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Wooden "quilt" displays talents of tight-knit carver group

Alleen Wicktor works on a Texas cowboy/snowman. She is part of the Rambling Woodcarvers group that meets Tuesdays at the Rambling River Center. In the foreground is a cardinal carved by the group’s leader David Rausch. (Deanna Weniger | Independent Town Pages)1 / 2
This picture of Farmington’s downtown was carved into basswood by Pat Sweet. She used carbon paper to copy a photo onto the wood and then used a burning tool to make the darker areas. It is part of a wooden “quilt” of nine squares that hangs in the Rambling River Center. (Deanna Weniger | Independent Town Pages)2 / 2

Turning the basswood over in her hands, Pat Hennen's sharp little knife gently scraped away at an emerging cardinal wing.

"It's very relaxing," she said. "If it turns out to be a toothpick, oh well."

She sat at a table with six friends, all Lutheran except for one rogue Catholic, who call themselves the Rambling Woodcarvers. After a few minutes in the room at the Rambling River Center, it becomes obvious woodcarving is the secondary purpose for this weekly meeting.

"We solve all the world's problems," Hennen joked.

Since 2006, the group has carved out a little time each week to get together, learn something new about woodworking and support each other in the twilight years of their lives.

Three of their group have died and one member's husband passed away recently. Like a forest of tight-knit trees, they weather life's storms together.

"They have been incredibly supportive of me through some troubling times," said Donna Watier, of Apple Valley.

She's the only member not from Farmington. who found the group through a newspaper ad. She's had back surgery lately and said the group has stepped up to help her out.

Their leader, David Rausch, is a retired engineer. The ladies of the group refer to him as "Mr. Perfect" because he can carve so well.

He took up carving two years before he retired from a job where he did a lot of drawing and drafting.

"Drawing things to scale is no problem," he said.

He has carved several of the large wood wall hangings at the Farmington Lutheran Church and enjoys dreaming up projects for the group to try.

Recently, he had them make a wooden "quilt" for the center to show off some of the buildings around town.

Each member was given a 7-by-10-inch piece of basswood and sent out to take a picture of a building or scene that captured their interest and represented Farmington.

They came back with photos of the downtown, the Rambling River Center, the First Presbyterian Church, Farmington Lutheran Church, St. Michael's Catholic Church, Rambling River Park and a historic photo of the railroad depot which is now at the Dakota Heritage Village on the fairgrounds.

Rausch blew the pictures up to fit the frame and then placed a piece of carbon paper between the photo and the wood. The carvers made an imprint of the picture onto the wood and then set to work carving, burning and bleaching.

Carving makes the picture look three dimensional; burning supplies shadowy contrasts and bleaching lightens the wood for highlights.

Rausch framed the seven carvings in dark walnut and completed the quilt with a square that reads "Rambling Woodcarvers" and a center square holding a picture of the group.

It hangs on the hallway wall near the entrance to the center.

For other projects, Rausch gets the wood and cuts it to the appropriate size for the members. They work at home and save their questions for him when they get stuck.

Blanche Reichert brought in a wooden duck head that day. She couldn't get the eyes right, and asked Rausch for help.

Her friend Alleen Wicktor sat next to her working on a Texas snowman for her daughter. The snowman wore a cowboy hat and costume.

"Blanche and I said, should we try it?" Wicktor said, recalling the moment ten years ago that would lead to a new hobby and a close group of friends.

"We came with a little bag of tools, and now we've got closets full," she said, laughing.

She is most proud of an eagle carving at the top of a walking stick and her favorite thing to whittle — little wooden shoes, complete with real laces and a worn hole in the sole. A shelf on the wall displays several of the groups' most treasured creations.

"The most fun is when you get done with something and your family says, 'I can't believe you did that,'" Hennen said. "And I say, 'I can't believe it either!'"

They've done demonstrations at the fair and like to encourage aspiring carvers to practice on bars of ivory soap.

"We are always looking for people who want to try," Reichert said. "It's so much fun."

Although they have amassed enough projects to have their own craft show, they are not interested in selling.

"We couldn't part with anything," Wicktor said. "They are too valuable to us."

As she looked around the room, it wasn't clear if she was speaking only about the wood or about her friends as well.