A little bird told me about a place where his looks and spirit thrived. Where his cousins, the duck and owl, find refuge — even if they’re not entirely finished. This place is in the home and garage of Tom Swale. These aren’t living birds, nor are they stuffed and mounted. The birds in Swale’s home are created by his very gifted hand.
“I started carving birds about 18 or 19 years ago. I was getting close to retirement, and I needed something to keep me occupied throughout the winter,” says Swale. “I found out about some woodworking classes at Valley (High School), so I decided to take a couple. I really liked working with the wood that I soon was doing it at home.”
Since that time Swale has proven himself to be a deft woodsmith with a keen eye for detail. Some of his projects, like the hummingbird, can take just a few hours to shape down while larger birds like the ducks or prairie chickens can take 75 hours or more. The key to Swale’s skill is all about maintaining interest in what he’s working on.
“I’m attacking something different all the time. I might have as many as 10 different projects going on at the same time,” Swale says. “As you progress and become better, some parts of the process can be monotonous and boring; that’s when I start working on another project. If you work on one thing for too long you’re more likely to try and rush it, and that’s when you’ll make a mistake.”
Unlike riding a bike, this is a skill that needs to be constantly worked. If you take too much time off, you’re liable to do shoddy work. In the summertime, Swale gets out and works maybe three or four times a week. In the winter is when Swale is most proficient, working on projects that might be used in the fair’s competition.
No matter what he’s working on — songbirds, ducks, owls, hawks, hummingbirds, pheasants, prairie chickens — Swale keeps a few things constant. He tends to keep his work focused on birds that can be found in Iowa. He’s not a painter, so it’s always a stained wood finish, occasionally burnt to a nice dark color.
“I think it looks pretty sharp when it’s burnt, but the judges at the Iowa State Fair don’t like it,” says Swale. “And you’ve got to keep them happy because they’re the ones handing out the blue ribbons.”
Contact Darren at 953-4822 ext. 304 or email@example.com to recommend someone for an upcoming issue of “What’s In Your Garage?”