Meet the Maker: Lee Jenkins Bird Carving
Lee Jenkins from L J Bird Carving started carving wooden birds by chance. She was looking for a more creative outlet and felt she could create something with more character than the wooden birds she had seen in shop windows. So she picked up a piece of skirting board from her shed and turned into into a Greenshank. Her beautiful carved birds are now stocked by the National Trust and fly out to new homes all over the world. We talked to Lee to find out more…
Can you introduce yourself and describe what you do?
Hello. My name is Lee Jenkins and I’m a lady wood carver. People tend to assume all wood workers are men but it’s not true. I carve and paint birds at home in a small village near Exeter in Devon. It’s a hobby that got a bit out of hand and now my family are grown up, I’m lucky enough to be able to follow a creative dream.
It’s a hobby that got a bit out of hand and now I’m lucky enough to be able to follow a creative dream.
Have you always been interested in craft and making?
Craft and making of all sorts has always been important in my life. I had a small soft furnishings business for over 20 years, as it was something that would fit in easily with family life when the children were small. Wood carving started by chance really. I was looking for a more arty outlet for my creativity and had seen some basic wood birds in magazines and shops. Although I loved their shapes, somehow I felt that the birds lacked soul and thought that I could make better ones. Our shed held the answer! There was a small piece of skirting board in there, which I turned into a Greenshank using a thin-bladed Stanley knife. Although I’ve made many (much better) pieces since then, this old friend still lives in my dining room along with all the other early pieces. I’ve had no training and have just developed my own style as I’ve gone along, by trial and error.
I’d seen some basic wood birds in magazines and shops… although I loved their shapes, somehow I felt the birds lacked soul and thought I could make better ones.
Good question. They are just beautiful in shape and colour and when I make one I try to capture the spirit of it with a characteristic pose or beautifully curved bill, rather than with feather perfect detailing. I like that I can make my birds “arty” but incredibly realistic too. It’s amazing how beautiful a brown bird can look and this is my favourite colour to work with. It simply glows if you get it right.
It’s amazing how beautiful a brown bird can look… it simply glows if you get it right.
Where do you look for inspiration?
I enjoy watching birds but work from photographs. I don’t work from my own photos – my camera skills are non existent and birds always look like tiny fuzzy dots. Thank goodness for the internet and Twitter where you can find fabulous images of any bird you like. I now have two large files full of photos that sum up, for me, the character and detail of each bird. When I want to watch birds, I head to Topsham. It has lovely estuary walks and always renews enthusiasm and occasionally comes up with a gem. I saw a Water Rail there last year and had to make one. Waders and sea birds are my favourites and although I enjoy watching the birds in the garden, I never feel inspired to spend time making one.
Each bird is unique and takes many hours to make.
Can you explain how you make your wood birds?
Each bird is unique and takes many hours to make. Initially I sketch a profile and choose the size of timber. I make a lot of slimline pieces using 2inch timber because it makes display easier and a fabulous profile is often all you need when something is displayed on a shelf. The thickest timber I can use is 3 inches, as my bandsaw can’t cut anything bigger! I use this to cut out the blanks. If the weather is good, I take it outside and cut out as many different birds as I can because it creates so much dust. If it’s a large bird, I use a draw blade to remove as much wood as quickly as possible. The rest is done with a series of small knives including my trusty Stanley knife.
When I’m happy with the shape, I drill holes for the eyes, beak and legs. The beak is the next thing to shape and long curved ones need to be steamed and bent. I use thick dowel, which is cut and shaped and is a remarkably fiddly job. This is then glued in and sanding begins. It’s when this is finished that I know whether I need to remove a bit more wood here and there and put in wing detail, so the whittling begins again, followed by more sanding. Once it’s really smooth, I mount the eyes and glue in the prepared legs. More sanding. I then get the base ready. Painting then begins with a preparation coat followed by many layers to get the desired effect. Finally, I wax the bird – this brings out the colour and makes the bird wonderfully tactile.
I once timed how long it took me to paint just the iridescent spots and feathering on a Cormorant and it was nearly three hours. At that point I decided to stop counting!
People often ask how long it takes to make one bird and it’s difficult to be precise because so much time is spent allowing things to dry, but it’s about eight hours hands-on time for a Dunlin. I once timed how long it took me to paint just the finishing iridescent spots and feathering on a Cormorant and it was nearly three hours. At that point I decided to stop counting!
Can you describe your workspace?
My work space is my home, which isn’t ideal as it’s one of the messiest crafts I’ve ever done… and I thought making soft furnishings was messy! I have extreme shed envy when I see some of the beautiful and organised workspaces of your featured makers. Endless wood chips spill out from the sitting room but I have an very tolerant husband who is also very good with a vacuum cleaner! The band saw lives in the hall and piles of timber lurk behind the sofa. One bedroom is a painting/store room and a wardrobe is a store cupboard. Driftwood is stacked by the kitchen boiler to dry. It all sounds a bit Heath Robinson but it does work. Just.
What’s your most precious item in studio and why?
Precious item? Probably my reference files because they’ve taken so long to build up and they’re a sort of record of everything I’ve made. Also my Stanley knife because that’s what I started with and it’s very comfortable to use.
How did you make the leap from making to selling?
Selling birds really started by accident. I was working part-time as a dispenser at a doctor’s surgery and I was just making the birds for myself when someone asked me to bring some into work to show them. They were very complimentary and I sold one there and then. My personal collection had started getting a bit out of hand, so after that (and with much trepidation) I took at a table at a local Christmas craft fair.
I then had a call from a lovely lady who had recently opened a gift shop on the quay in Exeter and had been told about my birds. We met up and she loved them and started stocking them in her shop. Birds from there have gone all over the world.
When I was accepted to do my first large fair, I took the decision to leave my ‘proper’ paid job and carve full time. Since then, I’ve done several large craft fairs and taken on commissions. I’m now going to concentrate on my Folksy shop, commissions and small fairs, as the pieces are becoming more complex and time consuming and it’s difficult get enough together for a two-day event. I’ve just been asked to make a flying Whimbrel, which will keep me occupied for quite a while!
As makers, I think we’re often so close to our work that we don’t realise how good it is.
What’s the best thing about being creative for a living?
I love being creative and although it is very time consuming, it also gives me the freedom to organise my time as I wish. A lovely day can be spent working in the garden or at the beach collecting driftwood and shells. I enjoy making things and I’m still amazed that people like my birds enough to buy them. As makers, I think we’re often so close to our work that we don’t realise how good it is. I only tend to see the imperfections in a bird while the buyer sees something entirely different. Craft fairs are really good for regenerating creative spirits. Against the classic “Yuck, Seagulls!” comment, I have met so many lovely people who have encouraged me to continue being creative.
What’s your proudest moment so far?
It was a very exciting moment when my birds were spotted at a Christmas fair by a buyer for the National Trust. A selection of moorland birds are now in the National Trust gallery at Widecombe in the Moor, which has a wonderful range of Dartmoor-inspired items. When I visit, I’m always amazed and proud that my birds are on display there. But perhaps my proudest moment was being commissioned to make birds for a Dutch Godwit conservation group. The Black-tailed Godwit has recently become the Dutch national bird and I’ve made four life-size birds for their offices. Four sitting Lapwings have also gone there, which is particularly touching as these birds are a symbol of renewal in the Netherlands and have a significance above and beyond the bird itself.
What does craft mean to you?
When life is often rather mundane, craft gives me a sense of individuality and the ability to produce something beautiful and lasting. I love having something to show for my efforts at the end of the week.