The smell of freshly carved wood is in the air at the New Village Recreation Center in Centereach. At a long table, men and women are working with short, sharp knives. Their art varies from a decoy duck to an intricate cross. There are gnomes and old-fashioned Santas. Some pieces are as small as a clothing pin. Others stand 3 feet tall.
The designs are intricate, and the work, done by hand, is as precise as a machine. Faces of Santas twinkle, and the growl of the gnomes can be read on the faces of the carved gems. Marty Mizel, 70, shows his 2-foot totem pole carved in cottonwood bark, the hair of one caricature melding into the beard of another above it.
“You oil it, and the faces really come out,” the Miller Place resident says. Now retired, Mizel was a podiatrist before leaving the profession to teach anatomy at Suffolk County Community College. He’s been carving for 18 years and explains how hard it can be. “Faces are my nemesis,” he says.
Carvers say the skill is one they didn’t know they had until they began their first piece. The finished projects appear extraordinarily professional, even those from folks who’ve only been doing this a few years.
“The objective is to offer a hobby for seniors,” says Al Trepiccione, president of the Suffolk County Wood Carvers Guild, which has about 120 members and caters to the 55-and-older crowd. “It’s a social club as well.”
The Long Island Wood Carvers Association meets twice a month at the North Massapequa Community Center, where there is some show-and-tell and questions from other members on techniques, from how to achieve a particular look to staining and painting the pieces.
Here, many pieces are made by hand carving, but some groups use lathes and bandsaws to make different types of wood art, including turning, which makes symmetrical poles and legs.
Andrew Umreiko, 65, of Garden City, now the head of the association, says he was introduced to the hobby four years ago, when his brother-in-law handed him a knife and a block of wood and told him he was going to carve a hummingbird.
“I can’t do that,” Umreiko recalls telling his relative. “But in two days, I had done it.”
Both clubs say they welcome new members — either those who have carved before or anyone willing to learn. Attend a meeting for free, they say, and small membership fees cover the yearly cost, mostly for refreshments.
“We have so many experienced carvers,” Umreiko says. “They will help anyone who is interested.”
HELPING THOSE IN NEED
Many of the carvers love to give back to the community, making the days of others a little brighter with their treasures.
One of the carvers, Michael Wolyniec, 45, of Massapequa, a retired Fire Department of New York firefighter, makes small, delicate “comfort birds” for cancer patients at local nursing homes. He has made about 40 so far, he guesses.
The Nassau-centric LI Wood Carvers Association often donates Christmas ornaments as well, says Edward Sesack, 73, a Syosset resident and an experienced carver.
The Suffolk County Wood Carvers Guild has made and donated about 700 small crosses over the past 18 months for hospice patients.