Topanga Woodcarver Makes the Cut While Keeping His Wit Sharp

Accinelli is an Encino free-lance writer

Twist south through Topanga Canyon, just past the big red rock on the left, and you'll face a Western-style false front. Painted on its pastel-colored clapboard is the dictum: "Become a woodcrafter, for then, if you cannot carve for yourself a career, surely you can chisel one."

That's what Topanga woodcarver Barry Lysaght is doing, whiling away his weekends whittling figurines, figureheads and carrousel horses among the California live oaks.

"You've got to get used to blood if you want to carve," said Lysaght. He flashed scarred fingers for a visitor who had stopped for a bit of talk, maybe some advice and possibly to commission a chiseled miniature of his wife.

Another sign on the porch advertises that a "genuine starving artist will carve your portrait in wood." The bearded, bespectacled Lysaght looks the part, his silvery hair thinning a bit on top but still touching the collar of his sweat shirt. He is relaxed, full of humor and bonhomie, emanating California cool.

House Rules

Lysaght, 51, welcomes visitors to his mountainside storefront. In fact, most of his business comes from passers-by in the canyon on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. But they have to observe the house rules, which are clearly stated at the door: "No alcoholic beverages. No smoking. No nuclear waste or weapons on the premises."

You can come to commission a work or just to shoot the breeze, but Lysaght allows only one at a time, and he says he wants to know which.

Five days a week, Lysaght makes furniture and cabinets for people in the film industry and other clients who can pay the hefty price for his handiwork.

"You don't get rich whittling wood," he said.

Lysaght subsidizes his Topanga hideaway with the Monday-through-Friday furniture business. "I have trouble charging money," he said, although a price list does hang on the wall. The price list says $25 an hour for carving, but Lysaght says it usually works out to $10 an hour.

"I do it all wrong to make a dime," he explained. "I come up here to whittle during layoff periods."

Colorful Clutter

Three-inch heads carved in semisoft basswood and painted with paint-store colors dot Lysaght's studio. They sit amid a clutter of chisels, saws, sketches, books and magazines, coffee cups, coffee cans and glue.

Each head takes Lysaght three to four hours to make. Most of them, he said, are of locals. "They come and sit for hours. They talk; I whittle."

Of course, it does take concentration. Lysaght said the hardest part is finding the figure in the wood. A woodcarver has to plan his attack on a block of wood, to do what Lysaght calls "establishing the masses."

Lysaght begins one of his figurine busts by roughly blocking out the head. Then he works in the nose, moving up to the forehead. Next come the lips and chin. He carves around the subject, leaving extra wood--called tailing--to work with.

Intricate Details

"Hair takes more room than you think it does," he explained.

Then Lysaght goes back and does detailing, cutting in the nostrils, shaping the eyebrows and structuring the cheekbones.

The object in whittling, Lysaght said, is an economy of motion, "to get one single movement of the knife to say a lot." Lysaght likes to paint his little portraits in wood because color gives the faces nuance, carrying them beyond caricature.

On the bigger projects, paint adds to the cost. Lysaght's scaled-down replicas of famous carrousel horses, mounted on brass poles and carved in jelutong, a soft wood with hardly any grain from Malaysia, cost $110 in the natural pure white of the wood. The price jumps to $300, however, when they are painted.

In fact, a full-size exact copy of a Dentzel carrousel horse was Lysaght's first big project. It took him 1 1/2 years to complete, and the Northern California woman who commissioned it paid $14,000. Since then, he has carved cowboy scenes reminiscent of Frederic Remington--pistols drawn and horses rearing--and ship figureheads for mariners.

Lysaght's most whimsical bit of whittling is a one-eighth-scale reproduction of the Disney Studio's conception of the fictional woodcarver Geppetto's bed, complete with cartoon figures and little animals covering the canopy, and the head and baseboards. He was surprised when a passer-by bought it for a doll house.

Hooked as a Child

Lysaght started carving when he was a 7-year-old in San Francisco. He spotted a how-to lesson in a back issue of Popular Mechanics. He whittled a balsa Yankee sea captain named Skipper Sam'l with a cap on his head, a pipe between his teeth and hands jammed into the pockets of his peacoat.

"I was hooked," Lysaght said. "When I had finished, I could recognize the picture in the magazine. It blew me away. Still does," he said. "It's amazing what you can twirl around a piece of wood."

Nevertheless, Lysaght says, whittling takes less patience than you would suppose because, when working, the carver moves into a state in which he doesn't feel time pass. If a project interests him, Lysaght says, he keeps working without sleep, never leaving the studio.

Of course, that is when he's being serious. Most often, though, Lysaght combines wit and whittling. For example, if you want your palm read, Lysaght keeps a can of red paint and a brush on his work table to do the job. It'll cost you 25 cents.

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