Wood carver extraordinaire

Sep 4 2011 - 9:15am

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KERA WILLIAMS/Standard-Examiner
Burt McDonald works on part of the molding for the Brigham City LDS Temple.
KERA WILLIAMS/Standard-Examiner
This molding that Burt McDonald has been working on at his shop in Layton is for the Brigham City LDS Temple.
KERA WILLIAMS/Standard-Examiner
After seeing a bronze statue of a bison, Burt McDonald decided to carve the legs of this large armoire like those of the animal.
KERA WILLIAMS/Standard-Examiner
Burt McDonald works on part of the molding for the Brigham City LDS Temple.
KERA WILLIAMS/Standard-Examiner
This molding that Burt McDonald has been working on at his shop in Layton is for the Brigham City LDS Temple.
KERA WILLIAMS/Standard-Examiner
After seeing a bronze statue of a bison, Burt McDonald decided to carve the legs of this large armoire like those of the animal.

The shaggy head of a bison juts out from the armoire, its horns surrounded by thick, wavy hair. The animal's heavy, cloven hooves are where ordinary furniture legs would be -- coaxed out of the wood by Burt McDonald's carving tools.

The piece of furniture captures the feel of a mountain lodge on a grand scale.

Getting the look and feel just right is important to McDonald.

"I'm creating an atmosphere in somebody's home," he said.

McDonald makes cabinets and other furniture, but his specialty is hand-carved decorative wood -- mantles with relief sculptures of pine cones or elk, doors covered in leaves or lions, chests adorned in flowers and, yes, armoires with bison hooves.

"If you can think it, he can do it," said interior designer Marian Rockwood, of MHR Design in Park City. "He's a real artist. I give him a concept, and he can see it in his head and then executes it so beautifully I can't believe it."

Julie Farr, a homeowner in Pleasant View, says McDonald is the Wasatch Front's little-known secret.

"A lot of designers know about him, and he does work in Park City and Sun Valley," Farr said. "But locals don't know about him."

McDonald was recommended to Farr when she was looking for someone to create a unique fireplace mantle in her house.

"It's got flowers that just pop out of the wood -- they're dimensional," she said. "You definitely recognize it as being more than your typical imported-from-China design."

Farr believes McDonald's work will be prized in the future, the way collectors appreciate work by European master carvers of the past.

"In my opinion, in 100 to 200 years there will be people who are lucky enough to have some of his cabinets and carvings, and when people see them they will say, 'Oh, that's a piece of work done by Burt McDonald.' They'll recognize it, because he's such a craftsman," she said.

Lasting quality

McDonald, a Syracuse resident with a shop in Layton, has reason to believe some of his work really will be around 100 years from now. One of his current projects is working on decorative moldings for the temple being built by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Brigham City.

"It's my understanding the church wants ... this temple to be built like they were 100 years ago," McDonald said of the craftsmanship and materials. "They could get other products, but they want something that's going to last."

This job is a little different for McDonald, because he's not starting entirely from scratch. Another shop put outlines on the moldings, and he's one of a few carvers doing the detail work. He sprays the hard rock maple with mineral spirits to soften it, then uses chisels to remove wood around the leaf design. So far, he's done 350 feet of molding.

He recently made a prototype, a carving depicting the Missouri state flower, the hawthorn blossom, for the Kansas City LDS Temple.

McDonald also was tapped for woodwork in the church's Nauvoo Temple, in Illinois, rebuilt between 1999 and 2002, to resemble one destroyed in 1848.

"When I was working in Nauvoo, I found out one of my great-grandfathers was doing work on the temple back in the days," he said.

McDonald enjoys the challenge of making new carvings to match woodwork done more than a century ago.

"I carved newel posts for the Salt Lake Temple, and had to match the existing posts," he said, adding that he also created 24 wood panels. "To me, the work on the Salt Lake Temple was probably the neatest to do because of its history. ... The work on the old temples was done with blood, sweat and tears."

His ability to re-create historic woodwork isn't limited to LDS buildings -- he was called in after the Governor's Mansion caught fire in 1993.

McDonald says he gets hired for these kinds of jobs because there are very few old-fashioned woodcarvers left.

"A lot of the real good ones are retiring, or passing away," he said.

Carving out a niche

McDonald grew up surrounded by wood. His father, Jay McDonald, is known for his mill work.

"He worked with me, but he did his carving on his own," said Jay, who is now retired.

Burt became interested in carving when he was about 12 years old, and one of his sisters gave him a small set of tools for Christmas.

"He wound up at the hospital," said his mother, Ila McDonald. "He cut his finger, carving the first time."

But he didn't give up, and has been carving seriously for about 30 years.

"Most things he carved, he stuck with until he got them perfected," said Jay.

What sets Burt McDonald's work apart, according to his father, is depth.

"He carves them deep -- they're not just surface carvings like most carvers do," he said.

The younger McDonald's early carving was about a quarter-inch deep.

"Now I do higher relief in carving, with a deeper undercut -- typical now is about an inch and a half," said Burt.

Creating art

McDonald's done traditional architectural woodwork, but lately he's been doing a lot of Western-themed projects.

"I did work for a mansion a few years ago, carving cowboys and cattle," he said. "In the kitchen, I did a scene of cowboys cooking their dinner."

Sometimes, McDonald gets an idea and just has to try it. The large armoire that he's still working on was inspired by seeing a bronze statue of a buffalo.

"When I saw those feet, I decided I was going to carve some," he said.

McDonald didn't study art, or learn to sculpt, in school.

"I just picture it in my mind," he said. "Sometimes, I sketch something out, but a lot of times I just get the proportions and get started."

But Farr says McDonald is definitely an artist.

"I think anybody who is as skilled as he is, also has to be an artist to visualize and put in the detail like he does," she said. "He has a great eye not only for shape and style, but size and space."

She was so pleased with the fireplace McDonald made, she asked him back to dress up her staircase and kitchen.

"He's carving some artichokes," she said.

When he's done with that, she wants a one-of-a-kind quilt stand for an heirloom quilt, and then a stand for a saddle she used as a little girl.

"He told me if I'd get a picture of my pony, he would carve her face on the saddle stand," Farr said. "My husband's probably wishing I wouldn't keep thinking up things for Burt to do."

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