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Giving life to wood

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image David Houck paints the hand-carved animals he’s making for his newly-arrived twin great-grandchildren, a boy and a girl. Penny Fletcher Photo

At 88 David Houck still carves almost daily, although he has stopped teaching many of his classes.

David Houck has been carving things out of wood since he was four years old.

The result is that he and his wife Margaret are surrounded by handmade furniture, carvings of animals, birds, and hundreds of other items, including Margaret’s favorite footstool, for which she created a needlepoint top.

Taking a photograph of the intricately carved cherry wood stool was out of the question.

“Oh no,” Margaret said. “I need to re-stitch the top. I’ve worn it almost completely out using it everyday.”

But there were many other items to photograph in the Houck’s condominium at Golf View Terrace at Freedom Plaza in Sun City Center, including an ornate grandfather clock; a round table that folds up using carved wooden spindles; bookshelves; a weaving loom; benches; and a large four-poster bed.

“I used to keep a canopy on top of this,” Houck said, showing the bed. “But since this last move, we’ve left that off.”

Surprisingly, Houck’s life-long positions with Bendix Corporation and owning his own company while they lived in Maryland were all connected to electronics, not wood.

But he’s never been far from his carving knife or power tools- especially from the special lathe and band saw he designed and made himself.

The couple spent a part of every year in Sanibel Island from 1985 when he sold his business until they moved to Sun City Center in the mid ‘90s.

“At first I thought I’d have to buy two houses — I mean, Florida houses don’t have basements. I figured it would take us two houses, one to live in and a house for my workshop,” he joked.

The fact that Sun City Center had woodcarving and woodworking clubs settled it for him.

And now that they’re living at Freedom Plaza, he’s president of the Freedom Plaza Woodworkers.

At 88 he still carves almost daily, although he has stopped teaching many of his classes.

Does he ever plan to lay down his tools?

Definitely not. Houck said he can’t imagine his life without them. 

“I don’t remember when I first started carving,” he said. “I was told by my father that at 4 I’d take nails and pound them into the wooden fence that went around our property.”

At six, he was making things and selling them.

“When I was six I made birdhouses. Each one would take me two weeks to make, and I sold them to my teachers for 25 cents each.”

The Ten Commandments he made for St. Andrew Presbyterian Church has inspired its new pastor The Rev. Mark Salmon to do 10 sermons- one on each Commandment.

When Houck first donated them, they hung on a front wall behind the altar but were set in the entrance hall after modern projection screens were hung.

“They actually get more attention now that they’re down where people can read them,” he said.

St. Andrew’s Publicity Chairwoman Rosie Clifton said that before Rev. Salmon came to Sun City Center, the previous minister had lamented the fact at a committee meeting that there were no copies of the Ten Commandments anywhere in the church.

“The committee voted to have the plaques made and word got out that Dave had the talent to do it,” Clifton said. “He said it took him about 40 hours over a month span, and they were carved on top of his dining room table. He has also carved The Lord’s Prayer on plaques that hang in the church.”

“The pastor said it would have been easier if he could have skipped Number 7, the one about adultery. He said it was hard to preach a whole sermon on that,” Houck said.

But he didn’t skip any, devoting his attention to each Commandment in order; a series that will finish up in September.

While the congregation is enjoying the sermons about the Ten Commandments, the wooden carvings are center-stage in front of the altar.

Meanwhile, at home, 36 small wooden animals are lined up on the Houck’s dining room table next to Noah’s Ark.

Two by two they stand, half painted and half awaiting the intricate paint job that brings them to life.

Houck’s making the set for his newly-arrived twin great-grandchildren, a boy and a girl.

With twins, it should work out well to have two of each animal, he said. “I couldn’t make them all. I had to limit my choices to 36 because of time and space.”

He was self-taught at this art until high school, when he took woodshop. Except for that, he learned every one of his intricate patterns himself.

While an electronics technician in the Naval Air Force, he was given the job of bringing down planes during bad weather while in North Africa during World War II.

“But it didn’t rain one time the whole time he was there,” said Margaret, laughing. “He didn’t have anything to do.”

Houck soon found he could carve the Plexiglas from crashed aircraft. It wasn’t the same as using wood; it was a whole new art, but took the same skills.

Because of his service during WWII Houck took the Honors Flight with 79 other Florida veterans to Washington D.C. June 4. Ann Weber of Sun City Center was his personal guide.

“Each person had a guide, and each guide had access to a wheelchair,” he said. Although he doesn’t require a wheelchair normally, he said it was a great help so he did not tire while seeing all the war memorials.

He keeps his Memorial book from that trip in his living room on a handmade coffee table surrounded by carvings.

His living room furniture is all made from cherry, except for one remarkable table that folds up, which is mahogany, and his bedroom which is made of walnut, including a very large eight-drawer dresser.

When they lived in Maryland, he donated his art to his church and keeps an album of photographs including the woodwork on the altar, and designs covering the pipes for the organ. He also made that church a donation tree and cremation boxes.

The Houck’s had to give away a lot of his carved work when they moved from their 22-acres up North where he had also built greenhouses, one of which held a Jacuzzi with a handmade deck.

But neither said they would trade their Sun City Center life for any other.

Both are active in their church and have many other activities to keep them busy.

His larger tools are nearby in the woodshop and garage, but he’s never very far from his pocketknife.

Fortunately they have tables and chairs in their Florida room overlooking a pond. It seems the dining room table is always full.

“When the animals are finished, he’ll start something else,” Margaret said.

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