March 22, 2010

Niche carver

Wayne Robbins has the skills to whittle most anything, but he chooses to focus on the great whales for their ‘absolutely graceful’ mien.

By Bob Keyes
Staff Writer

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.

click image to enlarge

Robbins works on a sperm whale in the shop at his Bath home. He concentrates on whales but has also carved other sea creatures, such as dolphins.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Wayne Robbins has carved more than 3,650 whales and endured “a lot of blisters and cuts along the way.”

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below



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."

(Continued on page 2)

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors

Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Wayne Robbins says each piece he carves is influenced by the wood he chooses and by a piece's particular characteristics. "You can see the grain, you can see the direction and the knife will tell you. The knife talks to you."

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer


Further Discussion

Here at we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)



More PPH Blogs