JOLIET — Wherever he goes, Ron Ferrari always has his pencils and carving tools.
During free moments — as when he is waiting at the doctor’s office — he busies himself whittling faces into the pencil shafts.
In his breast pocket, he carries finished products to show to anyone who might be interested.
The faces on the pencils are remarkably detailed, with smiling eyes and strong noses and long, fine beards.
If you ask the Coal City resident how he renders the faces in such precise detail, he might smile and say: “Very carefully.”
Ferrari is part of a group called the Will County Wood Chiselers. Most every Wednesday, you can find them at the Inwood Recreation Center, working independently on their various projects, offering each other advice and trading friendly jabs.
There, you might see Shorewood resident Dick Suchomel working on his chip carvings of leprechauns, or New Lenox resident Joe Calderone bringing life to Mr. and Mrs. A-Bear-ica — two bears clad in the colors of the flag in honor of the Fourth of July.
Or, maybe, Ferrari working on his pencils.
“I like to work with my hands,” Ferrari says. “There’s lots of satisfaction in knowing you created something.”
Ferrari started carving 15 years ago, in part as a response to questions as to what he’d do once he retired.
“I just said I want to sit in a chair, smoke a cigar and carve.”
And that’s what he did.
He started checking instructional videos out of the library and collecting wood carving magazines. Then, after four years of carving independently, he met members of the Chiselers and joined up.
For Ferrari, the most rewarding things about the group are the comaraderie and the interest of on-lookers.
“It’s a great feeling that you do something you know people enjoy,” Ferrari says.
The carvings occasionally catch the interest of kids and their parents. He remembers a time when he made small owls for two boys and flowers for two girls.
“Their eyes just lit up,” he says. “The rewards with this stuff is high.”
One of those rewards for Joe Calderone, who members of the Chiselers describe as the most experienced wood carver in the group, is being part of a tight-knit community.
“It’s a great hobby,” he says. “I know carvers all over the country.”
He’s met them at shows, the carving classes he’s taught since the early 1980s, and at two museums he had a hand in establishing.
“It’s a comparatively cheap hobby,” says Calderone. “People are interested in going back to basics.”
Calderone got into wood carving as a student at Chicago Vocational High School, via his shop teacher.
“Mr. Just had a wood carving in the window,” he recalls. It was of dogs under a streetlight.
“I just marveled at it,” he says.
Calderone began doing his own carvings soon after, but fell away from the hobby when he began working and attending night school.
He got back into it when one of his friends — after the two took their wives out for their birthdays one night — showed Calderone one of the carvings he’d begun.
“I’ve been in it hook, line and sinker ever since,” Calderone says.
Now, he says, he finds fulfillment in creating, and finds that carving helps with his Parkinson’s disease.
“When I start carving,” Calderone says, “the shaking stops.”
Calderone hosts weekly lessons in his basement in New Lenox, and offers advice to group members who are working on various projects based on their skill level.
Dick Suchomel, of Shorewood, has been carving wood for 20 years and says that he will sometimes try to work a little on a project before breakfast, only to find that when he lifts his gaze from the wood that he’s carved well into the afternoon.
“Time just goes by,” he says.
For Suchomel, being in the group provides opportunities to learn.
“You learn something from everybody,” Suchomel says. “I’m constantly learning and trying to get better.”
Look at their intricate carvings — done on the hard insides of golf balls and on blocks of light tan wood — and you might wonder what more these carvers have to learn about their craft.
Look at the nuance of the faces — the expression in the eyes, the fine-flowing hair — and you might sense something unteachable here, an innate skill members of the group all have that practice just hones.
But each member of the Will County Wood Chiselers will assure you that you’re as capable as they are, that turning a block of wood into an animal is just a matter of following directions, that the hardest thing about carving is sharpening your knives.
“Can you peel a potato? Can you draw a snowman to scale?” asks Joe Calderone.
“Then you can carve.”