MUNCY - Most little wooden birds can't fly. But the little birdies that begin life on Frank Foust's workbench - almost 1,500 over the past 30 years - have taken flight across oceans and into countless hearts.
Foust, a lifelong Muncy resident, began carving the smooth, palm-sized "comfort birds" after cataracts left him unable to do the sort of detailed painting and burning pin skills he had developed in his early woodworking years while taking classes at Montour Preserve and making annual trips to the National Woodcarvers' Convention.
His early, realistic avian representations are displayed at the home he shares with his wife, Millie, a fellow Muncy High School class of 1948 graduate.
The comfort birds and their more recent cousins, like a life-size Canada goose that won Foust second prize in a Harrisburg senior carvers' show, are designed to invite touch; the birds' flowing lines and clear coating make the wood grains pop.
Foust keeps track of number and species in a small, yellowed notebook - so far he's carved birds from 52 varieties of wood.
"I wrote who got them down for a long time, but I stopped that about three years ago," Foust said.
After Foust's birds were profiled in the Holiday 2011 issue of Woodcarving Illustrated, the number of people requesting birds has only gone up, along with the woods he has at his disposal.
"A fella from Texas sent me osage wood, which I didn't have before," Foust said. Redwood and grapefruit have been mailed from California.
Frank and Millie received more than 50 emails after the piece was published, including one from Australia, and learned that a group in New Hampshire has taken up the hobby.
Millie tells a story of a woman who'd just lost her son:
"We had one lady (write) who worked at a veterans' hospital, and there was one man who had refused his Purple Heart. She wanted to give him one, and so Frank carved birds out of purpleheart wood (from Central America) and sent them to her. She sent the others to soldiers in Afghanistan."
"I ask $10 for them," Frank said. "Any checks are made out to the church. All I ask for is postage. I give a lot away, though."
The Fousts are long-time members of White Hall Baptist, Allenwood, and through the years the birds have raised more than $7,000 for missions home and abroad.
After Frank retired from Andritz Sprout in 1990, the Fousts bought a used motorhome and spent months on the road working on mission trips.
"I've been to Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Mexico, Florida after Hurricane Andrew, all on mission trips," Frank said. "I miss working in the field. The birds are a way to help out, like with Haiti."
Some of the proceeds from his birds after the 2010 Haiti earthquake went to build a "rubble" house there. Other monies go to local disaster relief funds.
The birds usually come out in batches of a half-dozen, and sometimes get made in bulk.
"There were 48 in the class of '48," Foust said, "and I made each person a bird and gave them one for the 50th reunion."
So Foust's mission now is in the basement, where blocks of wood - some exotic, some just local elm or maple firewood - dry on his "kilns" (otherwise known as a baseboard radiator and a windowsill), and boxy unfinished birds sit on a bench.
For an apparently simple piece, producing the birds does take some modern shop technology.
"They're not done with a pocketknife, I'll put it that way," Frank said.
He straightens the seasoned wood blocks with a joiner, then traces the pattern and cuts it out on a bandsaw. Then he uses a drum sander attached to a radial saw to shape the birds, sharpens the beak with a knife, and sands and sands, then sands some more, until they're smooth enough for a polyurethane coating.
Then the birds leave their nest in Muncy, via post, for whatever corner of the globe they're heading toward.
"It's a self-made mission, I guess," Frank said. "There's lots of wood, and not enough time to carve them all."