BATH – As a little boy growing up in the 1950s, Wayne Robbins passed the hours on the docks down at Sebasco, watching as old leathernecked fishermen whittled away on blocks of wood.
The old-timers carved tiny pegs inserted into the claw joints of lobsters to prevent the critters from crunching their handlers. These days, we use rubber bands. Back then, wooden pegs did the trick, and Robbins was captivated by the flashes of wood shavings that piled up at the feet of the fishermen as they carved.
Sometime later, Robbins’ grandfather gave him a pocket knife so he could learn to whittle just like the men on the docks that he admired so much. A few years later, Robbins earned a merit badge from the Boy Scouts for his woodcarving skills.
These days, Robbins is still carving. He is known for carving realistic poses of majestic whales. To date, he has carved more than 3,650 whales — but that number is misleading, because he began documenting his whales in 1976, and had begun carving them years before.
In an age of instant gratification, Robbins stands as a throw-back to the fishermen of his youth, for whom reward came only through hard work.
“People are used to pushing the button and Googling the world, but you don’t Google while you’re carving,” he says. “There are a lot of blisters and cuts along the way.”
Robbins, who lives in a Colonial-era Cape-style house in Bath with his wife, Lynn, is a retired high school science teacher. He began his teaching career in Portland, but spent more than 30 years at Morse High School in his native Bath. He retired in 2001, but has since gone back to teaching part-time at University College at Bath/Brunswick.
He also instructs folks about the fine art of wood carving. He tells newcomers to the craft to exercise patience and pay attention to the wood, its grain and the tools.
Certainly, wood carving is a learned skill. But there is a lot of intuition involved as well, and Robbins believes the best carvers are those who allow the wood and tools to lead the way.
“You can’t see in the wood, and the wood has a spirit. When I carve, I like to let the spirit out,” he says.
Robbins’ interest in whales ties directly into his teaching career. As a science teacher, he included marine biology in his course work. He’s always admired the whales that inhabit the waters off the coast of Maine, as well as the porpoises and seals and other marine life. As a young man, he fished for lobsters in the summer, and has spent most of his life on the water.
He still remembers the first whale he ever saw. It was near Ragged Island in Casco Bay, off Phippsburg. He was in a fishing boat at the time, and felt captivated by the sleek nature of the mammal and how it moved gracefully through the water, surfacing now and again to blow.
Later, when the Save the Whales movement began gaining momentum, Robbins signed on as a volunteer whale spotter and started a local club. Soon enough, he got involved in seal rescues as well.
But it’s the whale that has intrigued him the most.
“They spend less than one-tenth of their time in a place they can be seen, so we don’t know much about them,” he says. “I guess maybe it’s the mystery. They’re so streamlined, and I guess it’s hard to call them beautiful, but they are. And they’re so absolutely graceful and almost like a ballet dancer with their movements. They are so fluid (and) so beautifully adapted to their environment.”
In his carvings, Robbins is interested first and foremost in capturing their grace. He prides himself on making carvings that are realistic. He carves all kinds of species, but finds himself drawn to sperm whales and humpbacks.
Carving can be complicated, but Robbins likes to keep things as simple as possible. His shop is full of all kinds of tools, but his preferred method is using a sharp X-Acto knife. He also uses many different styles of wood – some hard, some soft.
His carvings range from very small – just a few inches – to large, wall-mounted pieces. Some are flat, but most are in the round. He creates cardboard sketches, or patterns, of his carvings, so he has a final form in mind before he begins. Every whale that he carves is a single piece of wood, including the tusk of a narwhal. The only non-wood additions that he adds are the teeth of a sperm whale and the eyes.
He stains his whales in a variety of colors, and mounts them on pieces of driftwood.
Generally, Robbins prices his whales based on their size and the type of wood that he uses. The bigger the whale and the harder the wood, the more costly his piece. His prices range from $35 to $2,500.
Robbins appreciates the natural feel of wood, and particularly enjoys working on pieces that present unique challenges. Each piece of wood is different, and wood is naturally imperfect. If, in his carving, he uncovers a knot or if the wood splits, he works around it. The imperfections give each piece its character, and represent “nature’s stress,” he says. “There is no such thing as perfection in wood carving. There are too many variables.”
Allowing those imperfections, Robbins also ensures that each whale that he carves is completely unique. “I do not like doing repeats,” he says. “Every one of them is different.”
That quality is the nature of fine art, he adds.
Robbins sells his work in galleries across Maine, and has had particularly good luck at the Sebascodegan Gallery in Harpswell. Because the gallery is an artist co-op, he often has the opportunity to meet the people who purchase his work, because he helps staff the gallery in the summer.
Meeting the folks who buy his work, he is able to tell the story of that particular carving.
Robbins tells people who are interested in getting into carving that they’re in for a treat if they are willing to be patient. It’s an enormously rewarding practice, but it can’t be learned quickly. It takes years to develop the skills.
Like the fishermen of old who influenced him as a boy, he understands that experience is the best teacher.
“You can’t learn to play the guitar vicariously. You have to do the work,” he said. “This is like anything. You’ve got to do the work.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: