A desire for a cub scout badge prompted Doug Vaughan to carve a totem pole out of balsa wood.
With the help of an Indigenous friend in Alberta, the then-seven-year-old did a simple carving of a Thunderbird and “what was supposed to be a bear.”
It worked better he thought. Not only did he get his scouting badge but he gained a lifetime love of wood carving, leading him to start his Grumpy Bear Workshop.
“I carve all year round, that’s my number one pastime. I don’t read and I don’t watch TV,” Vaughan, 80, said. “It’s what I enjoy doing.”
Vaughan’s first carving knife was a gift from his grandfather. He still has it, along with 27 other knives and drawers of tools that he has used over the past 25 years to create burl wood clocks and faces carved out of bark. He also paints landscapes on wood but at the moment, his focus is on creating 3D songbirds that he paints and mounts on wood.
In his small studio in his 100 Mile House home, he has binders full of patterns of animals, as well as containers of roughed out birds, bears, trolls and Siamese cats.
A pile of dust is on the small table, where he has been busy working on a chickadee. The job is expected to take about five hours. It starts with drawing the pattern on a piece of wood before bandsawing and roughing it out. Hand tools are used for detailing.
“I like songbirds because that’s what I see around me,” Vaughan said. “I like to carve and I like to paint and I combine the two. I spend most of my day in here, fiddling. It’s my sanity machine.”
His art comes naturally to Vaughan, who has always worked with his hands. As a young man, he held a job at Vancouver General Hospital as an “overtrained” orderly in the surgical ward for 11 years before he took over running the district morgue in Abbotsford. After an industrial accident, he found his niche in goldsmithing, preferring that craft to his father’s skill as a watchmaker.
He sells his work under the name the Grumpy Bear Workshop. Although his burl clocks were big sellers at one time – many of them were bought as gifts for MLAs, he said – Vaughan’s birds and bark faces are the most popular now.
“You have to keep changing with the times or you’re not selling anything,” said Vaughan, who was recently selling his wares at the Outdoor Christmas Market at the 108 Heritage site.
He said he was inspired to carve faces out of bark after seeing them in Switzerland. Compared with the songbirds, it only takes him about an hour to carve a face out of cedar or cottonwood. The faces are intended to be hung facing the door, to ward off evil spirits from entering the home.
“The tree has to be dead, usually a year or year and a half and it peels like a banana,” he said, noting the bark then has to be cleaned and scrubbed with a wire brush. “You may get a piece 10 feet long or a piece six feet long. You carve basically what the bark will let you because it is very layered and it is very hard.”
Vaughan would previously attend the craft fair circuit, travelling from the markets in Little Fort, Kamloops, Interlakes, 100 Mile and into Williams Lake and Prince George, to sell his wares. But being away every weekend from the end of October to just before Christmas got tiring. Now he strictly sells at the 108 market and any money he makes goes toward materials and tools.
“I have an overabundance of tools because I collected them throughout the years,” he said, adding he gets a sense of accomplishment from creating his art. “It’s basically what I do.”