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

(Continued from page 1)

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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

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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



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:


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Additional Photos

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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


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