Roger Foote said he wanted something to do when he wasn’t teaching elementary school in New Berlin, where he taught for 30 years.
“I always liked birds, so around 1975, I got a hand coping saw, carved a pheasant and threw it away,” Foote said.
He then heard about a bird-carving class taught by Joe Fiske at an arts and crafts center in Morris. For the class, Foote carved a somewhat primitive Canada goose, still in his possession.
Foote has kept on carving — almost exclusively birds — in a small workshop in his New Berlin home. He stopped counting how many carvings he had done when he reached the 2,000 mark.
“I have birds in every state in the United States and quite a few in Europe,” he said.
Over his first 30 years of carving, Foote crafted his birds with an X-acto knife, completing about 1,000 knife carvings. After retiring in 2004, he decided to take a 10-week bird-carving class from Roger Westgate, a well-known carver from Candor. From Westgate, he learned to carve with two kinds of high-speed grinders, a Foredom grinder for initial, or “rough,” carving and a RAM grinder for more detailed work.
“I spend 15 to 20 minutes carving with the Foredom and 15 to 20 hours with the RAM,” Foote said.
When using the Foredom, Foote makes use of a shop dust collector and wears a mask due to health risks from inhaling wood particles. To render as realistic an image as possible, Foote has researched bird skeletons, feathers and muscles.
“The flight feathers are made up of primary, secondary, tertiary and tail feathers. I want to make them as stiff and rigid as possible because it’s their job to fly. The non-flight feathers should be soft and fluffy. They protect the body from heat or cold, and they also provide camouflage,” he said.
He forms flight feathers with a burning iron and non-flight feathers by stoning them with his RAM.
Foote mainly uses basswood, one of the most suitable woods for hand carving and painting, he said.
“It’s a very nice grain, but it gets fuzzy with the grinder,” he said.
The best wood for grinding, Foote said is tupelo, a southern wood used by Foote for carving smaller birds.
Foote said he particularly likes butternut wood, which is of a light to medium tan. He polyurethanes his butternut wood carvings, which, due to the wood’s natural luster, are quite eye-catching.
“Butternut is hard to find,” said Foote, who is still drawing on a supply delivered to him some time ago by floor sander Ron Hay, now deceased.
Over the years, Foote has put together an extensive library on his craft.
“I have every bird-carving book I know of. I have one of the best libraries on bird-carving going,” he said, adding that he has met many of the authors and has had them sign his books.
Besides his early carving courses with Fiske and Westgate, Foote enrolled after his 2004 retirement in classes with world-class carvers Roslyn Daisey of Newark, Delaware, and Al Jordan of Rochester. He annually participates in Jordan’s classes.
“I go out and spend a week with him and really advance my carving,” Foote said
The five-day classes are rigorous, starting at 8 a.m. and continuing until 6 p.m., with a 15-minute lunch break.
“It’s a working lunch,” Foote said.
Carving then resumes from 7 to 11 p.m.
“I come home, and I’m bushed,” Foote said.
Foote, who describes himself as a “country carver,” undertakes the craft for his own enjoyment, he said, and does not enter competitions organized for world-class craftsmen.
“I don’t enter shows. I just look and observe because I buy (lead) feet for my carvings. For the competitions, you have to carve everything on the bird yourself,” he said.
He has, nonetheless, won local, “non-sanctioned,” competitions. In 1983, he was awarded “Best in Show” at the Otsego County Fair for his green-winged teal. He has twice received “Best in Show” at the Chenango County Fair. One of his gold finches is part of a permanent collection housed at The Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown.
Foote is a member of the Chenango County Bird Club, participating in bird walks, birding, and photography — “anything bird-related,” he said.
In 2016, he received funds from the Upper Susquehanna Watershed Coalition “to do something for birds in the watershed area.” With those funds, he built and placed 20 birdhouses in Millbrook, a reservoir near Norwich that has been turned into a beach.
“All of the houses were occupied by bluebirds and swallows and one wren,” he said.
Foote’s carvings are available at the Wild Owl Café in Norwich or by contacting him at email@example.com or 847-6776.
“I don’t have a website. I’m retired and don’t want a full-time business,” Foote said, adding that when not carving, he likes to fish and play golf.