By Bob Duncan
Tom Wolfe is one of the most prolific authors of woodcarving books in the United States. Tom’s instructional texts have influenced thousands of carvers. With more than 50 books to his name, Tom has taught generations of carvers how to complete everything from caricatures to woodspirits.
“I started carving as soon as I could handle a knife,” Tom said. “Before I even started going to school, I was working with clay. We had a clay bank in our back yard and I would mix it with water and make animals. I’d set the animals on the well house to dry and then play with them when the clay hardened.”
Tom still has a carving he did when he was 12 years old. The early attempt at a female figure is carved from a piece of apple. “Over the years, I have collected 400 to 500 pieces that I carved and didn’t want to sell,” Tom said. “I’ve got a woodspirit face I carved in junior high school.”
When Tom graduated from high school, he started working as an overhead crane operator in a steel mill. During slow times, Tom would carve while sitting in the cab of the crane. He sold a lot of the pieces he carved. After a while, he sold enough of his work to feel comfortable leaving the steel mill in order to make a living selling his carvings.
“I’ve made my living doing nothing but carving for more than 40 years,” Tom said. A few years ago, Ed Gallenstein, president of the National Woodcarvers Association and editor of Chip Chats, sent Tom a copy of a letter Tom sent to him back in the 1960s. “In the letter, I told Ed that I quit working in the steel mill and was going to carve for a living,” Tom explained. “Ed said he kept it because in his mind Ed said, ‘I wish that boy a lot of luck, but he ain’t going to make it.’”
Tom was approached in the early 1980s to write a book about woodcarving. Tom ended up writing his first book, Country Carving, for Schiffer Publishing. From there, Tom’s writing career took off. Tom said his closest competitor in number of books is Harold Enlow, who has written about 20 books.
“A guy came to take my class and he had a stack of books about 12″ thick,” Tom said. “He said, ‘I got a bunch of your books I want you to sign.’ So I started signing them and I came to a Harold Enlow book, so I signed Harold’s name. Later, when I told Harold what I did, he said ‘Dang, I could have been signing your books all this time!’”
For many years, Tom carved mostly commissions. “I learned to carve a lot of things because I’d carve whatever someone wanted,” Tom explained. “I did everything.” While Tom carved a variety of subjects, he kept coming back to caricatures. “Caricatures are the fun part,” Tom said. “When you make a living at it, you do what the public wants. But I’ve found the older I get, the more I carve what I want to carve.”
Unlike many other carvers, Tom never really sold his work at carving shows. “There wasn’t much money to be made selling my work at woodcarving shows,” Tom said. “I went to art shows. I got the attention of the general public before I got to be well known in the carving world.”
Tom was elected into the Caricature Carvers of America (CCA) in 1992 and is still an active member.
Tom has a carving shop on Grandfather Mountain, which is the top scenic tourist attraction in North Carolina. Tom used to have a full museum of carvings in addition to his shop, but the building that housed the shop and museum was torn down. The group that manages the attraction built Tom a new shop on the mountain. “Now people have to come off the main road to see me,” Tom said. “I used to have thousands of people looking at my work, but now it’s just people who are really interested who visit. I’ve got quite a few regulars; people who come back to see me year after year.”
Mitch Cartledge, who was inducted into the CCA in 2009, said Tom really helped him get started in carving. “Tom Wolfe is the first real carver I found when I became interested in carving,” Mitch said. “Tom’s guidance, first through his books and later in person, has been a real gift to me. Tom’s style of carving and his ability to relay that through books is simple to understand, yet challenging enough to push me to develop my skills,” Mitch added.
“To see Tom carve in person for the first time was, well, intimidating,” Mitch said. “It was then that
I realized the difference between whittling and carving. Tom removed shavings quickly and with precision. His cuts had purpose. He wasn’t just removing wood. That’s when I really understood that carving was an art.
“I always think back to my first visit with Tom,” Mitch added “and the moment when I saw those shavings fly. I thought ‘I want to do that!’ Tom Wolfe made me a woodcarver.”
Tom isn’t responsible for Harold Enlow becoming a woodcarver, but he has earned Harold’s respect. “In my years of knowing Tom Wolfe, I’ve always admired his many carvings and his great talent,” Harold said. “Tom has to hold the undisputed record of books published about woodcarving. With such a record, he has surely influenced more carvers than any other woodcarver. His great sense of humor, his talent for storytelling, and his love for what he does, comes through in his carvings and in his books. I’m proud to call him a special friend!”
Tom’s books introduced woodcarvers to all sorts of different carvings, but more importantly, Tom made each of those styles of carving approachable and understandable for woodcarvers of all skill levels. As one of the woodcarving community’s best-known authors, Tom continues to inspire new carvers around the world through his classes and his instructional books.