Chip off the old block: Terry Carver takes up a crafty pastime at 69

By Tim Nail | Living 50 Plus

When Terry Carver retired four years ago, he didn’t want to spend all of his time relaxing.

“I just like to stay busy,” said Carver, now 69. “I don’t like to sit around and do nothing in the daytime.”

So after a career in the U.S. Air Force and as a network operator for a Huntsville software company, he took up woodturning as his new hobby. And after four years, Carver estimates he’s created over 500 writing pens, more than 200 bowls and about eight cutting boards out of wood ranging from black walnut to cedar.

Woodturning is the art of using handheld chisels in combination with a lathe to make crafts that are symmetrically shaped around a rotating axis. For Carver, the interest originated with a friend of his, James Pruett, who had a history of woodcarving.

“(Pruett) built tables, furniture, then he got into bowl turning and pens,” Carver recalled. “He was in Hawaii, and he turned wood out of koa wood, sold the products in Hawaii and had a contract with the governor to sell his pens. I always watched him do that, so when I retired … I went and bought all my equipment and just started playing with it.”

Pruett, now 86, lived in Decatur for nine years and moved away in the 1970s, but before leaving he met a 16-year-old Carver, who was acquainted with one of Pruett’s daughters. Pruett said he’s been a friend to Carver ever since, but it wasn’t until 2017 that Carver connected with him to learn his woodturning techniques.

Carver called Pruett shortly after retiring from software company SAIC based at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville. He said he spent about two weeks with Pruett on two separate occasions, observing and imitating how his friend moved through the process.

“I had a good tutor,” Carver said. “He walked in one day and took a piece of wood and started turning it. Then he said, ‘Here’s how you use the tool. You do it.’ He stood there and watched me, guiding me along the way, and that’s how I learned how to do it.”

The two worked with pens during Carver’s initial visit to learn woodturning but have since dabbled in other projects like segmented bowls after Pruett learned the craft by taking classes.

Pruett, who now lives in Tucson, Arizona, said, “He’s become quite good at it. He was a quick learner, a good student.”

To shape pens, Carver begins with what he calls a “pen blank,” a cube of wood with a small hole he’s drilled in the center, which he places on the medallion on his lathe. The medallion whittles the blank into a tubular, pen-shaped body. Carver then takes the components of the pen and prepares them for assembly into a complete pen.

Carver said making his projects takes practice to avoid breakages. He uses a mallet to hammer pen components together, but striking the pen too hard can split the wood used for the body. For bowls, he uses what’s known as a “waste block” placed in a bowl in progress while turning it on the lathe that prevents wood from being wasted.

While more uncommon, another challenge is with cracks forming during the turning process. Carver said he is almost always able to recover cracked wood to finish a project using clear wood glue.

“When you glue something with wood glue, you’ll break the board before you break the glue,” he said. “Eventually I’ll go back and sand it all down and clean it up.”

Formation of cracks depends on the type of wood used, he said. He noted mesquite as one example of a tough wood he’s never run into cracking when using.

“I’ve only had two bowls that I know of that I’ve busted in half,” he recalled. “I was turning them on the lathe, and they busted in half and went flying everywhere, so I just picked them up and put them in the burn pile.”

Wood with sentimental value

Other wood types Carver uses in his projects include cedar, which is more susceptible to cracking, maple, bloodwood and purpleheart. He said his materials come from Madison, Nashville, Birmingham and sometimes from family and friends.

“I have pieces of tree all over the place that people give me,” he said. “My cousin cut a tree down that’s cherry, and I’m going to come cut it up and try to turn it into bowls,” he said.

One project he’s working on at present is a charcuterie board for meats and cheeses that he’s making for his sister in the shape of the Alabama state outline. Another he recently finished was a collection of pens he distributed at his 50th high school reunion at Austin High.

“I actually gave all my classmates a pen,” Carver said. “I had them all engraved ‘AHS 1970.’”

The biggest challenge of using freshly cut wood, according to Carver, is it still has moisture present, which is indicated by the wood being a green color. This can lead to more cracking in the woodturning process, and so Carver paints the ends of cut wood to expedite moisture reduction.

“You can turn a wet bowl, but it’s not recommended,” Carver said. “Wood has to be almost dry, dry before you turn it. When you cut a board, it might almost be 25-26% moisture; you have to get it down to 8-9%.”

Even old wood can be restored and remade into bowls and other crafts.

“A friend of mine had in his garage for 60 years a piece of black walnut that had wormholes and holes all in it,” Carver said of a current project he’s working on. “I mixed epoxy with quartz and put it all in. Now I’m going to peel it back down, and I’ll still have some holes, but I’ll still be able to turn it into a bowl.”

Carver said he often uses YouTube tutorials or calls Pruett for advice when he finds himself at an impasse as there isn’t a woodcraft community in north Alabama.

Won’t make furniture

“I do try to get (friends) involved but most of them aren’t retired so they don’t have the time,” he said with a laugh.

Looking at future projects, Carver said he may get into creating open-segmented bowls, which are more complex as they feature gaps between each piece of wood used. What’s the one type of project he doesn’t want to delve into?

“I’m not going to get into furniture making,” he said. “One — I don’t have a shop. I don’t have the space for doing a dining room table. And two — the time it takes.”

Carver estimates the total cost of his setup to be around $2,000 for all the tools he uses in his workshop for woodcutting and turning which include a lathe and miter saw. For the personal projects he’s gotten to take on since getting into the hobby, however, Carver said woodturning is priceless.

“All of my projects are my favorite,” he said. 

Later this year, Carver is looking to sell some of his crafts at Hartselle Depot Days and the Hartselle Holiday Market. Carver takes commissions for woodturning crafts and can be contacted at 256-221-7195 or