Carving a Niche
Steve Potter finds his second
act in a long-held passion
Renowned chip carver Wayne Barton once described the art of woodcarving as an “adventure.” For Steve Potter, woodworking is a lifetime adventure—one that continues today in a way Potter never saw coming, but that would surely make Barton proud.
For 35 years, the Connecticut native, as well as his wife Jan, worked in the state’s public school system—she taught English, he taught industrial arts, including woodworking. His passion for the craft began in the mid-1960s while taking a shop class in junior high. “Just to walk in and smell the fresh cut wood—ah, it was great,” he recalls fondly. In between his teaching work, Potter pursued his own woodworking endeavors, which included hand-making such fine furniture as Windsor chairs. Woodwork took a pause, though, upon his and Jan’s retirement. “We sold our house, we sold everything in it, I sold my woodshop, and we moved onto our boat full-time in Boston,” he details.
When the couple decided to move back to dry land, Potter says, “It had to be the Cape,” having spent summers of their teaching years in Truro. Settling in Eastham, Potter’s woodworking desires resurfaced. At this point, furniture making was “been there, done that”—instead, Potter had woodcarving on his mind, which he admits he knew nothing about. He contemplated what to carve: Birds? Little caricatures? “Nothing was hitting me yet,” he says. In his research he came across chip carving, and then one day, inspiration struck. “We rent a place in Florida every March, and we were sitting there and all of a sudden I said to my wife, ‘That’s it!’” he recalls. “And she said ‘What?’ There was a wooden tray on the coffee table. I said, ‘I’ll chip carve serving trays!’”
Chip carving, an art form practically as old as time, involves precise, angled chip-like cuts to create decorative inlayed patterns. Potter dove into studying the techniques of chip carving, reading books by masters like Barton. He even transformed the basement of his Eastham home into a workshop. After a “horrible” first attempt at chip carving, he says his wife encouraged him to be patient and not give up. “Someone once said that woodworking minus patience equals firewood, and boy is that the truth,” he says, smiling. So he kept at it, establishing his own chip carving business, NausetWood, and in the two years since then, Potter has proven to possess a remarkable knack for the craft, creating in painterly detail intricate geometric shapes and coastal images on his wooden canvases.
“His pieces are wonderful—I love them,” says Jane Williamson, owner of Oceana in Orleans. “I love that each one is different, and he is always pushing himself and changing his designs and improving his trays.” Williamson was the first retail owner Potter approached to sell his work. As Potter recalls: “I showed her my trays and she said, ‘I’ll take that one, that one, that one, but I won’t take that one,’ and I said ‘How come not that one?’ and she pointed out a glue line that I didn’t even see. She said, ‘That won’t sell.’ I thought, ‘Wow, if I’m going to do this, I have to make these things flawless.’ That was the challenge.”
“I have to say, a lot of people bring things in for us to see, and we don’t take everything—we’re very picky,” Williamson notes. “When I met Steve and saw the quality of his work, I knew straight away it would work in Oceana. And he has continued that attention to detail.”
As Potter puts it, he strives for “museum quality” pieces. “I want something that somebody’s going to look at and go ‘Wow! This is cool!’” he says. He fashions trays in four different sizes, from 9” by 12” up to 16” by 20”. Once he gets an idea for an image, Potter will immediately begin sketching out the design and an accompanying border in pencil, oftentimes with the aid of a compass, directly onto the surface of a piece of basswood (“It carves like butter,” he says). During his teaching career Potter taught technical drawing, and the skill certainly comes in handy here. “The layout is extremely important. If the layout’s wrong, the carving’s wrong. It’s got to be done flawlessly,” he explains. “Then I have to mark every area that’s going to get cut out, because if I cut out the wrong area, might as well be firewood,” he says with laugh. After the wood is completely carved with a chip-carving knife (it’s like an X-Acto knife but more curved, like a bird’s beak), Potter then crafts the sides and handles for the tray out of Eastern white pine and glues those pieces on. He uses a wood dye to color the tray (this kind of dye provides a richer color than a standard stain, he notes) and then sprays on a lacquer finish. The underside of the tray is outfitted with a suede covering so it won’t slip and slide.
Potter’s work is available in an array of patterns and colors making for a variety of options when choosing the perfect piece.
Once a tray is finished, “I’ll close my eyes and I’ll feel around it,” Potter says. “Somebody’s going to pick this up, it can’t be rough. I’m making it to be friendly to the hand. It’s got to feel just right.” While Potter’s pieces are designed as serving trays, their craftsmanship inspires other creative uses. “I made my wife a smaller one and she uses it for her jewelry,” Potter notes. “Some people hang them on their walls. It’s cool.”
To Potter, chip carving is more than just a hobby. “This is my purpose now,” he says. “I wake up every day with something to look forward to—this is it.” There’s always a new design to be imagined, always something new to be learned about the craft, and with such greats like Wayne Barton, as well as Dennis Moor and Pam Gresham, as his inspiration, Potter is driven to realize his full potential as an artist.
“I’ll look at their work and read their books, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to get there someday,’” he says impassionedly, flashing his endearing childlike smile. “I have the desire to take it to the top, if I can. I’ll see how it goes.”