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Duluth carver honors nature in woodwork: Bill Majewski’s wood carving hobby helps promote conservation

Bill Majewski examines carvings of three black-capped chickadees he made. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service1 / 3
A finished and painted carving of a scarlet tanager sits on a perch near a roughed-out carving of another tanager in Bill Majewski’s workshop. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service2 / 3
Sometimes, as with this wood duck carving, Bill Majewski leaves his work unpainted. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service3 / 3

DULUTH — Bill Majewski sat in the garage workshop of his home in Duluth and fired up a small rotary tool sounding so much like a dental drill that it produced involuntary cringes among guests.

But instead of fillings and caps, Majewski's work is turning wood into copycats of nature. He calls himself a carver but he’s also a sculptor, grinder, sander, burner and painter. He turns pieces of butternut, basswood, cottonwood, tupelo and other woods into wildly realistic replicas.

After more than 35 years of wood carving, he’s advance to almost all power tools now, and his work is more detailed, more lifelike than ever before.

“I probably won’t touch a knife to this at all,” Majewski said, holding up a partially carved scarlet tanager between passes with the rotary tool, similar to a Dremel, that he was using to line feathers on the bird’s back. “It’s 50,000 rpms.”

Majewski showed visitors a chickadee he carved in the in the early 1980s, after he had taken his first ever carving class.

“At the time, it was the best chickadee I could do,” he said. “But now, I think the ones I’m doing are much better.... The methods, the tools, have gotten much better.”

Handwork handed down

Majewski said his father could build anything. His mother was a seamstress and and expert cake decorator.

“I think it’s in my genes," Majewski said of working with his hands.

He held up a chunk of old telephone pole he carved and burned into a generic mallard duck shape. It was unpainted, probably pine, but the the wood grains seemed to be exploding off the surface with color and detail.

His chickadees look as if they could flitter away at any second. A cardinal stands out with the perfect crimson coloring, a sharp pointed cap and eyes that look like they are staring through you.

“I really do like birds," Majewski said. “Unless I’m doing a project for someone, something someone wanted, I usually carve what interests me. That’s nature... a lot of birds.”

But he also has carvings of humpback whales, bears, morel mushrooms, a moose, river otter-shaped letter openers, walleyes, brook trout — some beautifully finished and painted, some unpainted with gorgeous wood grain showing, and others that still need work.

“That one (the moose) I probably started 10 years ago. I keep saying, I need to get back to it," Majewski, 78, said with a laugh.

There are boxes with of unfinished pieces like the moose, but plenty of finished pieces too, and not just on his own fireplace mantle, cupboards and workshop shelves. Many are prominently displayed in dens, kitchens and cabins across the Northland.

Majewski donates pieces that are often auctioned to help fund conservation groups work. He once traded a walleye carving to the walleye association in exchange for the group’s $500 donation to his beloved St. Louis River Alliance. Then they wanted another one so they could use them for their traveling trophies, one for each angler on the winning team of their championship tournament.

It’s a labor of love, but it is labor, with dozens of hours invested in most pieces. A purple finch Majewski worked on during a recent class he took in Iowa — he attends carving classes nearly every year with famed Illinois carver Josh Guge — was not quite finished even after four days of constant attention.

Outside fundraisers, Majewski’s pieces are rarely for sale. He attends wood carving shows to show off his work, noting he loves the praise from the public and fellow carvers. He has no pieces in galleries or shops, no website and makes no effort to market his work.

Still, over the years, word of his work had spread. And when pressed by a friend he’ll carve and sell a chickadee or other songbird, that’s several days of work, for about $125. Chickadees are about the most popular pieces he produces, Majewski said, “I can’t make them fast enough," while loons, hummingbirds and cardinals come in close behind. “I could sell every one I made.”

“It comes out to about minimum wage, at best," Majewski said. “That’s why it’s a hobby.”