A serious fall almost 40 years changed Tom Johnstone’s life—but not entirely for the worse.
Johnstone was working on a construction job at St. Agnes Hospital in Fond du Lac in 1977 when he fell about 20 feet through an open roof, severely injuring his arm in the process and putting him on permanent disability.
One positive aspect of that ordeal was that it created time for Johnstone to find a hobby. The West Bend area native was living in Plymouth at the time and got to know a local craftsman. Johnstone’s dad also had done some woodworking as Tom was growing up. Those factors led Johnstone to try his hand at carving a small wooden duck. One day after finishing the project he took it to a local coffee shop where he regularly got together with some friends. They passed it around the table, each man silently examining the duck. When they had all looked at it, one of them asked the group, “Well, what do you think?” They all gave Johnstone two thumbs up, then surprised him with the presentation of a wood carving set.
That was a lot of years ago, and since that time life has had its share of twists and turns for Johnstone. He purchased a home on Point Creek Road in rural Kiel, but now lives near Cedar Lake.
The one constant for Johnstone over the past four decades has been wood carving. He does not do it for the money—the most he has ever made on a single piece is about $600, and he said he has never attended any type of craft show with his work. “I’m not out to sell them,” he said. By contrast, Johnstone told about a fellow carver he read about who once sold a wood carved duck for $55,000. That duck is now in the Smithsonian.
For the most part, Johnstone carves for friends and family, although he has received calls from as far away as Oregon to carve a duck. It is an outlet for his creativity. Friends Jim and Carol Wagner of rural Kiel often supply Johnstone with pictures to get him thinking about a new project as well as wood from the Wagners’ property.
Johnstone still has the little wooden duck he showed his friends at the coffee shop in 1981. Over the years he has carved a wide variety of other objects, including owls, Indians, bears, airplanes, eagles, arrowheads, butterflies, deer, all types of waterfowl and other birds, and more. Asked about how he thinks his skills have developed since doing that first duck, Johnstone said, “Pretty darn good.”
Talking about his personal favorite that he has carved over the years, Johnstone pointed to a buck with a large rack which still sits on top of his refrigerator. He said he was never able to shoot a buck like that, so he carved one out of wood instead.
He also has produced a lot of American Indian related objects over the years, including busts of male Indians. Asked why he has done so many Indian pieces, Johnstone said he has always had an interest in Indians and added with a smile, “Maybe there’s a little streak of Indian in me, I don’t know.”
The piece which took him the longest to complete is a life-size bear standing on its hind legs. He said he worked on that project off and on for three months. Like many craftspeople, Johnstone said he sometimes has to walk away from a project for a while and then returns with a refreshed sense of direction. That giant bear eventually found a home in Upper Michigan.
With his damaged arm, Johnstone, 79, uses electric tools to do his carving. For larger cuts he will go by the Wagners to use their band saw and table saw. Most of the smaller work he does using Dremel bits at a small table in the kitchen area of his trailer home.
Johnstone also does most of the painting of his artworks after the carving is done, also using a woodburner to put in some fine details. He said he is practicing pyrography, a word which he learned which means the art of decorating wood or other materials by burning images into it.
On one memorable piece which he calls a Swedish snowman, however, Kiel area artist Jeanne Heberlein did the painting. When he saw the finished product, Johnstone said he had to call Heberlein to let her know what a great job she did painting his carving.
Johnstone said he plans to continue carving as long as his body will let him, adding, “I like the challenge.” He said he welcomes inquiries about projects by calling 894-1516, and he also said he would love to chat with other wood craftsmen in the area.