For whittler Rod Cross of Bear Rocks, there is life in every block of wood.
“I have to report to the wood. When I get into carving, I’ll know what to do,” said Cross, 73, who has carved wood his whole life.
Cross brought about 20 finely carved pieces of wood, such as Nativity figures, trout pins, several trout scenes, and a large trout fisherman who looks a lot like Cross, to an exhibit at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg. He also brought sets of special knives which he uses to cut wood and work with its grain.
His pieces were admired by around two dozen visitors on Sunday in a building that celebrates great works of art.
While visitors admired his craftsmanship, Cross explained that he is a tailor and not a carver as he holds the pieces of wood he cuts, rather than putting them in a vise and using tools to make the cuts to create the final product.
Cross, who retired from Matheson Tri-Gas of Hempfield, said he was a self-taught tailor who started cutting pieces of wood with a common penknife in his youth.
If he sometimes uses pieces of wood that he finds, his favorite wood is cherry due to its density and its perseverance.
The time required to complete the job varies depending on the complexity of the part. Some of the mounted woodwork contains multiple pieces, such as the one with the trout attached to a piece of wood. A curved piece of wood in one scene was from Linn Run, a trout stream in Cook and Ligonier townships where Cross fishes.
When it comes time to finish the piece, Cross is almost obsessive in his desire to apply a tung oil finish to the wood.
“I’ll spend days rubbing it. I sometimes put 20 coats of oil” on the wood, rubbing so much it heats the wood, allowing more oil to be absorbed, Cross said.
He has a knack for sculpting trout because trout fishing is his passion. He is a board member of the local Trout Unlimited Forbes Trail chapter.
Cross made small wooden trout pins, two of which ended up in the hands of former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalyn. He had exhibited a handwritten letter of thanks from the former First Lady.
Among those who admired his work was Larry Myers, president of the Trout Unlimited Forbes Trail chapter.
“I hadn’t realized how long he puts into the things he does. They’re really detailed,” Myers said while looking at Trout.
While those who viewed his work were impressed with the quality of the workmanship, Cross said he did not sell his wares except for a few Nativity pieces.
“I give them to my family and friends,” he said. “This is my universe. It’s my hobby that keeps me young.