Dozens of woodworking tools surround Jeff Bowman as he hand carves a piece in a shed, which serves as his workshop, outside his home.
Jeff Bowman feels blessed just to be alive.
After a combination of four heart attacks and strokes, one landing him in a coma back in 2000, the retiree is happy to be living a fully functional life, enjoying time with his wife, Verna, four kids and four grandchildren.
And despite being unable to walk or do much of anything for himself for nine months following one of those medical emergencies, he now spends his days in a tiny workshop using his hands and the smallest of tools carving highly-detailed wooden figures.
Bowman said he got his first pocket knife when he was 10 or 11.
“My father died when I was pretty young and I remember my uncle saying a real man always has a pocket knife,” he recalled with a smile. “And I do. I even have one with a mother-of-pearl handle for church on Sundays.”
The 72-year-old Red Hill resident said he worked on his hobby growing up, and as an adult, was always whittling something out of spare kindling he and his wife had left over from heating their old farmhouse. But he didn’t really start turning out his figures for the public until 1997.
At his wife’s urging, he made some of his carvings that year to brighten her table of folk art dolls at a local craft show. And the rest, he says, kind of fell into place. He has been selling his pieces, many as fast as he can make them, since then to appreciative patrons.
“It is so relaxing. There’s no noise involved,” he said of carving. “I can do it on the beach, at the mountains or on a golf cart between holes. My enjoyment comes from being able to carve and I like to share my gift with those who like them [my carvings].”
Each piece starts with a section of basswood from the Linden tree or Eastern white pine because those woods hold the detail the best. After using a band saw to rough out the wood, Bowman turns to his chisels and knives, mainly five or six of them, to turn the wood into either a folk carving or caricature.
He has turned out renditions of everything from J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” to Toad from “The Wind in the Willows.” He routinely carves holiday figures like Dr. Suess’ the Grinch, snowmen, a selection of Santas, and nativity scenes. He also does a wide variety of commissioned pieces.
Bowman also uses a handmade tool sharpener, which he fashioned from an old washing machine motor and buffers, to sharpen his instruments; one of the more challenging aspects of his art, he said.
After the carving is complete, the figures are finished with multiple layers of wood stain and are colored with acrylics or diluted oil paints. They also get several layers of linseed oil.
“I want them like I want my haircuts,” Bowman explained of their coloring. “I don’t want it to look like I just got one and I don’t want it to look like I need one. They are primitive.”
Each piece, despite many being started from the same sketch, is a little different because it is done individually. It can take anywhere from two hours to 40 hours from start to finish.
And, like it is for many artists, some days the craft is more challenging than others.
“There are days when you may carve and faces just don’t work,” he explained. “You can have beautifully formed hands and feet but no faces. Sometimes they just have to sit for a while.”
His renditions of the Grinch are his bestsellers at craft shows like "Belsnickel" in Boyertown and "Home for the Holidays" in Macungie each winter. He also sells his popular art at the annual spring show at Owen J. Roberts High School in Pottstown.
It’s a big change from his career in heavy construction, where he spent 25 years working for a concrete company, but he has a passion for creating.
“I just do what the wood tells me and what my hands tell me. It’s a gift,” he said simply.