Features / Techniques

Canes with a Theme

Hershal Borders’ complex canes start with a block of basswood and a theme

By Ayleen Stellhorn

“I guess I do just about everything backwards,” laughs Hershal Borders.

But for this Middletown, Ohio, resident, “backwards” may well be the key to his growing notoriety as canemaker-extraordinaire.“I start with a block of basswood and a pattern, which is a little backwards from the way most people make canes. Most people find a branch or some piece of naturally shaped wood and carve whatever they see in the wood. I’ve done that too,” Hershal says, “and it depends on what you like as a carver… I find my way a little bit more rewarding for me.”

Hershal began carving in the mid-50s when carving was just beginning to gain popularity as a nation-wide pastime. Over the years, he has carved everything from animals to human caricatures. He enjoys all aspects of carving — most of them end up in his canes in one form or another — but finds that he has become known for his cane making above all else.

That recognition as a canemaker has been boosted by several coveted blue-ribbon wins in cane-making competitions across the country. Since 1990, Hershal has entered his “theme” canes and won blue ribbons at shows in Davenport, Iowa; Dover, Ohio; Cincinnati, Ohio; Gatlenberg, Tennessee; and Middletown, Ohio. Most recently, he won two second best of show awards: the first for his Noah’s Ark Cane at the Cincinnati Carvers Guild show in Cincinnati, Ohio, and the second for his National Holiday Cane at the Miami Valley Wood Carvers Association show in Middletown, Ohio.

One of the many highlights of his carving career to date was having two canes win first in category at the Wonders in Wood Show in Dover, Ohio. The National Holiday Cane won in 1995 and the American Indian Cane won in 1994. Both canes were placed in the Warther Museum in Dover for a year as a result of the wins.

“I enjoy working with a theme,” Hershal says. “The American Indian Cane is my interpretation of highlights of American Indian culture. Indians are a favorite topic among many people. They played a big part in our nation’s history, and many of us have Indian blood in our veins.”

Carved in basswood and painted with oils, Hershal’s American Indian Cane is topped with a likeness of Sitting Bull, the Sioux Indian who took part in the defeat of General George Custer at Little Big Horn in 1876. Other great Indian leaders, including Crazy Horse and Chief Joseph, are pictured farther down on the cane, along with a Kachina doll, a totem pole and an Indian girl pounding corn.

“The ideas come in an instant,” says Hershal, who spends about 25 hours each week carving. “It’s the actual carving that takes the time and the effort.”

The American Indian Cane took about 500 hours to complete and sold for $5,000. That’s a hefty sum, but broken down to an hourly rate, comes to a mere $10 an hour.

Most often, Hershal will carve a new version of one of his existing canes and then sell the old cane to someone on his waiting list. Occasionally, he takes commissions. He finds that carving for someone else is very rewarding.

“I don’t like to take orders for my canes,” Hershal says. “The pressure of having a backlog of orders to fill takes a lot of joy out of carving. But I do have a waiting list. If someone really wants one of my canes, I’ll take their name and give them a call when I’m ready to start a new project.”

One of his recent commissions, named the National Holiday Cane, features personal mementos of his client’s holiday celebrations. The Santa at the top of the cane has a carving of his client’s grandson hidden in his beard. A motorcycle, representing one of his client’s favorite pastimes, is tucked away under the Christmas tree. And writing in the Valentine hearts says “I Love You” in sign language, a reference to deaf family members.

Hershal has been approached about placing some of his canes in a museum, but for now he likes to keep his canes around the house where he can enjoy them. He stresses that each and every one of his canes is meant to be used, and he will often “wear” one of his canes to a club meeting or competition. He pays close attention to the grain when planning his carving to add strength to the finished piece, and each cane is tipped with a rubber bumper to prevent it from slipping on hard surfaces.

When it comes to tools, Hershal’s workshop is filled with “just about everything available.” He regularly uses both power tools and hand tools—everything from a surgeon’s scalpel to a chainsaw. But he cautions beginning cane carvers that they don’t need to buy everything on the market—just the “good stuff.”

“Nothing beats quality tools,” Hershal says. “They’ll last longer and they’ll make your carving time even more enjoyable. Use whatever it takes to do a good job.”

A commission from one of Hershal’s clients led to this National Holiday Cane. The carvings on the cane were designed to remind Hershal’s client of memorable family holidays. For example, the baby in Santa’s beard, carved to represent Baby New Year, has the same features as his client’s grandson. The cane is carved from basswood, painted with oil washes and took approximately 300 hours to carve.

Hershal’s Noah’s Ark Cane is made of basswood, painted with oil washes and took approximately 400 hours to complete. A carving of Noah’s ark and a rainbow handle top the cane. Noah is shown on the bow of the ark, checking his list of animals before the rain begins to fall. Noah’s wife appears on the stern of the ark. Shown in the three portals are Noah’s three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth. Noah’s three daughters-in-law are hidden from view on the opposite side of the ark. Ten pairs of animals are carved into the staff of the cane.

He also tells beginning cane carvers to start out simple. “There are several ways to approach cane carving. Find a branch and carve in it what you see. Or carve a figure and then dowel it to a staff. Or carve an entire cane out of one piece of wood. If you’re just starting out, start within your own comfort zone…. And don’t forget to study.”

Hershal estimates that he himself has studied under at least 20 different teachers. He has found that the perspectives of each new teacher have helped him to better define his own likes and dislikes.

He also encourages carvers to join a local carving club. “A carving club is the best connection for someone wanting to get started carving,” Hershal says. “Most clubs have libraries, patterns, videos, help sessions, competitions… An active club can boost a carver’s creativity and help him improve his skills.”

Harold’s philosophy when it comes to carving is found in Colossians 3:23: Whatsoever you do, do it heartily unto the Lord. “Things just turn out better that way. I don’t go for easy,” Hershal says. “I always try to go the extra mile to make something exactly what I want.”

Carving Canes with Hershal Borders

1. Sketch out ideas for a theme. Themes can be any broad topic — from a child’s favorite fairy tale, to a memorable family vacation, to an historical event. Hershal chooses a theme and then takes two to three years to collect ideas relating to that theme. Collecting ideas over a long period of time ensures that he doesn’t overlook any element important to the theme.

2. Work up patterns based on the ideas you have collected. Hershal makes a pattern for each idea within the theme. For example, every element in the Noah’s Ark Cane — from the ark all the way down to the giraffes — has both a side view and a front view pattern.

3. Find a block of basswood with a vertical grain that is large enough to accommodate your cane. Hershal starts out with a block that is more than big enough to make a cane. Starting out large and bringing in the wood a little at a time allows him plenty of room to make changes during the carving process.

4. Layout your patterns on the wood. Hershal leaves no area of the staff uncarved. Each element is linked to the next through carving and texturing. This often requires shifting patterns around until he finds the best positioning — not only for presentation, but also for strength.

5. Carve and finish your cane with your favorite hand or power tools and paints. Hershal uses a wide variety of tools to carve his cane — everything from knives and gouges to power tools. Every area of the cane is painted, most often with oil paints thinned with a turpentine-like product called Terp. An initial application of Terp keeps the wood from absorbing the paint and making the colors too dark.

6. If your cane is for practical use, cap the bottom with a rubber bumper screwed into the wood. Hershal finds the rubber bumpers the most aesthetic and the most practical of all the cane-tipping options on the market. The bumpers keep the cane from sliding on hard surfaces and won’t detract from the beauty of the finished product.

7. Enjoy your creation by “wearing” your cane to your local carving club’s next event or by placing it on display in your home.

This article was originally printed in Woodcarving Illustrated Spring 1998 (Issue 2). CLICK HERE to purchase an issue of Woodcarving Illustrated today.


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