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Carving his own niche one piece at a time

Ray Kinman found his groove with woodcarving

 Andrew Wedgbury

Nevada City Advocate 

Just as an idea will lead a songwriter to an instrument, a painter to an empty canvas, or a writer to a blank sheet of paper, the woodcarver’s creative expression will take shape in wood, one of man’s oldest artistic mediums. 

Whether a simple tool or a human form, examples date back thousands of years and span cultures worldwide. 

Today, the interest in fine woodworking remains strong as evidenced by not only unique individual pieces but by its continued use in architectural and commercial applications.

Keeping this tradition alive while teaching others along the way is Grass Valley musician and master woodcarver Ray Kinman. From carving a rough sign for a restaurant in Lake Tahoe in 1977 in exchange for a meal, Kinman’s talent with wood spurred him to learn more about the craft and eventually led to him creating pieces for Disney theme parks and working with master craftsmen.

“I had decided to move to Los Angeles to pursue the music thing and had some success, but I stuck with this (woodcarving). Prior to Disney, I did all the signage for the Queen Mary in Long Beach, and Disney was going to develop the area as a theme park. I had tried for years to get in with Disney. I thought I was good enough to do the work but getting in the front door – nothing. But one day, I was doing some work for a restaurant and the senior graphic designer for Walt Disney Imagineering walked in, saw my work, and got my phone number. So, I got lucky.” 

After many years’ experience with Disney and others (and continuing with music), Kinman decided it was time for a change of pace and moved to the Grass Valley area about nine years ago. 

Concentrating on doing things the “old school” way of hand carving, with no computerized milling, he has seen his business steadily grow to the point of having a significant backlog of orders – the queue. 

As he says, “I have a significant backlog, and hand carving is a very slow groove thing, which demands Zen patience on your part. I do my commission orders in the sequence in which the order is placed. First, I carve the one in front of me. Then the next. Then the next.” He added that if he starts thinking about the time factor, “the creative process becomes work.”

Although signage is a major portion of Ray’s work, many customers want one-off unique pieces that will serve as an heirloom focal point. Fresh ideas can be found in everyday situations, but Kinman has made a point of traveling to many different countries to soak up the culture and experience different craftsman from an array of eras. He documents these travels on his Facebook page.

“That was one of the biggest reasons I went to Europe, to get some old-world input. And what it does, it makes you feel like a complete hack,” he said with a laugh. “In Paris you can’t go 20 feet without seeing something magnificent. In this one cathedral there was this incredible winding staircase, all wood, all carved, from the 1500s. There’s no screws or nails in this, just interlocking joinery, and it’s still tight.” 

While on his European travels he saw a statue by Bernini, carved from marble but so lifelike the skin and hair looked real. “He did that when he was 23 years old. He was the best. Human anatomy is the hardest thing to do – to capture the human spirit, the character, that’s the hardest stuff to do.”

This summer Ray and his fiancée will take another trip – to Italy. But not just for the architecture and statuary (although there probably will be some of that), but to get married. 

In addition, Ray’s work and techniques will be featured on two episodes of The American Woodshop, a popular craftsman show on PBS.

“I’ve been a big fan of that show for decades, and they saw my work on Facebook. We’ve been talking back and forth about a year or so. We filmed it about three months ago, and the first segment is going to air worldwide Feb. 9.” The show concentrates on all aspect of woodworking – from furniture making to carving. 

In his studio in Grass Valley, Ray not only creates unique hand-carved pieces and signs for the Nevada County area, he also passes along the skills to students with woodworking retreats. He estimates he has taught hundreds of students over the years. “I’ve published pictures of my students’ work, and I’m very proud of what they’ve done. But it took me years to get to that level of work. They’re creating some nice stuff.”

Ray is not only proud of his students, but he sees their interest and passion as an essential part of keeping woodcarving alive.

“My primary purpose is to pass this along. It’s kind of in danger of becoming an extinct skill. Computers can do a lot of this stuff now. I want to pass this skill along, to pass the torch with teaching. And most people think they can’t do it, it looks really difficult. And it’s not, if you have proper instruction and know what steps to go through.”

About the photo: 

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Ray Kinman works on a mirror frame at his studio.

Photo by Andrew Wedgbury

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Ray Kinman stands before a door he carved for his house. 

Photo by Andrew Wedgbury