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Artist Profile: The Woodcarver Who Found Tranquility

This self-taught woodcarver used to design warheads for a living. Now his attention has turned to more tranquil and inspiring projects.




Justin Gordon carves almost anything he can get his hands on: sand, snow, ice and, of course, wood. From an early age, he started whittling “little 3-inch men” out of scrap pieces of lumber and quickly realized he had a knack for it. His passion grew to the point that he wanted to major in art in college, but his very traditional parents steered him toward what they thought was a more practical direction: engineering.

Upon graduation, he landed his first job with a defense company — designing missiles. “Once you’re in that market, you kind of bump around to jobs with other Department of Defense contractors, but it’s all pretty much the same,” Justin explains.

Throughout this time, he kept his passion for carving alive and well, and he’d built up quite a reputation as an artist. “In my last DoD job, I landed a commission to carve a huge sand sculpture at a mall,” he says. “I was trying to figure out how to ask for two weeks off so I could do this carving, when I was called into my boss’s-boss’s-boss’s office expecting to give a report on my project, but was laid off instead. That solved my problem of how to get the time off that I needed,” he says with a chuckle.

But it was no laughing matter. It was exactly the push Justin needed to pursue art full time, and he never looked back.

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In addition to sand and wood, he started carving snow and ice sculptures for New England ski resorts. At one sand-carving job in New York, he met a fellow artist who did chainsaw carvings with extremely fine detail and thought, “That’s for me.” He came home, bought a chainsaw and went to work. “Chainsaw carving beats you up real quick, though,” Justin says. “The vibration tore up my arms, and it’s pretty dangerous. I still do it, but not as much as I used to.”

These days, Justin focuses on fine-carving projects ranging from small figurines to elaborate architectural details like mantels, balusters and timber-frame embellishments. No wood species is off limits for Justin, but he does have his favorites, like walnut, mahogany and butternut. “Usually, highly decorative pieces are done in walnut or mahogany, but it’s really about whatever wood goes with the job,” he says. “Butternut has a rich, golden color with darker grain lines that give it a very nice finish. For my figures, I use basswood. It’s considered the ‘woodcarver’s wood’ because it has such a fine grain you can get very detailed with it. Plus, it’s strong and easy to work with.”

That sounds a lot like Justin, himself.


View Justin Gordon's Woodcarvings