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Whittling wood, forging friendships

The animals come two by two from the

The animals come two by two from the skilled hands of Suffolk County Wood Carvers Guild members. From left: Joel Hull, Raymond Bush, Marty Mizel and John Crawford. The arks attract new members to the group. Credit: Randee Daddona

Bill McNulty was a New York City detective who investigated kidnappings and hostage situations; Maureen Kiernan had a 40-year career in nursing; Marty Mizel was a podiatrist; John Crawford built planes for Grumman, a skill he learned in the Navy. For a common thread, think wood.

All are part of the Suffolk County Wood Carvers Guild whose members whittle chunks of wood into pieces of art, a hobby that has provided relaxation, creativity and friendship.

For that, many of them thank Joel Hull of Port Jefferson, a retired physics teacher who was instrumental in turning a longtime interest in working with wood into an organization of passionate carvers. Hull attended carving seminars in Vermont and North Carolina taught by internationally renowned Norwegian carver Harley Refsal. Soon after, in the early 1990s, he and others founded the guild.

As his skills steadily improved, Hull says, he was asked to fill in for Refsal. Locally, he began teaching carving at adult education classes. "I went from teaching 16-year-olds to 66-year-olds," quips Hull, 78, who retired from Earl L. Vandermeulen High School in Port Jefferson.

The guild began with an ad inviting would-be carvers to share their devotion to and knowledge of the craft. It was slow-going at first, with about a dozen people signing on; now, it has close to 100 members, including 15 women.

The breakthrough came after members made the first Noah's Ark. "We wanted something that would get people's attention," Hull explains. That ark had only about a dozen animals. "We showed it at craft fairs on the Island. People liked it and asked how they could join our group."

Now, a new ark is crafted every January, and members carve 50 pairs of animals, Noah and his wife. The ark has become the group's signature piece, displayed at 11 or so fairs throughout the year, where raffle tickets are sold for $1 each. In December, the tickets are put in a drum and the winner is drawn at a guild meeting. The raffle raises money to help support the guild and some local charities, says guild secretary Steve Blakley. He says the arks have been appraised at $8,000 to $9,000 and are considered folk art.


The call of Noah's Ark 

Many members say that seeing the ark at a fair is what drew them to the club. Once they attend a meeting, they fall under the spell of Hull -- described by regulars who revere him as patient, caring, giving and knowledgeable -- and other members who patiently teach newbies. Hull downplays the praise. "I'm a teacher," he says. "I've found some stuff along the way, and I like to share it."

It's a craft that takes skill, but for beginners who are interested in learning, almost none is needed. "You can't expect to carve like an expert at the start," Hull says, "but if you enjoy it, that's all that counts." He advises newcomers not to buy any equipment. "We'll lend you a Murphy [wood carving] knife. That's all you need to get started."

Members, who pay $20 in annual dues, say the craft offers relaxation, creativity and sharpens hand-eye coordination. But the most notable benefit is touted in the guild's motto: "Working in wood together creates lasting friendships."

Guild president Ray Bush, 69, of Islandia seconds that notion. "We have the nicest people from all walks of life in the guild," he says. "We welcome newcomers and will make them feel at home very quickly."

Emphasizing his point, Bush nods at Mizel and Crawford, who are sitting in a corner. Mizel, 67, of Miller Place, and Crawford, 79, of Mount Sinai, met when the guild was new. Mizel is a former club president; Crawford chaired the ark committee, where he picked up the nickname "John of Ark."

Once strangers, they have become great friends. "We carve together every day," Mizel says. "John and Joel are our icons. We look out for them."

For Crawford, that friendship was paramount when his wife passed away six years ago. "It was my friend [Mizel] and this club that got me through it," he says. Each new piece of wood he works with represents a fresh start for Crawford, free of influence from any bloopers in past carvings. One of his mantras is: "A woodcarver never makes a mistake. He wanted it that way."

Skill levels differ, but all members carve with a purpose. Don Michne, 69, of Miller Place, a retired aerospace engineer, is a carving instructor who competes on a world-class level and specializes in detailed birds he sells at Andrew Gagliano, 76, of Nesconset is looking to please just one small fan. He is doing a relief carving from a photo of his great-granddaughter, Quinn Curran. He hopes to have it finished for her fourth birthday in January.


No pressure 

Whatever their specialty, they all enjoy the no-pressure atmosphere at the guild's meetings (www.suffolkcounty and the rewards of carving.

McNulty, 62, the retired detective, was assigned to the NYPD's Technical Assistance Response Unit during his 32-year career, where he was front-and-center at hundreds of life-and-death events. Carving helped him unwind after work. Kiernan, 70, of Coram, retired from Stony Brook University Hospital in 2007. Carving filled a void created after she stopped working in nursing.

Frank Napoli, 61, is a professional woodworker from Centereach who builds bathrooms and kitchens, eight to 10 hours a day. But on his lunch break, he sits on the tailgate of his truck and carves. "The materials are the same, but carving is different," he says. Napoli teaches carving to guild members and at Ward Melville High School adult education classes. His work buddies call him "Geppetto."

Linda Zusmer, of Bay Shore also earned a nickname: "Santa Lady." Zusmer, 61, explains: "Everyone says I can make anything into a Santa, whether it started out that way or not . . . I love making them."

Like Mizel and Crawford, Zusmer and Kiernan have a special bond. "We met in 2009, taking classes given by Frank Napoli and John Crawford," Kiernan recalls. "Soon we began carving together, working on our projects. Right now we're both working on Nativity sets for our families."

Asked how she felt about joining the mostly male group, she laughs. "I grew up with seven brothers, so I did not feel any hesitancy. The people make you feel so comfortable. Even though you didn't know what you were doing at the start, they help you, tell you what kind of knives to get, lend you stuff until you get your own things. They're very nurturing and supportive, helping you improve your carving."

But it seems like carving in the wood carvers guild is almost secondary. "We know each other's husbands; the guys' wives; go out to dinners as a group," Kiernan says. "It becomes an extension of your family."

Men far outnumber women in the carvers guild, but Zusmer has an interesting take on her male counterparts.

"Sometimes my non-carving girlfriends will play: 'If you were stranded on an island with one man, who would you pick?' Brad Pitt's name comes up a lot. I always say, 'I'd take any of the woodcarving guys. They could make you a house, trap food and build a boat to get you off the island. You think Brad Pitt could do that?"


Where to see Noah's menagerie

Here are some of the events where Noah's Ark, crafted by members of the Suffolk County Wood Carvers Guild, will be displayed. Check the guild's website,, for more information.

--Nautical Seafood Festival, Long Island Maritime Museum, West Avenue, Sayville; Aug. 24, 25

--Hallockville Farms, 6038 Sound Ave, Riverhead; Sept. 14, 15

--Gallery North, 90 North Country Rd., Setauket; Sept. 21, 22

--Riverhead Historical Society, 300 W. Main St., Riverhead; Dec. 7

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