Birdhouse builders

HICKORY, Miss. (AP) – Tucked away in the woods just off Interstate 20 lies a 20-year-old cabin that has become the studio of two cabinet-makers turned artists who turn discarded pieces of wood into birdhouses and wood carvings.

John Baucum and his brother James Baucum grew up in Hickory and have long tinkered with wood as a hobby but about 18 months ago they launched a business selling their hand-crafted wares.

They have had no formal training in art and their works have never been displayed in a gallery, but that hasn’t stopped the self-taught brothers from forging ahead with their creations.

To hear them talk, mastering the art of wood sculpture is just a matter of trial and error, along with getting a little advice from a do-it-yourself book or two. When nudged, they modestly acknowledge that there may be some natural talent involved.

The brothers agree that whether it’s wood carving or crafting birdhouses piece by piece, the work is not easy. On the other hand, it’s not like work at all because they both love what they are doing.

It took some doing to decide to launch a business. Both have been cabinet-makers for more than 20 years. It was the downturn in the economy and the subsequent hit to the construction industry that prompted them to start producing and selling their products.

Everything they do to create their products is by hand, said John Baucum and they want each birdhouse to be unique. Their designs are their own and it all comes from their minds – they never work from sketches or blueprints, he said.

Visitors are greeted by numerous birdhouses and wood carvings displayed throughout the front lawn of the studio. A tree brought down by the winds of Hurricane Katrina is now a large tree stump with numerous ornamental bird houses carved into the wood. Nearby stands an enormous bottle tree with 700 bottles; and inside the studio is a large, brightly-painted lizard carved out of a pine tree that also fell during Katrina.

“We try not to waste anything,” James Baucum said. “If we can make something out of it, let’s do it. There’s a lot of free material out there; you just have to know where to look.”

Not everything works, he said, showing a large garden gnome of pine that was close to completion when the wood split. It happens, he said.

They use scrap pieces of wood from houses that are being torn down, limbs that have fallen in the woods, pieces of trees that are not the right size or shape for milling and they also convert thick vines into walking sticks for hikers. However, they never cut anything that is green and healthy, they said. One friend tearing down a barn gave them the go ahead to remove what they wanted; they took three beams from the barn that they were able to use.

“There’s no sense in wasting it and letting it be burned,” James Baucum said. “Ninety-percent of our birdhouses have something in it that is recycled.”

For their birdhouses, they use all exterior wood so they can guarantee that they will withstand the weather.

“We’ve been messing with it for years and years,” John Baucum said. “If you can’t see it in your head, you’re not going to be able to do it.”

It takes practice to carve wood, he said.

“The first time I started it, they looked pitiful. You have to let the wood tell you what it can be,” he said.

The business is growing, but it is not where they would like for it to be. John Baucum still has a full-time job and James Baucum is working in their studio full-time.

John Baucum said he was 17 he saw his brother, a year older, building a cabinet in the garage. He said that it looked interesting and James offered to teach him.

“He gave me a board and said, ‘Sand this board,’ ” John Baucum said. “I got a splinter in my hand and he said, ‘Uh-oh.’ I said, ‘what?’ He said ‘Once you get a splinter, you’re hooked.’ “

That proved to be true and the two teenagers built 100 cedar chests that first year. They spent the next 10 years in Dallas and became interested in carving as they watched a wood carver transform a tree into a carving of a rabbit.

“One day you just pick up a saw and you just start looking at it and say, ‘OK, I’m going to do something,’ ” John Baucum said. “I don’t know how to tell you how it comes to us, it just does.”

The brothers recently completed a scale model of the historic Merrehope home in Meridian and donated it to Merrehope, a Meridian home built in 1858 that is open for tours. The birdhouse is 6.5 feet by 5.5 feet; it is 3 feet tall and is lighted.

“When we did Merrehope, we took three pictures – the front and both sides – and went from that basically,” John Baucum said.

“We took no measurements,” James Baucum said.

“It’s pretty close to scale,” John Baucum said. “If we can see it in our heads, we can build it. It just falls into place.”

Birdhouse prices start at $20 and go higher, they said, depending upon what the customer wishes to commission. The most expensive birdhouse they’ve sold was for $3,000.