The Times West Virginian

February 22, 2012

Birds of a feather

By Debra Minor Wilson
Times West Virginian

COLFAX — When you enter Earnest and Carrie Lee Storms’ Colfax home, you stop in wonderment at the hulking form you see in their living room.

Is that Annie, the famous red-tailed hawk from the West Virginia Raptor Center?

But when you approach it and it sits still, even as you reach out to touch it, you realize it’s one of Storms’ many bird carvings.

He’s been at it since 1994, when he carved a blue jay. He’d been inspired by a carved mallard duck given by a daughter and a visit to a decoy bird carving world championship in Ocean City, Md.

He took pictures of Annie one day at the raptor center on Bunner Ridge.

“I came home and decided to do this. It looks almost identical to her. It was so big I couldn’t work it out with the bandsaw. I had to make it in four separate pieces.”

It takes care and attention to detail, hours upon hours of dedicated work, and a keen eye and steady hand to coax these lifesize and lifelike birds from blocks of wood.

But Storms is up to the task.

He picked up the blue jay, now proudly displayed along with several other birds in the living room, and held it beside a Baltimore oriole.

“Let me show you the difference between the two,” he said, pointing to the wings of the blue jay.

“There are no feathers here. They’re just painted in. Now look at all the little feathers, the detail, in the oriole.”

Here you can see every notch, every tiny line in every feather, etched in oh-so carefully and skillfully. Completed in 2004, it demonstrates the artistry he’d gained in the 10 years since he finished the blue jay.

His favorite is the blue jay. Carrie’s is the little barn owl, complete with a mouse for a snack.

In addition are a male and female cardinal, a tufted titmouse, a Carolina wren, a robin, loon, mallard duck, goldfinch, woodpecker, chickadee and green heron.

If these birds could talk, the quiet home just off Pinchgut Hollow Road would be a loud riot of chatter.

He invests around 100 hours of labor in each lifesize carving. It takes time to get the details as accurate as possible.

“Everybody says why don’t I sell them. With all the work I put in them, even at $10 an hour ...

“Who around here’s gonna pay $1,500, $2,000 for one of them? You have to be willing to pay.”

He doesn’t make enough birds to sell, either, he said, maybe just one or two a year.

“This is just a hobby,” he said. “I don’t do enough to sell. If I’d started when I was in my 20s, I probably could have made a living out of it after I’d worked on it eight hours a day and got good enough.

“But I’ve got to be in the mood,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll start and work on a piece for a day or two in the basement and then may not touch it again for three weeks or a month.”

“This keeps him busy,” Carrie Lee said. “Somebody will call for him, and I’ll say I still have him locked in the basement.”

She laughed.

Most carvings are made of basswood, while a few are done in white pine.

“Basswood is softer and easy to carve. There’s not much grain in it,” he said.

He subscribes to several magazines, where he orders patterns for his projects.

“That hawk is the first big thing I’ve done,” he said. “A lot of people see it and think it’s real.”

Once he’s transferred the pattern onto a square block of wood, he cuts the shape out with a bandsaw. He roughs out the piece with a handgrinder that whirs up to 35,000 rpm. Then he gets out his X-acto knife and gougers and wood burner to cut in the details.

Finally, he’s ready to paint.

“That’s the hardest part,” he said

He also carves Old Man in the Mountain figures, which he gives as gifts.

Storms served in the Army in 1957-58, stationed in Germany. He and Carrie Lee have been married for 55 years, together for 58. He retired from Martinka Mines in 1995 when they shut the mine down and he was 60.

“I’d had enough,” he said.

He’s made other birds for family members: a hummingbird, dove, pigeon, bobtailed quail, mallard duck.

He just finished a green heron a couple of weeks ago and is ready for a break. But already he’s thinking on what his next project will be.

Maybe a killdeer. Or a shore bird or seagull. He hasn’t decided yet.

“Take 5” is featuring local residents with interesting hobbies. To be included as a Wednesday “Take 5” feature, contact Debra Minor Wilson at 304-367-2549 or dwilson@timeswv.com.

Email Debra Minor Wilson at dwilson@timeswv.com.