Jim Mense carves wooden birds of a featherDec 22, 2020 11:39AM ● By Jan Weeks
Jim Mense was just a kid when he first picked up a piece of balsa wood and a pocket knife and created a brook trout. Now 77, he’s been working with wood ever since.
A liking for waterfowl
Mense took to carving waterfowl like, well, a duck takes to water. He began to carve while in college, using a knife, ax, draw knife and file.
“When I lived in Oklahoma, I had an aviary where I kept ducks. I photographed them and picked them up to study the colors more closely,” Mense explained.
Working from original drawings, he specialized in carving waterfowl and other birds, concentrating on ducks.
His study of birds wasn’t limited to the realm of carving. Mense earned his Ph.D. in fresh-water ecology from Michigan State University and later moved with his first wife to Oklahoma, where he taught as an adjunct professor in Edmond and Oklahoma City.
“I taught every biology class available while the professors were on sabbatical,” he said.
Still, carving was his passion. He continued to create custom gunstocks and birds while he taught at night. During the oil boom in the 1970s, he took his work to art shows where he pulled in as much as $4,800 a weekend. A gallery in Dallas, Texas, began selling his carvings.
Much to his wife’s disgust, he quit teaching and began sculpting full time. After she left, Mense lived frugally—no television or other frills. In eight years he added $40,000 to his bank account, proving to himself and others that shaping waterfowl was more than a hobby.
In 1995, after his second marriage, Mense moved to Meeker, Colorado, where he worked on his art full time. Now living alone in Grand Junction, he converted his garage into a woodshop complete with a bandsaw, vises and shelves full of tools and supplies.
The art of carving
Mense’s carving process begins with sketching the basic shape onto a block of wood, which he then cuts roughly on the band saw. He refines the cutout with a file and other tools. A high-speed grinder—similar to a hand-held Dremel tool—refines the shape further.
Once the piece is finely shaped, Mense uses a woodburning tool to etch feathers and other details. Even though it will be painted, those details show through the thinned oil paints that color the piece.
Mense prefers to use tupelo wood, which is harvested from swamps in Louisiana. Tupelo wood has no grain and is soft, making it easy to shape. Cutters drive boats into the swamps at high tide and wait until the tide goes out, revealing the best wood, which they cut at the low water line. Then they must wait until the tide comes in to bring their harvest home.
However, the man Mense purchased his wood from is now 97 and not cutting anymore, leaving Mense to rely on the tupelo wood he has stockpiled.
In the corner of his painting room hang the dozens of ribbons he has won for his work, including first, second and third places at the Ward World Championships in Ocean City, Maryland. His first award was in 1972, the second year the championships were held.
Mense estimates he’s made over 1,000 carvings. How long does he spend on each one?
“I don’t want to know. Keeping track would make me rush and make mistakes. It would also depress me to know what I actually make per hour!” Mense said.
Clients sometimes commission Mense to make pieces to order. His carving of two quail sold for thousands of dollars. Each work is signed and numbered on the bottom to show it’s one of a kind.
Judging by both his output and his passion for woodworking, Mense will continue to carve his place in the world of art for the foreseeable future.
Find Mense’s work on eBay under the seller name Bigdog2421.