa would get in if we didn't have a fireplace or didn't leave the door unlocked," said Crowl, who wrote a poem he attaches to the key. "I told him the key was only for Santa, and if he turned it, the door would magically open when Santa arrived."

Another gadget he makes is called a reindeer whistle. It silently whistles to tell the reindeer when children are going to bed.

"For me, making the reindeer whistles and the Christmas keys are all about having a tradition for my son," Crowl said.

Eventually Crowl's products, which have a German heritage, became so popular, he had to remove them from the festival and fair market.

"One year, I took my Christmas keys to a fair, the next year I noticed that someone else had a big display of them," he said.

Crowl had the key copyrighted. But there's no real way to protect your items, he said.

"Even with a copyright, people changed the name, and the poem, and they still appear out there," he said.

As a result, Crowl stopped selling his work at fairs and festivals.

Instead, he sells a small selection of items at ArtWorks, a gift shop on Main Street in Westminster, and the remainder of his sales is through his Web site, And he's had a steady flow of customers, he said.

People are particularly drawn to his faceless angels, he said.

"My style of carving is a primitive face on a primitive carving," he said. "And people don't always recognize an angel until they are gone. So I did a faceless angel and there was an incredible reaction to it."

However, the angels aren't the only pieces gaining in popularity, Crowl said. A couple of years ago, he was commissioned to carve two wine barrel lids for an I Love Lucy wine-stomping event the studio was planning.

"That commission came from nowhere," Crowl said. "I was kind of surprised that they contacted me since they have their own art department. I don't know if they used what I made, but they paid me. It felt good knowing they wanted me to do the job."

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