Dairy Carvings Combine Education, Leisure

8/24/2013 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — A woodcarver hoping to make realistic figures of bovines could have little better experience than Don Ace has had.

A retired Penn State department head and professor of dairy nutrition management, Ace took up carving in retirement at his brother’s suggestion.

“I like working with wood,” Ace said. He enjoys animals of all kinds, but his favorite subjects are cows, horses and deer. Some of his carvings are simply of animals, while others are scenes with wagons, sleighs, woodlands or other rural scenes.

Ace has been carving for 20 years and showing at the All-American Dairy Show for about 15 years, mostly exhibiting but also selling a few pieces.

“I have not promoted them beyond that,” he said.

Each year Ace tries to make a carving or two that relate to All-American’s annual theme. The organizers this year asked him to create something related to the show’s spotlight on oxen. He created some pieces honoring oxen as “the early farm power,” such as a man plowing with oxen.

He also assembled a team of oxen pulling a covered wagon. He said the wagon wheels and the wagon cover with hoops were unusual challenges, but the animals came more naturally to him. The piece took 50 hours to complete.

Ace was a dairy judge for many years and has a “feel for animal type, how they’re put together” that helps him make lifelike carvings that look like the correct breeds.

Ace has no formal woodcarving training. After he retired, his younger brother Francis, a “pretty good country artist,” whose carvings Don Ace had always admired, invited him to spend a few days learning with him in his woodshop.

The first attempts were “pretty darn bad,” Don Ace said. After trying his hand at birds, he switched to the ungulates that appear in the majority of his carvings.

“I didn’t get any satisfaction out of carving birds,” he said.

Don Ace emphasizes anatomical correctness, sculpting animals that might win fair shows if they were real, while his brother made more human figures and caricatures.

He and Francis grew up in a large family on a Susquehanna County, Pa., dairy farm. When Don Ace left the farm in 1950, it had 35 cows, which was a decent size for the time. Francis Ace went on to run a hardware store and become vice president of a local bank, while Don Ace went to college. Don Ace spent a few years as a Penn State Extension agent before becoming a professor on the school’s main campus.

Since his original woodworking retreat 20 years ago, Ace estimates he has made several hundred pieces. His children, grandchildren and relatives all have carvings, and he has made some carvings as gifts for retiring colleagues.

Ace maintains a small shop in the basement of The Village at Penn State, the retirement community where he lives with his wife, Lil.

He uses knives and carbide burrs to shape the wood. Many of his electric tools are from Dremel or Foredom.

“A lot of folks say you’re not really a woodcarver” if using motorized tools, he said. “My philosophy is that you use the tool that takes wood away fastest.”

He uses mostly softwoods, especially basswood, butternut, horse chestnut, catalpa and cottonwood. He often uses hardwoods like walnut, oak and cherry for the bases.

“I do things the easy way, if there is an easy way,” he said.

Butternut “finishes well, and it’s easy to carve,” he said. He made a bison out of butternut and wood-burned the cape, which was a time-consuming process.

He likes the marked graining on butternut, but he also uses basswood because it shows little grain.

He prefers to stain his carvings because it leaves the grain exposed, but he paints the creations if they are going to be in a larger scene, like the covered wagon, or his popular barn scenes.

Ace starts with a sketch on block of wood, then uses a band saw to cut the outline of the animal.

“Get rid of all the wood you don’t want, and hopefully you’ve got a cow left,” he said.

The wood comes from vendors at carving shows and from friends in the sawmill business.

Occasionally Ace makes a mistake while carving. “It makes good firewood,” he said.

Unlike his brother, who sold a large number of his carvings, Don Ace said he does not seek a large market for his works. Woodcarving is mainly a leisure activity and a way to help young people who are interested in the dairy business.

He has contributed to 4-H and Penn State Dairy Science Club auctions. He even gave a piece to an auction benefiting the university’s forestry department.

“It’s an awfully small world if we can’t take care of the kids,” he said.

A basswood cow Ace made will be auctioned at the All-American Dairy Show to support youth dairy work. He hopes it will fetch $300. One or two of his pieces have sold for more than $2,000.

Ace aims to carve something that he or the recipient will like or something that would befit a dairy-related exhibit.

“You just hope to goodness that someone likes it,” he said, smiling.

The 16th All-Dairy Antiques and Collectibles Show will be open from noon to 5 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 6, and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the remainder of the 50th All-American Dairy Show, Sept. 6-11, at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex and Expo Center in Harrisburg. For information about the show go to www.allamerican.state.pa.us or call 717-787-2905.<\c> Cutlines:

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