Hobos sparked interest in whittling

July 13, 2005|by MARLO BARNHART

WILLIAMSPORT - In the 1920s when Dale Taylor was a boy living along Fenton Avenue, some unlikely characters taught him an art form that has proved to be a lifelong love.

"Out back of the brickyard, there was a pit where hobos would camp and beg for food," Taylor said. He and other boys would go back there while those hobos told tall tales and whittled wood.

"They taught me how to whittle," Taylor said.

Taylor, 85, said he has honed his woodworking skills over the years. There are many examples of his work throughout his home but his specialty is carving intricate canes.


"When I was 9 or 10, I learned the chain pattern," Taylor said. The hobos used old river maple wood and that's what Taylor used when he first started whittling with his trusty Barlow knife.

"In those days when you bought a pair of high-top shoes, you got a Barlow knife for free," Taylor said. He used that knife for many years to create the chain pattern that is carved out of one piece of wood to look like separate links in a chain.

It took a lot of skill and practice to create the masterpieces Taylor has made over the years and he has stuck with it. In addition to canes, he has made miniature violins, cowboy boots and even a line of Monopoly game pieces shaped like tiny, detailed locomotives.

A box of old knives is more memorabilia now rather than actual tools of the trade. That first Barlow knife is there, along with many others, large and small, he used through the years.

Taylor uses Exacto knives now for greater precision and ease of handling. "I always use a homemade duct tape thimble on my thumb when I'm carving so I don't cut myself," he said.

Now Taylor works mainly with rosewood and walnut, both of which are hard to find and expensive but give the best results. A lumber yard in Hicksville near Clear Spring is where he goes to pick out the scrap pieces of walnut he uses and gets at a good price.

"Sometimes I work in poplar, which is tougher and even harder than walnut," Taylor said, illustrating with a cane he was working on - a model he calls balls in the basket.

The cane stock has compartments containing three wooden balls that move around freely within the compartment but can't get out. Contrary to what many believe, those balls were not carved separately and then placed into the compartment.

"I carve the balls as I whittle," Taylor said, freeing the balls from the wood they came from but keeping them always in the cane. He estimated it takes about 70 hours to complete such a cane.

After the carving is completed on the stock, Taylor traditionally carves a bird head for the handle, some adorned with nuts in their bills. Then the entire cane is sanded and stained and finished to a sheen, both for looks and protection.

"I don't sell them. I have given some away," Taylor said, mentioning his children and the Maranatha Brethren Church in particular.

Two of his canes are on display in the Williamsport town museum and Taylor is proud of that since Williamsport is the town where he lived much of his life.

In his younger days, Taylor worked in a ribbon mill. Later he labored for 20 years at Fairchild and then another 20 years at Mack Trucks until he retired. But he never stopped whittling in his spare time.

"I've always done canes," Taylor said. "It has kept me out of trouble."

Taylor's wife, Doris, died several years ago. They have three children, Terry, Allen and Cindy Helman.

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