John Sailor got his introduction to woodcarving as a child, when his Swiss grandfather showed him and his brother how he carved cows.
It wasn't until several decades later that Sailor would begin using hand tools to create likenesses of people and other objects in wood. His home's basement is filled with the evidence of his longtime passion.
Sailor, a 91-year-old World War II veteran, began carving wood in 1974 but became more serious around 1984 when he first received instruction.
"When you work with your brain all the time, it's nice to work with your hands and let the brain rest for a while," he said.
Sailor, an Eden Prairie resident since 1963, grew up in Illinois and attended college at the University of Illinois, earning a degree in food technology. He served with the U.S. Army's 86th Infantry Division from 1943 to 1946. During World War II, he was stationed in several locations including Illinois and California and was deployed to Europe. He was stationed in the Philippines for about six months after the war ended, he said.
After graduating from college, he worked for several food companies and moved to Eden Prairie for his job with Supervalu, where he worked for 25 years in the quality assurance department. He retired from Supervalu in 1988. Sailor and his late wife, Gladys, raised three sons, Philip, Paul and Andrew.
Sailor said a local woodcarving club exhibit at Southdale Center in Edina sparked his interest in trying woodcarving.
"I talked to a few of them and I thought it would be kind of interesting," he recalled.
He tried to teach himself how to carve for the first 10 years with "so-so results" but things improved when he took some classes.
Over a three-year period, Sailor enrolled in a week-long class taught by a German woodcarver in Frankenmuth, Mich. The woodcarver was skilled in different types of woodcarving but Sailor became most interested in figure carving and the majority of his work has focused on that.
"I'm a slow learner," he joked.
He started by carving animals and eventually moved on to carving human figures. He's also dabbled in relief carving and chip carving. Sailor said he enjoys carving figures of people and that's become his favorite.
"I like it because you have a real challenge there. You have faces, you have hands, you've got the body, feet," he said.
His figure carvings have included likenesses of Martin Luther, St. Joseph, St. Francis, Moses and Luke. He's also carved a likeness of Angelina Jolie that was inspired by a picture of her in an ad and unnamed figures such as an old woman and a sailor. He has carved some custom pieces for churches and people who have requested them. He particularly enjoys carving the faces of old men and women.
"I've given a lot away. I've tried to sell a lot," he said.
Sailor said he prefers to work with bass wood because of its grain and because it's soft and easy to cut. He's also tried walnut and butternut wood. He uses no power tools, except for a band saw, when making his creations. Some of his figures that were shown at the International Woodcarvers Congress have received awards.
"I've always had a desire to work with my hands," he said.
When he's not woodcarving in his own home, Sailor also spends time meeting with other woodcarvers in Chanhassen and Bloomington and he's also a member of the Viking Woodcarving Club. "It's been a good thing for retirees," he said.
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