by Shane Wilson
INTRODUCTION AND HISTORY
Jack Brown has lived most of his life in the lee of the Appalachian mountains, an hour and half south of Buffalo, ten miles from the Pennsylvania border, in a part of the US called the Southern Tier, in New York state. Jack, a proud father of six girls, lives up on a hill in a little box canyon outside small town of Scio (pop. 1800). It is an area surrounded by rolling farmlands, pastures and meadows, along the picturesque Genesee River, whose north-flowing waters empty into Lake Ontario after passing over a series of cascading waterfalls in Letchworth State Park, an hour and a half drive north of his home.
There is a large amount of state-owned land nearby, over 20,000 acres, so a a large number of people escape the nearby cities to visit on the weekends – the region has much to offer in the way of fishing, hunting, camping, recreation. During the week, however, Jack says things are pretty quiet, the township of Scio has a population of 1800 people spread over forty six square miles! Understandably, many people in the area, including Jack, make a living around hunting, fishing or recreation, otherwise the area experiences the highest unemployment rate in New York state.
Jack maintains a studio-gallery in Scio, called ‘Stones-N-Bones / Allegany Arts and Antiquities’, located strategically on the main tourist route to the Souther Tier. He showcases his antler carving and other items out front and works daily in his studio. The regular weekend traffic accounts for some of his business, but Jack has become skilled at a variety of marketing opportunities, on-line and in person. And little wonder, Jack is the most prolific antler carver of all time, completing well over 10,000 carvings large and small during the course of his decades-long career. A friend and fellow carver, Adrian González-Guillén, after visiting Jack’s studio, exclaimed, “I’ve never seen so many carvings …this fellow is a carving machine!”
I am always fascinated to learn how artists and sculptors become interested in antler as a medium, and it is no exception with Jack. Here is Jack’s story in his own words:
You know, I couldn’t be where I am at today if it wasn’t for my parents enabling me, and helping me in different ways. My father’s a professional chef by trade. One thing I’m really, really grateful for is his knowledge in business. He dropped out of high school and built his own empire with hard work, the old fashioned way.
In 1969, seven years after I was born, my family moved from Niagara Falls, NY to Wellsville in the Southern Tier, where my parents opened up a café they called The Village Coffee Shop. The busiest time of the year was hunting season. When I was a kid, hunting season was IT – all the people came down from the city. In those days there were no RV’s. Everyone stayed at the hotel and ate at our restaurant. Sitting there as a boy of 8, 10, 12 years old, all I heard were stories of hunting, fishing and antlers. The guys would show up at lunch time and tell their stories. I listened, intrigued and fascinated. It inspired a love of white tailed deer, for both hunting and conservation.
As a young boy, I joined the Boy Scouts of America. They taught me a lot about respecting God and nature.
They taught wilderness survival skills, which I used, spending countless hours hiking in the bush. During these hikes, I would often find White Tail Deer sheds. I’d chuckle and wonder ‘Where is the other half of the rack?’ I’d hang the antler in a tree or throw it ahead of me, then pick it up and throw it again as I hiked. Later, I met a gentleman named Norman Ives, he’s a local Native American. He passed away a few years ago, but he brought me arrowhead hunting for the first time in my life. We gathered them from along the Genesee River and he would tell me stories from his father and grandfather, and I took an interest in it.
All these influences kind of intermingled, so that’s where a wildlife artist may have emerged. They set the stage.
Things changed in the late 70’s. My parents closed the restaurant and went into the pet business. They bought a building and opened up their first pet shop in Wellsville, where I worked during in my teenage years. After finishing high school, I went to College to study electronics. It was the beginning of the digital age and we were trained as technicians for automated process control – digital processors, robotics, pneumatic arms, laser sensors and switching devices. On the side, while I was studying electronics, my father and I opened up a little game room with video games – and that generated a few extra bucks. Meantime, my father opened four more pet stores in three different counties across the Southern Tier.
When I graduated from College, I couldn’t find a job, because the economy was so depressed here. My classmates from the cities got good jobs. They got picked up by Kodak and West Bend, no problem, but me, I had a young family and I just couldn’t move away. At the time, my father needed a worker in one of his pet stores and that was the beginning. I worked for him for twenty plus years!
I have a love for tropical fish, so eventually took over the care of the fish department, including all the paperwork. In those days, I expressed my artistic vision by creating beautiful terrariums and aquariums. I loved decorating the fish tanks with natural things I found along the shores and in the wood.
I also learned a lot about spawning and joined several aquarium clubs. I have received credit for propagated over 90 different aquatic plants and 90 different species of fresh water fish! I once took ‘Best in Show’ at the Buffalo Zoo, for creating the most beautiful aquarium in the whole exhibit, competing against everyone from western New York.
My introduction to antler carving came in 1985, in the person of Dale Baldwin, from Hinsdale, NY. He shared my interest in tropical fish, and so was a frequent visitor to the store to chat and buy fish. One day, I noticed that he was wearing a carved spiral on a chain, and asked, “Hey, that’s pretty cool, what is that?” and he said, “I made it from a deer antler.” I said, “That’s pretty neat, can you make me one?” He made a bargain with me, saying, “If you have supply the deer antlers, I’ll make you one if you let me keep the left-over parts.” “No problem” I replied, and started collecting the antlers I found on my hikes.
One day, in the early years of our relationship, he brought by a dragon he had carved, which was just amazing. It knocked me off my feet! I couldn’t believe it. “You made this? You carved this?” I couldn’t fathom that anyone could be so artistically creative. He took an antler and carved a dragon out of it – it just blew my mind!
For ten years I gathered antlers for him and, during that time, he carved a few pieces for me.
I still have two of them and keep them close. They are hanging from the light above my bench, right there in front of me, inspiring me every time I carve.
Then one day, I was transferred to a different pet store some distance away in another county. I continued to gather antlers on my hikes, but did not see Dale for over a year.
During that time, a friend of mine, who helped my father take care of his buildings, died and left behind his tool box. After several months, my Dad said, “Jack do you want any of Randy’s tools? His tool box is still here and nobody wants it.” So I opened it up and discovered a brand new set of six small palm chisels, never used.
That was the day I started carving!
I started on the antlers I was saving for Dale. I made simple key chains, necklaces, and pipes, which I sold out of the pet shop. Then one day, Dale made the two county trip to visit, buy fish and pick up antlers.
I showed him what I was making.
At first he was a little upset, because he had wanted the antlers. But he soon came around and offered what turned out to be very selective advice: “Don’t ever use power tools! No power tools!”
I showed him the chisels.
He said, “That’s what you want to use.”
So, I said, “Okay, no power tools.”
It was not easy using those chisels. They would often shoot off the antler into my knee cap, fingers or other body parts! I got a lot of stitches in those early years.
I took Dale’s advice so seriously, that I even drilled holes by hand. I had a Dremel at the time, but only used it for cleaning the rust off my car. I just kept hearing the words, “No power tools, Jack.”
I made about thirty carvings over a two year period: wizards, a little castle, flowers and the like – it was just something to occupy my time.
After this, I stopped by to see Dale at his workshop, and low and behold, he had several Dremels and rotary tools – which he used for carving! Surprised and shocked, I said, “Hell, I thought you told me, ‘No power tools!’”
Now Dale was a really big guy with a deep voice. He looked at me, chuckled, and then boomed, “You’ve gotta pay your dues, Jack!”
Well I continued to carve, this time learning to use of power tools, and continued to improve.
About 1999 things really began to take off and I realized, from what people were telling me, that my work was good, so I decided to pursue antler carving full-time.
Over the years, I have be privileged to know and be inspired by other great antler carvers, including Stan Hill and Shane Wilson, but I credit Dale Baldwin for getting me started. He passed away in 2012. About a year before he died, Dale visited my studio one last time and told me that he was proud of my accomplishments. He felt I’d raised the art of antler carving to a level he had always wanted to achieve. I miss him dearly and still hear his voice.
Since those early days, Jack Brown has created and sold well over 10,000 carvings! How has he done this? What subjects has he carved? What kinds of carvings has he made? How has he marketed such a tremendous number of works? Jack answered all of these questions and more, during several telephone interviews:
Shane: Jack, you have probably created and sold more antler carvings than any other carver in the history of the genre. Do you know how many you’ve carved as of December 2016?
Jack: As of 2016, I’ve sold 10,350 original, documented carvings since 2003. I started documenting the year Stan Hill passed away.
I record each carving in a composition notebook which I keep beside my work bench. Each year, I start the numbering over at zero. When I finish a carving, I inscribe a two-digit number representing the year, then a tiny heart and finally, the number of the carving, in order, for that year. The highest number of carvings I have ever done in a single year is 1200. My annual numbering system represents carvings only and does not include other items like lamps or silver reproductions.
Shane: That is a lot of carving!! What drives you Jack, what keeps you motivated over all these years?
Jack: I want to touch as many people with my art as I possibly can. For me, when it comes to art, the most important thing is telling a great story without words. It’s also about introducing people to the beautiful things I’ve seen and felt and am gifted enough with hand-eye-brain coordination to take gently from the hand of our Creator and transfer into a medium that is meant to be.
I am thinking especially of the little carvings, of course, the keychains, the deer tracks – it’s the simple stuff that just about everybody can afford – they buy it because it expresses what they are passionate about.
Early on, a woman wrote to thank me for a piece she bought from me on eBay, which she gave to her nephew as a gift. It was a cross necklace with a heart in the centre of it. He loved it and made it into a key chain. Some time later, travelling to a job in Colorado, he was killed in a head on crash by a drunk driver. She wrote to me to let me know how much it meant to her that she was able to give him that gift of faith. I started balling, knowing that a work of my hands had touched someone in such a way. It showed me that the people who buy my carvings have their own connection to my art, even though I may never know why they buy it, who they buy it for, or what happens to it in time. That letter changed the way I looked at my work from that day on.
To me, my carvings are seeds, ‘love seeds’ that I’ve ‘planted’ by sending them out into the world. Think of an acorn and how much life it produces in its lifetime.
Shane: What subjects do you like to carve?
Jack: The subjects I use on a regular basis are: eagles, bears, wolves and mountain lions. In my area, that’s what people relate to and want. And these same animals sell well on the internet on a national basis. We all relate to the eagle in the US, since it’s our national bird, so eagles as a subject are the most popular. Bears are also popular with the people who have encountered them, or those whose spiritual totem is the bear.
Beyond that, I’ll carve another kind of animal if I feel pulled in that direction, whether it is moose, elk, sheep, however, it’s rare that I’ll carve a ram because people in my part of the country find it hard to relate to animals that don’t live here.
As I mentioned before, I like to make carvings that tell a story. I like to envision little tiny scenes, they intrigue me. An eagle by itself is just an eagle, but put it in a scene and it tells a story, often without saying anything.
Sometimes you’ve got to speak up though. You have to tell the story, so others can know it. An important theme for me is the triumph of good over evil, or life over death. The idea of resurrection from the ashes makes for a very powerful story, which you’ll see in several of my carvings.
When I am not creating scenes, I carve a lot of animal heads (portraits), animal tracks, and, also, a lot of feathers. For example, I have been working on a lot of turkey calls lately – on one I’ll carve turkey feathers, on another I’ll carve a turkey head. Just kind of mix it up – whatever there’s room enough to carve.
Shane: You mention turkey calls, tell me about the other kinds of carvings you make.
Jack: I love carving the tiny stuff: necklaces, pendants, and keychains. Lots of people like the tiny stuff, but not a lot of people do the tiny stuff.
I have noticed that people’s mind-frame about purchasing art has changed somewhat over the last few years. People used to have no problem buying jewelry or even larger sculptures. But now folks are feeling uncertain about the future, so prefer to buy things that are useful: keychains instead of necklaces, lamps instead of eagle carvings.
As a result, I have been making more types of carvings that people can use, the commodity items, and I have stepped back a bit from necklaces and sculpture.
I also carve handles for stone knife blades from the very best masters knapping today, many of whom I met years ago at the Genesee Valley Flint Knapping Stone Tool Show in Letchworth State Park. I am honoured to be on one end of the production. I get the blades from them, carve the handles and then do the actual marketing. It’s a really interesting journey and a lot of fun.
I’ll still do a few sculptures a year, just to emphasize my artistic ability and imagination. I like to do these bigger pieces, which I call my masterpieces. All of the smaller sculptures I do, like the little deer head necklaces, are all preparation for the masterpiece. In my opinion, that’s why they call it a masterpiece.
Most of us don’t take off running with masterpiece after masterpiece, we have to get comfortable with the tools that we are going to be using as we take this journey as a carver. It is important to gain this experience over time, learning how to make different cuts using a variety of burrs, just like a painter learns over time how to blend colours on the palette and use the various brushes to make a painting.
I’m working on a big moose antler sculpture called Here Comes Trouble. It is inspired by the elk which were reintroduced twenty years ago to the mountains of Elk County, Pennsylvania. I’d never actually seen a living elk before starting the sculpture, even though I have carved elk antlers for years. I have since travelled the park several times (to supply the park’s gift shop with my work) and every time I have seen elk, sometimes at very close range.
I heard the first bugling elk of my life – and it gave me shivers from head to foot. It was the most amazing experience I have ever had in my life! And, remarkably, last week, my artistic vision for Here Comes Trouble turned into reality before my very eyes: I witnessed a bull elk walking down a hill toward a group of cows and calves, when another bull came in sight over the ridge, silhouetted on the skyline – almost the same design I had drawn on the sketch board two months previous! It was like “Oh … my … gosh!”
Shane: Do you have an all time favourite carving?
Jack: My favourite carving? There are so many, just to pick one is almost impossible, but I have to say it is the Battle of the Ages 2, the one I carved from a antique sperm whale tooth, with the eagle and the dragon fighting.
It represents the fight between good and evil, with good coming out on top, represented by the eagle. That one blows my mind, it is such a story!
Consider the details! The eagle lost his foot in the battle when the dragon’s foot came up and cut it off. Each one of the dragon’s whiskers spells ‘battle of the ages 2’, then travel through the skull. Observe also the dragon’s eggs hatching. Also, if you look at each of the eagle’s toes they are metamorphosing into eagles.
Battle of the Ages 2 is an epic carving which has sparked several other smaller carvings that have been cast in silver and sold separately. For example, I carved the eagle’s foot which grabs onto the little skull from a walrus tooth and it was cast in silver.
I plan to follow up on this carving with Battle of the Ages 3, which is going to be crazy! There will be four eagles and four or five dragons. Battle of the Ages 1 is in the Bill Steckman Collection. It is carved from two white tail deer antlers, one an eagle, the other a dragon, both mounted together on a plaque.
Shane: You mentioned reproducing some of your carvings in silver. Can you tell me about that?
Jack: Around 1999 was the first year I reproduced one of my carvings into silver. So about 16 years now I have really been dabbling into the silver reproduction with the smaller designs.
Steve Walker, a metalsmith and Celtic jewelry designer, does all my casting. I make the models, then he does the silicone molds, lost wax burn outs and pours the metal, cuts off the trees and sends them back to me. He is a master; he is unbelievable. He was one of the first people that I met as an artist, in 1997. I didn’t have anything to cast then, but, in 1999, I carved this little hummingbird, called up Steven and he was more than willing to teach and inspire me and that was my first reproduction in silver.
Since then, I’ve sold a lot of reproductions. I have almost 200 different models now! The latest ones are the little shed elk antler earnings
Shane: And they sell pretty well?
Jack: At different times they’ll sell pretty well. I make money off them. I sold fifty of the mermaid reproductions in silver at $90 a piece, and two in gold for $1000 a piece. That was when gold was $300 an ounce, so I made $700 dollars profit! Plus I’ve still got the original.
Shane: Several years ago you were approached to appear in a book entitled, Antlers, written by Dennis Walrod and published by Stackpole Books (now Rowman & Littlefield’s Globe Pequot imprint). I also have you to thank for my own appearance. The book deals with everything you ever wanted to know about antlers, including antler carving. Denis travels to your original Stones and Bones store in Wellsville and shadows you for the day, talks about your process and gives a sense of the tremendous energy you put into your work and the interest it engenders. I recognize the book is not a carving or a reproduction, but it does represent something of your work and you have these books for sale, do you not?
Jack: Stackpole Books hired Dennis Walrod in 2004 to write a book all about antlers. Stackpole is the publisher who printed a lot of wildlife books as well as all the ‘how to’ books. They have recently been bought out by Rowman & Littlefield.
Dennis saw my carvings on eBay and took the time to come up to my store. He is a pretty amazing fellow. His knowledge is unsurpassed when it comes to the scientific understanding of antlers. His biggest question for me was how to carve antlers. And we got talking, and I spoke highly of you and some other people that really inspire me, such as Stan Hill and the Whitetail Education Foundation.
Since the book was published in 2005, I’ve sold probably 500-600 copies. I purchase ten copies at a time wholesale for $114, then sell retail for $22 each. The book is on the second edition. They took a lot of stuff out, but they added more pictures of my stuff, and went with colour plates on some of my artwork.
Shane: Denis touches on your workday in the book, but can you tell us here, how do you get things done – what is your daily carving routine?
Jack: When I wake up in the morning, I check the internet to see what’s going on with my websites and on social media. Often orders will come in through the night. Then I go out to the workshop.
When I get a new box of antlers, I may start my day out by sorting them into groups of what they’re best suited to become. Each antler is unique in form, character and texture. I ask, is this particular antler going to be an eagle, owl, or knife handle?
For example, when I carve and eagle, I like the antler to have the brow tine at least 2” back from the burr or further, because then it doesn’t interfere with the eyes, or the flow behind the eyes and you still have the proper kind of form as it goes back into the antler. This helps to create the flare of the eagle’s neck, which mimics the natural form of the antler. So if an antler meets these criteria and all the tines are nice and not broken, then it will be an eagle or a dragon.
However if a tine is broken, I’ll cut them all off at at the main beam and use the beam to make a knife handle.
If the tines are not quite right to make an eagle, but otherwise the antler is perfect, I’ll set it aside, ready to make a lamp.
The remaining antlers and leftover antler pieces are divided up to make jewelry or keychains.
Over time I have collected several buckets of uniform bits and pieces of antler that are cut, pre-faced or sanded and with the sharp edges rounded off, ready, say, for a necklace. I also have a whole bucket of crowns and a whole bucket of flat pieces, all ready to go.
Then I begin to carve. If I’m not working on a specific commission, I’ll usually pick up something that I started previously. I have at least fifty different items in front of me in progress, whether it be a small necklace or the Here Comes Trouble sculpture, it’s all there.
When I work on the smaller items, such as a deer track, I work on 2-3 at a time, to make things more efficient. You never want to make just one, because it takes time to change burrs and switch tools. I’ll work on each of the three pieces at the same time to bring them to the stage where the next burr is needed and, so, finish them together.
I like to tell people, “I start something everyday and finish something everyday, but it’s not necessarily the same thing.”
Shane: How long do you work before needing a break to rest your hands or eyes?
Jack: I can do a good twenty minutes, before I have to get up and stretch a little bit. It depends what I’m working on. If it is a really tiny item, it is very important to regulate everything, even your breathing. So I’ll take a break, just get up and stretch out.
Shane: And then what?
Jack: During the stretch out time, I’ll either go outside and take a deep breath of fresh air or work on something that is on one of the other benches, say a lamp. I am constantly thinking, “What’s next?” I keep active in my shop, I just don’t go on FB and daydream.
Shane: How long do you carve during the day?
Jack: 10-6PM that’s my pattern.
Shane: So basically, the whole day?
Jack: The store has changed everything. My old carving pattern was every day, 10-6 weekdays.
Shane: So after 6PM, that is when you did your website and social media posting, take pictures, stuff like that?
Jack: Exactly. I normally spend another hour or two uploading pictures, typing in descriptions, socializing on Facebook. It’s all changing, though, Shane. With the new smartphones in your pocket, everything is more spontaneous. And also distracting. It was easier in the beginning years of the internet.
TOOLS and TECHNIQUES
Shane: Time to talk tools and techniques, Jack. When we left your story about how you got your start, you mentioned that for the first two years you used nothing but hand tools.
Jack: Yes, it took me 10 hours to scratch a flower on this one piece of bone! I still have that piece.
Shane: What was it like when you first started using Dremels and other grinder type tools?
Jack: It was very intimidating. Of course I started out with the Dremel as most of us do, because they are affordable. Over time, it is important to invest in different tools to bring your carving to the next level.
I run three Foredom S Series flexible shaft grinders, a DC powered RAM with a quick change collet, a high speed air tool, and one Dremel next to me with an abrasive wheel on it that I use to clean up things, like an eraser.
I have all these pedals in front of me so I can switch hand pieces without even taking my eyes off the carving, and that’s how I can finish something in 8 minutes!
There is a quick change clutch on the RAM makes it easy to change burrs.
The Dremel is more cumbersome and awkward and not a very precise tool for carving.
I use the high speed air tool to sign my name and do the really tiny details. We carvers owe the dental world a debt of gratitude for the great tools they have created!
To be honest with you, I can do it all with the Foredom, if I had enough chucks set up with the burrs, so I don’t have to waste time. I’ve had very little trouble with them, but busted a lot of shafts.
A lot of the tools were just placed in my hands. I didn’t have to go out looking for them. Someone walked in with the high speed air tool, her husband passed away and she didn’t want it. It was a Perigrade and you know how expensive they are. And then the RAM I bought off a kid who came in. He worked at a dentist office and quit. I’ve just replaced parts and hand pieces since then.
Shane: Do you have a favourite carving tool?
Jack: I really like the micro motor hand tool, the RAM. I like the feel of it in my hand. I can spin it like a drumstick. But you have to have the Dremel for the hog work – you don’t want to subject the micro motor hand piece to hogging – I tripped the breaker even with the Dremel. I’ve also had to be careful hogging with the Foredom; I’ve snapped off the chuck right beside me and had the shaft go whipping past my head.
Shane: What about dust collection or management?
Jack: My biggest mistake that I’ve made is that I’ve learned by carving on my knee, when I should have researched a little more and built a carving box, with a dust collector right below it, so the dust drops below. And I didn’t – I still carve on my knee. I have a dust collector upstairs with a 6” pipe that comes down and ends in a box right in front of me, but it doesn’t catch it all, the bigger stuff drops down to the floor, so I have to keep sweeping it up. In the summer time, I shut that down and I have a 14” type of commercial box fan, at my feet, right through the wall so pieces head away from me. The air comes from behind me, so I control my breathing and hold my breath when I’m making the cut, or I exhale and blow at the same time.
I don’t wear a respirator much anymore unless I am working on shell or wooly mammoth tusk – the dust tends to funk me out a little bit. And shell is pretty nasty, I tend to wear a respirator there. But other than that I discipline myself to do what I do and just do it.
It’s important to be very efficient to have big numbers. If you want to have something to market, you have to be efficient at what you do. ‘Time is money’ is an old saying that’s been around for centuries. Being efficient, having all your tools in order, your flow process, things readily in front of you without having to go out of your way is an absolute must.
Shane: Tell me about the burrs you use?
Jack: You know, the basics: your cylinders, the inverted cones, your balls – those are your big ones – then all the different sizes of them and have them so that they are easy to change.
Your big ones are for the hog work, the smaller ones are for details.
And then there is the angle of the cut, and what you need to do. In the beginning I bought a lot of burrs and experimented.
I use the cylinder and the inverted cone the most. They can give you a little undercut that creates a shadow. I find, on a flat surface, where you are not trying to take off the whole width/length of the cylinder you still have enough meat there where you can carve things around the burr by changing the angle. I like those three burrs the best in all the sizes.
Shane: Do you wear gloves?
Shane: Ever take a chunk out of your fingernail?
Jack: It happens. On several occasions, I’ve been cut up and hurt, requiring stitches. The last it happened it was the knife edge burr, which is very dangerous.
It’s just a burr with a knife edge for undercuts. It is a flat disk. It jumped. It is for making cuts in jewelry for setting stones. It’s not really made for carving antler and it caught and zoomed down my finger.
In the early days I worked with chisels, and one thing I learned is that you have to keep them sharp. The same with burrs. You’re going to get hurt when your tools are dull.
If you’re not carving you’re burning. People say antler stinks, but that comes from cutting way too fast, or your burrs are clogged or dull. And if there is smoke coming off your carving, you’re burning, not carving. (If you burn the carving, you’ll have to get in there and clean things up, get down to where the antler is clean and stable.)
I told you before that I carve on my knee. I’ve been cut when the burr slips from my fingers and goes into my pant leg. All my carving pants have a hole in the carving knee.
But I’m quick – I’ve almost been hurt hundreds of times. Especially on the bandsaw. That can be scary sometimes, when you’re cutting up antlers, you’re not flat up against the plate, you’ve got it up on an angle to get the right cut and sometimes it will grab it and smack it down and wake you up.
Shane: In the early days, I was using a large aggressive burr on my lap and it ran off the edge and buried itself in my leg, so now I wear a leather apron.
Jack: I’ve noticed that in your pictures, and tried it, but find it very cumbersome. I tried leather chaps with laces for my knee, but it’s a pain, because 20 minutes later I’m getting up and have to undo them.
Shane: I’ve found the best kind of apron does not have legs and covers loosely to the knee, so standing up is no problem.
Jack: I like carving on my knee, because it gives the orbital flow. I can spin the carving on my fingertips, but it needs a point of contact to keep it stabilized.
Shane: What other tools do you use on a regular basis in your shop?
Jack: Band saw, belt sander, orbital sander, lapidary grinders, and gem makers.
Shane: Do you use the lapidary tool for antler carving or working the shells?
Jack: Sometimes I use it for the antler, if it is plugged in and in front of me. Especially if the belt sander is on the other side of the room. It is a little cleaner, the dust isn’t there. The water sprays on it. I’ll use it to create smooth surfaces on antler or cabezon.
Shane: Any tips around polishing?
Jack: After polishing with a compound, I find that some of the compound gets into the crevices of the carving. So I just use a bristle brush to clean out the compound, but it took a long time to figure out how to do it!
Shane: And finally, do you need to use something to help you see the fine details you carve?
Jack: I use the OptiVisor with the 3x power lens when I’m doing the tiny, tiny scenes. I like the 2x power lens on a daily basis. I also have a stereo microscope next to me, where I can go from 10-40X. I carved a mermaid in green butterstone, for example, I couldn’t carve between her fingers with the Optimizer so I put it in there and it was like a whole different magical world. And I set it between 15-18X and cleaned up in between the fingers, but the depth of field is so shallow that it makes you dizzy. Like a roller coaster ride – I almost fell off my chair.
Shane: What are your thoughts about pricing?
Jack: Pricing art work is one of the hardest things. You have to take a lot of things into consideration: how long it took to make, how detailed it is – those are the big ones. You have to float with the economy, depending on what’s going on, you don’t want to overprice yourself.
If a particular carving really means something to you personally, and you don’t want to part with it, you usually ask more than it’s worth. Then if someone wants to pay a little bit extra because they want it so badly, you are not giving it away. And you can always make another.
Shane: How do you approach marketing your work, Jack?
Jack: I am extremely fortunate, Shane, everything I’ve got surrounding me, my antler carving has bought in one form or another: house, land, store, tools, monthly bills, everything!
Shane: That is an amazing accomplishment!
Jack: When I first started out, I was just making and trying to sell my art. It took a while to find a marketplace and to find an item that I could make and market at a reasonable price. You don’t need a huge inventory of one particular product in the beginning. You just want to start out with what you can handle. Pick a small goal and achieve it.
I figured out pretty early that there are two ways to approach carving: the artistic and the commercial. You need to ask yourself, what is your goal as an artist? Is your goal to make art in your spare time for self-gratification or do you want to create a business using your carving skills and the things that you love in your environment, such as antlers, sticks, stones, and bones? I chose the second approach, so I needed to find out everything I could about marketing.
The man who taught me most about how to market was Davey Crockett, (5th generation). He said there are three things you have to remember in business:
You have to create an event.
You have to promote the event
You have to have the event
If you do that once a month, it will keep you in business by keeping you in the public eye. It keeps things interesting for your collectors, the people who follow you online, and people you influence.
This is the philosophy behind how I run my business: create, promote and have the event.
Many events or occasions are already created by others, which I use by promoting them and then participating in them. Last month it was the Allegany Artisans Studio Tour. The month before, it was the two big stone tool shows, back to back. This month it is Christmas. You’ve also got Valentine’s Day, a good one, then you have Easter. Big business created these events. They have the same philosophy, they are creating events, promoting and then holding the events. Other occasions, like President’s Day or Labour Day are commemorative type events the government has created, which can also be used in your business.
All the other events you can create. You are only limited by your creativity. For example, for the first anniversary of my new store, I hired a live singer, a one man band, to perform. I also did some good promoting on the radio. Since it was right in the middle of hunting season, lots of folks saw the business, Stones and Bones, and they stopped. It’s just the way it is. You have keep people entertained; people will pay you money to entertain them.
You can also create, promote and have an event on eBay or Facebook. About a month before Christmas people are really shopping, then a week before sales drop and people tend to buy for themselves. During this time, I pick four carvings, called ‘The Final Four’ and promote them, giving out clues ahead of time. People want to be entertained, so I try to make it exciting, make people want to be part of it.
Shane: You’ve done it all – storefront, shows, website, eBay, Facebook. In fact, you and I have been using the internet to show our work since it began, as a viable medium for sharing images on computers!
Jack: Yes, that’s right!
Shane: Please share something of your experience and some of the lessons you have learned along the way?
Jack: Sure, it’s been quite a journey!
In the beginning, as I mentioned before, I was still working at my Dad’s pet store. After I took care of the chores, I’d just sit there and whittle. I carried that little toolbox with me. This would have been in 1994. I put up a little shelf to display my carved keychains and sold a few pieces. I decided to get into antler carving full time in 1999 and opened my own store.
I purchased a commercial building across from the post office in Wellsville and called the business, Stones ‘n Bones. Dennis Walrod, author of Antlers, said it was, “One of the most interesting places, I’ve ever seen!” Which was pretty cool. This is how he described it in his book:
There are antler carvings and other artifacts everywhere you look: in display cases, on the walls, suspended from the ceiling … and yes, some stuff is on the floor. No two items are alike, and that also seems to apply to the customers and gawkers who are constantly coming in through the front door! (Dennis Walrod, Antlers, 2005, p. 119-120)
Most of the business came from the hunters, fishermen and campers who travelled through in spring, summer and fall, so winters were pretty quiet. Probably because of this I started experimenting with sales online – but I’ll come back to that.
I ran the store for many years, finally closing back in 2008, when I decided to try selling everything online, in addition to the two annual trade shows I have been doing for years.
However, in 2013, an opportunity came along that was too good to pass up. I purchased an old, historic building in downtown Scio that was almost condemned! I got the whole building for $10,000 on a corner lot right on the main state route to the Southern Tier!
You know, when something says jump, you jump. And when you do, it can change your life! Needless to say, it took a lot of work to restore the building and make it presentable as the new Stones ’n Bones!
The store portion of Stones and Bones is in the front part of the building, with my studio in the back. It’s a really big space. It was the old hardware store from the 1800’s. With the extra space, I’ve been able to bring a lot out of my work out of storage. My bigger stuff got packed away when the old store closed: a lot of plaques, antler lamps and even some carvings, that I had put on the back burner.
In 2014, I bought the tiny society building next door. Both buildings are under the same roof so I decided to blast through the wall, making one really large space. I opened up a Hershey’s Ice Cream Parlour in the new space. Though I ran it at first, I ended up hiring a manager because it was just too time consuming.
To make $300 per day, you need to sell 100 cones – I’m a carver, and artist, not a candy man! However the ice cream parlour is a great compliment to the gallery – attracting locals and tourists alike.
Just like in Wellsville, a lot of tourists pass through on the weekends. They come down from Buffalo and Rochester – heading to the Southern Tier near the Pennsylvania border. It’s almost like clockwork. The early birds who cut out of the office at noon on Friday, arrive at 4pm. The people who leave work at 4pm, roll in about 8pm. Sundays, during the summer, everybody is headed past on their way home at 5:30pm, pulling campers, trailers, and fishing boats. During football season, they head home earlier, about 11am, to watch the game at noon or 1pm.
Tourists who pass through, also get a chance to see my work, which I have wholesaled to the Elk County Visitor’s Centre Gift Shop, a joint venture of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Their mission is to educate people about elk, which have recently been reintroduced to the area. It is a great fit for my work.
As I mentioned above, another great yearly event for Stones ‘n Bones is the Allegany Artisans Studio Tour. Members open up our workshops and studios to the public for a weekend each fall. There is an official studio tour map and the event is heavily advertised as part of the Allegany County’s recreational promotional effort in the Southern Tier.
All in all, Scio is an amazing place, but you have to be really content with yourself, mentally, to handle the small-town pace. Sometimes even I go a little crazy with boredom! So it’s great to get away a couple times a year to attend shows and meet other artists and craftspeople.
About a year after I started using power tools, in 1997, I felt I had built up enough stock, so I decided to try selling my stuff at a show.
I set up at the Maple Festival. I made $15 the whole weekend. I remember that. During the show, I had plenty of time to observe the lady who had set up across from me. She had a ring toss and did very well, filling her carpenter’s pouch with gobs and gobs of money. So the next year I did the Maple Festival, I figured I’d buy a bunch of fish from the pet store and have my own little gimmick. I knew that with a ping pong ball and the goldfish, with 300 goldfish at a dollar a shot, I was going to make at least $300 over the weekend. I didn’t always rely on jewelry to make money!
It was at this show that I met Dayna and Kate Klein, who invited me to the Genesee Valley Flint Knapping Stone Tool Show at Letchworth State Park. I had maybe twenty necklaces in a small little 18×24” case, but they saw potential, and thought my stuff would be nice at their show. So I attended my eyes were opened! I met flint knappers from around the country, today’s modern masters of lithic arrowheads and blades. I watched them sitting around in circles, beating rocks, and thought, “They’re crazy, they’re all doing it!” I was hooked and have been attending ever since. It has led to many collaborations over the years on knives and other projects.
It was also at the Genesee Valley Flint Knapping Stone Tool Show that I met Stan Hill for the first time and was introduced to his amazing work!
The internet has changed everything about marketing and sales. Even with a storefront in town, most of my sales are on-line. The internet is also great for people who are just starting out. Someone can start carving today and say, “I want to be like Jack” and start building a network with a website and social media and blossom into a beautiful artist through time.
But there are so many options out there, it is hard to know where to start, and it creates a little fear. My thinking is that you want to sign up on all of the sales and social media sites. After a while when you find out which three venues are working the best for you, focus on them and let the other sites lie dormant until they happen to take off. That is what happened between eBay and Etsey. In the early years Etsey was small. Now they get the recognition as being a reputable and honourable market for artists and craftspersons, and eBay has been plagues by scams.
1. As far as social media sites, Facebook, is where it’s at, to be totally honest with you. It serves as a backbone to your other sites, referring traffic from your followers.
2. The personal or business website with shopping cart, is key, because people around the world on different time zones can purchase something when you are sleeping. Check out carverscorner.com and flintknappers.com. After all, you can’t be on Facebook 24/7. My first website is still viewable www.stonesnbones.com – how bandwidth and technology have changed!
3. And you still want to be in the other on-line market places like eBay and Etsey.
4. It very important to represent yourself in all the markets. At the very least, sign up and grab your business name, so no one else can!
I signed up with eBay in 1998, but it wasn’t until 2003 that I started posting and selling carvings. I put up a few pieces all signed ‘Brown’, then a kid asked me to sign a wolf track necklace, ‘Bonecarver’, since that was my username on eBay. So I said, certainly. The next one I also signed ‘Bonecarver’, added some close shots and explained that if the purchaser is out and about and someone asks, “Hey, that’s cool, where did you get that?” they can spin it around and say “Bonecarver, on eBay!” That piece went for three times what I was asking for it in the display case at my store. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, what’s going on here?” So, I signed continued signing my carvings ‘Bonecarver’ and it just snowballed.
Between 2004 and 2014, I sold 7102 items on eBay! My work has gone for $10 up to $3000, and 99% were antler carvings. The best years by far were 2005-6, when things were really swinging.
I started everything out at an opening bid of $0.99 cents and was happy with the final result, wherever the bidding ended up.
Those little deer tracks and acorns carvings usually sold for $20-30 dollars a piece. I learned to make 2-3 of them in an hour, so instead of making $8/hr at a regular job, I could make up to $25-30 an hour. Sometimes I lost my ass on a carving, selling it for $10, but that person would come back the next time, knowing he got a deal, a nice piece of jewelry in his hands, and he would commission something or pay more for an item online.
I treated carving as a regular job, working a 40 hour week.
Say you have a factory job and work 40 hours per week – you can do this in the art world, you can punch in just like everybody else and that’s what I did. Ten o’clock in the morning, I would open my store in Wellsville and start carving, until six o’clock at night.
I took what I made in that 40 hour week and stuck it up on eBay, everything!
I put them in the right categories, used titles, keywords, and descriptions to pull people in. Say you have an eagle necklace, you want to put it in the right category, so ‘eagles’ would be the best category, since it relates to the most popular subject out there. But put other words in there too: ‘carved, antler, necklace’. And then, if you still have room: ‘eagles, antlers, carvings’. Use words you think someone will type into their search. On eBay the keywords and categories are the most important.
Every day it is important to to have something going on in your store on eBay.
Take, for instance, an eagle necklace: you are likely competing against 1000 different eagle-related items on eBay at any given time.
Since most people usually concentrate first on which bids are ending and what’s newly listed, you should have something either ending or newly listed each day. If you do, people will notice your stuff and then take look at your other items from there. People only have so much time they spend on the internet, perhaps an hour at the end of the night, so the longer you can keep someone in your store the less time they have to shop around, so most likely they are going to buy something from you. Every day I would put two or three items up and every day two or three items would come down, so, in addition to creating interest on my store, I had pretty good cash flow.
The digital world has come so far and that has really allowed eCommerce to grow, changing the way we market and make money. It’s there and it’s as big as you want it to be. eBay is still a great venue, but more and more, making contacts and sales are done on Facebook.
Facebook is replacing eBay. I know I sell more off Facebook today. I often don’t have a chance to post images to eBay or my website – a quick post straight from my phone to Facebook usually leads to a sale.
Just like it was important to keep active on eBay with auction items opening and closing each day, it is just as important to stay active on Facebook. Once you gain followers, you need to keep going, keep posting – otherwise, people will forget about you, because there is so much going on in the various Facebook groups.
You should have both a personal page and a business page. On my personal page, Jack Brown Bonecarver, I have 3500 ‘friends’. Only 1000 of those actually ‘like’ my business page, Stones and Bones, where I have over 4000 followers. So there are 3000 people on my Stones and Bones page that miss what I put on my personal page and 2000 on the personal page that don’t see the business page. I have tried to merge them, but that is impossible.
It took six years of busting my butt on FB to achieve 4000 followers on my business page. Instead of paying for Facebook ads, I run contests and make something special to give away, to try to get people over to my business page. It’s all about audience. The more exposure you have the better your chances of making a sale. For instance if 1000 people look at an item you post, two might buy something – so the more groups of 500 people you attract, the better your market. It’s as big as you want it to be.
You know the 3D eagle heads I carve on the Whitetail antler tips? I timed myself and I can make one in eight minutes. I sell it on a necklace for $50. When put it up on Facebook, I might sell five of them in one night. You’ve got all these people on Facebook who like your work, so for every piece you post you may have a dozen people that want it. It’s spontaneous, compulsive buying, based on supply and demand. You sell the one piece and take orders for the rest. It keeps you busy!
You have to spend your time very wisely on the social networks like Facebook. Getting distracted can happen very easily and has happened to me quite a bit. You have to recognize when it starts to interfere with what you are trying to accomplish. I am on Facebook for my artwork, simple as that. I am not much for sitting around on a chatline, unless it is business. If I only have one hour for the internet at the end of the day and I spend it chatting or surfing, it takes away from the time I could be posting artworks or responding to enquiries.
Also, try to direct everything towards your business, keep it professional, don’t post crap that’s irrelevant to promoting sales. Remember, this is your living, not a hobby.
Shane: Though it is so true that Facebook can be a real distraction, it has also been a really great way for carvers from all over the world to meet.
Jack: We are living at a time when we cross paths in the virtual world all the time. We may never have met in person, but know so much about each other.
Shane: There are many stories of how you have ‘met’ and helped others on the Internet. I spoke to antler carver, Jim Hughes, recently and here’s what he had to say:
I met Jack here on Facebook. It was about a year after I left my job to chase this whole carving career. I was a little shocked he interacted with me at all. I was new to social media at the time. I didn’t really understand it all. I remembered about ten years prior, one of my first experiences with the Internet, I searched ‘antlers’ on eBay and up popped Bonecarver’s work. I then looked up his website. I remember sitting there staring at it, a little in awe.
One day I received a message from Jack on Messenger. It had his phone number. It just said “Call me.” So, I grabbed the phone and called almost immediately. We talked for quite some time, that first call. He was filled with so much good knowledge. Not just about carving. But about getting in touch with customers. Stories of the spirituality of the job (which I didn’t get at the time, but I do now). He really inspired me at a time when I needed inspiration. And he helped a great deal with confidence. To this day, I’m still quite captivated by his work. He is a great artist, a great person, and a great friend.
Jim Hughes, Antler Carver
Jack: I talk to Jim Hughes every day. I really like his detail. He’s an amazing artist.
Shane: You have not only influenced carvers on the internet, I understand you took on an apprentice for a while?
Jack: In the early years, I didn’t offer a lot of advice and knowledge because I was really struggling to figure it out myself.
I met Greg Hollier many years ago in Wellsville. He helped set up the new store in Scio and was really interested in carving. He reminded me of myself when I started out. He’s on Facebook as ‘H Carvings’, but we called him the Bone Hopper, because he hopped from bone to bone. I think he’s going to go far with this – the desire, artistic ability and ambition are there. After he worked all day to help his parents, he spent the night carving.
It wasn’t the type of apprenticeship where the person works for free, I paid him and he helped a lot with the smaller carvings: the keychains and necklaces and also helped keep the shop clean. He was a quick learner, picking up on my techniques just by observation, so from time to time, I had to distract him a little bit, you know, you just can’t share all your trade secrets! But seriously, it’s important to learn slowly and not rush it.
You can learn techniques but not how to be an artist. You need to find that on your own. We all learn, sooner or later, if you stick with it long enough.
Jack: I walked into this not knowing anything. Still don’t know anything. What the heck am I doing? Just going for the ride, just letting the art take me where it wants to take me. I am just grateful that people like my stuff and for the support I get from my family and friends, the community of people I meet on the internet, and on the show circuit. It has been an amazing journey!
You’ve got to keep trying to bring your work to the next level. An artist told me once, that you have to keep impressing yourself with your work, because once you quit impressing yourself, you’re done.
So I will continue to humbly try to capture a small glimpse of the Master Artist’s vision in my work; telling stories through the carving, sharing my heart without saying anything.
JACK BROWN – IMAGE GALLERY