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Denny's Wonderful World of Whimsy


By Donna Zibley



If all of our other woodworking, with its precise lines and perfect fit, were compared to the carving of Whimsical Houses – it would be like comparing an individual snowflake (with all its geometric intricacies) to that of a cloud (with its soft, willowy shapes). Denny Schuster is a master of carving Whimsical houses out of Cottonwood Bark. In fact, if you go online and research bark houses …you can see for yourself that Denny’s style is a definite step-up from what others are doing.


The beauty of working with the Black Cottonwood bark that Denny uses is that it is easy to carve.  These pieces of thick, un-remarkable bark are turned into fabulously interesting fantasy structures in Denny’s skilled hands. The softer, lighter pieces of bark carve the easiest, while the harder, heavier pieces of bark are more difficult to carve but allow for the artist putting greater detail in their work.


Denny is known for special details in his carvings:  really deeply undercut eaves on his structures and always having either a path or staircase to upper cabins/rooms. Denny does this because he looks at things from a truly artistic perspective – he’s always looking to insure proportion and to add shadow and interest to his works. Denny’s bark houses are carved in such a way as to draw you to look “into” his works. As the houses are also carved out from the back, they are “see thru” and so very light and airy.


There are 3 main stages to the carving process:

·         ROUGH-OUT STAGE: waste (unneeded) wood is removed, leaving behind carveable masses of material

·         SHAPING STAGE: rough shapes are carved where such things as dormers, chimney, support posts, and walls will be

·         DETAIL STAGE: shingles, siding, boulders, trees, window grids, etc. is done. Also other finishing cuts such as texture.


Cottonwood bark grows in tissue-like layers, none of which has much cohesion to the next layer. This makes for sometimes flaky material, especially nearer to the actual outside bark. This makes the use of Super Glue a carver’s best friend. If something flakes off – put a drop of glue on it and when all is done no one will ever know.


A whimsical structure is one in which nothing is straight and there are no flat planes. It is one of smooth curves and uneven lines. This all makes for a wonderfully unique, fantasy look to the structures.


The most important tools for a bark carver are a pencil (design tool), knife, and a gouge. There are never any patterns to follow. In fact, you don’t tell the bark what you want to make of it … it kind of tells you based on where the natural splits are. Whimsical houses can have doors and windows that are either opened or closed. Their chimneys have wonderfully crooked shapes that are covered with lopsided bricks. The chimney caps are even scorched so that they look like old, used chimneys. The stairways on these houses take the house to another level, both literally and figuratively. They can be winding, come in from the front, side or back. Whimsical bark carving can be used to make houses, cabins, outhouses, churches, castles, lighthouses, etc. The typical whimsical house is 3-sided but it is also possible to make a 4-sided house using Denny’s special techniques. “Evolutionary Design” is Denny’s term for how he carves. The wood tells you the maximum width but you decide where such things as the roof peak and the foundation is to be found.


Denny is a fellow member of the North Star Scrollers but is also the outgoing President of the Viking Woodcarvers. In addition to leadership, Denny is also a fantastic teacher. His style is relaxed and stress-free. He will first guide you through the proper and safe use of carving knives. He will also guide you artistically. Denny doesn’t make you carve exactly like him. Instead, he gives you the guidance you need to carve his way but in your own unique style. Having carved, under Denny’s guidance for about a year I can tell you that a class with Denny is fun, relaxed and a great learning experience. Denny has the unique ability to critique your work honestly (like when my first carved boulders looked to him like “turds on a wall”) but in such a way that you all end up laughing about it. If you get a chance to take a bark carving class from Denny, please do so. He’s a great woodworker, teacher and friend. Our club benefits greatly from having one such as Denny Schuster in our midst.