Hillsdale Woodcarver Creates Intricate Art

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Rick Frels works on a woodcarving of a baseball player. Frels' work ranges in size from the very small to large pieces carved out of tree trunks.

Illinois artisan Rick Frels has carved out an impressive career in woodworking. But his calling didn’t strike in a lightning bolt of inspiration. Rather, his creative streak sprang from a little logic.

Embarking on an Experiment

Frels recalls his first foray into the art of woodcarving. “I just saw something I liked and thought, ‘Well, I could make that instead of buying it,’” he says. Thirty years later, Frels has turned his initial test into a lifelong hobby, business and favorite pastime.

Of course, most would have simply purchased the carving rather than attempt Frel’s do-it-yourself method, lacking either the innate talent or extreme patience that such a task demands. Luckily for Frels, he happened to have both.

“My dad was a carpenter, so I worked with wood all my life,” Frels says.

But it wasn’t until his mid-30s that he found his calling in wood carving. He recalls one of his initial carvings was of a buffalo, no more than 10 inches tall, that took him more than two months to finish.

Flash-forward to the present, where Frels has just completed a four-foot statue of Uncle Sam for the American Cancer Society to auction off. It took him a little more than two weeks.

“Carving can take anywhere from one to 100 hours,” depending on the size, he says.

Carving His Niche

These days, Frels focuses mainly on animals and people, though his impressive portfolio also includes eight-foot Native Americans and large totem poles.

“The most memorable ones are sentimental. I’ve done some family portraits, and those stick with me the most,” he says.

Frels considers woodcarving more a hobby than a business, though he does sell some custom creations for those who hear about his artistry. He also works part-time at the Woodcraft Shop in Bettendorf, Iowa, just across the border from his Northwestern Illinois home of Hillsdale.

Frels admits that while sometimes carving can feel like a chore, his work is gratifying.“It’s relaxing; I just forget everything and bang away with nail and chisel.”

Rick Frels works on a woodcarving of a baseball player. Frels' work ranges in size from the very small to large pieces carved out of tree trunks

Gathering Materials

Before the nails come into play, Frels has to find the star of his piece – the wood. He often uses basswood, which he describes as a “soft wood that’s hard enough to take detail.”

To obtain his medium of choice, he relies on the old neighborly cup-of-sugar method. “Sometimes a neighbor will give me a little wood after a tree falls,” he says.

The exchange soon finds its way to his studio, set in an old two-bedroom house, floors strewn with wood and walls adorned with photos of current projects.

“I set up my workshop in the dining room of the house, so it’s got nice big windows and lots of space,” Frels says. While he admits it may not be the cleanest space, it’s the perfect place to whittle away at what he loves.

“I’m at peace when I carve,” he says, “and if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t do it.”

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