Carvers find their niche building special carousel

Posted: Monday, May 05, 2003

Many remember riding a carousel or merry-go-round as a child, perhaps even recalling which was their favorite pony or other animal to run to when the attendant let the riders through the gate.

Would they go for the galloping gray steed, or maybe the black-and-white striped zebra?

Would it be near the center of the carousel by the reflecting mirrors where the calliope music was loudest, or along the outer edge where they'd have a chance to grab a brass ring as the ride sped by?

Though the number of carousels in the United States has plummeted since their heyday in the 1920s and '30s, preservationists promise to keep them from extinction, according to the National Carousel Association.

A handful of woodcarvers here on the Kenai Peninsula are helping the cause by making a brand new carousel, which, when complete, will be open to the public at Hansen's Custom Carving just outside Soldotna on the Sterling Highway.

Unlike the carousels of the past, however, the unique peninsula attraction will feature things Alaskan a caribou, a grizzly bear, a moose, a walrus and possibly a Dall sheep and a musk ox.

The idea was born when third-generation carousel carver from Enterprise, Ore., Steve Armet, put on a class in Anchorage for woodcarvers.

"We're members of the Last Frontier Woodcarving Club," said John Iverson of Soldotna, one of the four men now busily working on the Alaska carousel.

"We took Steve's class and decided to do the carousel here, but one with Alaska animals instead of the regular horses."

Iverson is working on the caribou; Bill Meyers, also of Soldotna, is making the bear; Scott Hanson of Sterling is carving the moose; and Scott Thompson of Anchorage is making the walrus.

Lifelike in every detail, except size which is about the same as animals customarily found on merry-go-rounds where appropriate, each animal also sports a set of antlers, which at one time belonged to the real McCoy.

Atop each animal is yet another Alaska animal serving as its saddle. The caribou carries a snowy owl; the moose a wolf; the grizzly bear a salmon; and the walrus an otter.

After the carving class in Anchorage in late March, the foursome began work on the individual animals and anticipates putting in a total of 200 to 300 hours per animal between carving and painting, according to Iverson.

The process begins with beetle-kill spruce tree lumber in 2-by-6, 2-by-8 and 2-by-10 planks. The planks are roughly cut to the shape of the animal's torso, then laminated together and sanded to a smoothness befitting what will become a child's mount.

Heads, legs and tail parts also are laminated onto the body of the animal, but each protruding piece must be turned in the direction of the grain of the wood, Iverson said, in order to give the part the needed strength to withstand future years of being ridden.

"I spent about five 12-hour days roughing out the caribou," Iverson said. "Then I put about another 30 or 40 hours into the caribou sanding it and adding detail.

"There's still a lot of sanding to be done," he said at about the halfway point, although his animal already had the appearance of a fine piece of woodcarving.

To save on weight, carousel animals are actually hollow, and when finished, each would bring between $8,000 and $10,000 if sold, he said.

Once the animals are complete, Iverson also will build the carousel structure, which will be powered by a 2-horsepower motor with a reduction gear and tire drive.

Iverson said because carousels are designed as children's rides, the tire drive allows for slippage to prevent a child from getting injured if he or she were somehow to fall beneath the plywood base of the rotating attraction.

A fishing guide during the summer, Iverson said he'd like to have the animals finished and in place at Hanson's outdoor shop in time for visiting tourists to see them and take photos with them. He anticipates having the carousel completed this coming fall or next spring and said he and the other carvers would like to have kids from area schools paint them.

Asked if the group would consider selling their creations, Iverson said, "We would probably sell if the price was right ... 10 grand minimum each.

"Nobody has anything like this. It's one of a kind, right now."

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