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California biologist carves out a career in woodworking

Ed Hasbrouck began his career in a most conventional way: college, graduate work in biology, and a steady job with the California Department of Food and Agriculture. But as time progressed and interest in his job lessened, his spare hours were increasingly spent in his home workshop carving objects out of wood.

Today the hours devoted to carving are such that the former hobby is now a full-time business and occupation. Those who walk into Whittler's Mother, his small shop at San Francisco's Pier 39 complex, will find Mr. Hasbrouck and his assistant, Marian Vanden Bosch, hard at work with mallet and chisel on almost any day of the year.

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Standing behind the counter of the shop during a mid-morning break from his craft, Mr. Hasbrouck reflects on how his recent dramatic career change came about. ''I had always wanted to concentrate on an artistic profession,'' he says. ''When I graduated from high school I wanted to be an architect, but I didn't consider it a practical ambition. I didn't see any way of combining what I really wanted to do with the serious business of making a living.''

But one day, well after he had settled into the more secure career he had chosen, he inherited half a dozen woodcarving tools. ''I had always enjoyed building things, so I used them to carve on some furniture I had made,'' he says. ''I found I enjoyed it enough to turn it into a time-consuming hobby.''

It wasn't long before the biologist was turning out superbly crafted harpsichords, furniture, and decorative objects in his workshop. He began to do research on different carving methods and traditional designs from around the world. And he began to sell what he made.

''When I found out that people would pay me to carve, I began to see a future in it,'' he says. ''I saw that woodcarving could be a full-time occupation. It was something I could turn to when I retired.''

But as demand for his work grew, the switch to full-time carving occurred during midcareer instead. Ever since he made the decision to open Whittler's Mother, both the custom orders and the work to fill them have been in constant motion. ''Having the shop forces me to carve 365 days of the year, which is important,'' he says. ''Carving is like taking music lessons--you have to practice every day. To sell a piece gives me the opportunity to go on to carve the next one.''

Currently he and Marian Vanden Bosch have orders to fill that stretch many months ahead. Whether they produce full-size carousel horses, relief-carved furniture, architectural pieces, or small decorative objects depends on the desires of those who walk into the shop.

A photograph album on the counter exhibits the wide-ranging variety of what customers have asked the woodcarvers to do. Among the most popular are the carousel horses that are Ms. Vanden Bosch's specialty. Unlike the original carousel horses of decades past, which had hollow cores, those turned out at Whittler's Mother are hardwood throughout.

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Mr. Hasbrouck is frequently asked to carve human or animal figures out of wood. ''Carving the human figure is my favorite aspect of the craft because it is the greatest challenge,'' he says.

Other figures have been more whimsical, such as a large statue of Lewis Carroll's White Rabbit that a woman ordered for her garden. The gentlemanly rabbit attired in top hat and tails will soon be joined by another Hasbrouck creation--a 5 foot 2 inch dragon.

Mr. Hasbrouck's hand-carved furniture, which is often embellished with intricate designs, is also in demand.

To his surprise, he has found that his academic training as a biologist is a help in his new career. ''A lot of traditional carving incorporates a leaf motif , and a favorite technique of mine is to pick leaves off a tree and arrange them in a pattern to use as a design,'' he says. ''All the plant drawing I did while studying botany was good preparation for this.''

Although a lot of what he does is in the Gothic or baroque mode, he also enjoys working with designs in which clean, uncluttered lines predominate. ''If you have to keep a design simple, you find yourself exploring the limits of the constraints. The simplest designs often require the most skill.''

The numbers of those who practice woodcarving as a profession are few. The crafts boom of the past decade has produced far more potters and weavers than carvers, and shops such as Whittler's Mother are relatively rare. Still, Mr. Hasbrouck and Ms. Vanden Bosch have found a steady market of customers willing to pay $150 to $4,000 for what they create.

''Our items have been going out to people across the United States,'' says Ms. Vanden Bosch. ''People are willing to pay for something that is hand done. They know the difference, and they appreciate it.''

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