Article by Sam Dostaler
For better or worse whales have been a constant for those who live on Cape Cod. There was a time when whales were hunted for their blubber to be turned into oil that was used during the Industrial Revolution. Islands off the coast of Cape Cod such as Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard were well-known as major whaling ports, with expeditions originally right off their coast then eventually as the numbers of whales in the area lessened to the far reaches of the Pacific Ocean.
However, as time moved on so did thankfully the need for whaling. Now, thousands of tourist each year board whale watching boats to view the majestic mammals in their natural habitat. When those tourists return to the shore, that is when Dave Turner, sole-owner and operator of the Wooden Whale Co. enters the picture.
Working out of his Hyannis studio on the property of the house he is thankful his grandfather never sold Turner carves gorgeous wooden whales that he ships all over the world to whale fanatics. A couple weeks before spring started we got a chance to talk with Dave on the phone about his business, life on the Cape and his previous life working in the Pentagon in Washington D.C.
New England Travel Journal: How did you get into the whale carving business? What was your inspiration and what got you started?
Dave Turner: I was doing it for years and years, just fooling around with it to give away to friends and family and then I was working for the government in Washington (D.C.) for a long-time and really had enough of that whole routine. I was just locked in the Pentagon all day long and that was just enough.
So I moved back home to the Cape and started doing some carpentry and some other jobs and one day just thought, well if I am going to try this as a business let’s just try it and see what happens. Things just kind of really took off.
I have shipped all over world, (the) farthest being New Zealand but also Australia, Japan, Germany, Italy, England and Brazil, just about all the states and Canada.
This little ridiculous thing has sort of become a big ridiculous thing. It has been a full-time job for the last two years, all consuming.
You get to meet a lot of people randomly. A lot of people will stop by, pick up their whale and keep on going. I just had a couple stop by at 6 in the morning from Switzerland, in my driveway asking if this is where the whale man lives. ‘I said yeah, what?’ (as I still tried to wake up). And we don’t speak the same language so we are doing the whole Google translator thing. They were in town for three days and said, ‘Oh we would like a whale,’ and I said I don’t really have inventory but you came all the way from Switzerland so lets put one on rush for you and come back in to days. Things like that happen so it is always hilarious.
NETJ: When did you begin carving? When did whales become your thing?
DT: I’ve always been interested in whales. I took the whale watching tours as a kid and was kind of fascinated with the size and the shape. Then once I got into carving, (Cape Cod) is kind of the whaling capital of the world, it is kind of engraved in the culture as unfortunate as that time period was, Quakers killing whales like it was a contest, so it has always just been a thing here on the Cape.
I’ve seen some whale (carvings) in the area and I thought I can make that well and for a much better price.
NETJ: Where do you do carvings?
DT: Just on the Cape. The Maine thing might happen later.
NETJ: How special is Cape Cod and the Cape Cod lifestyle to you?
DT: I’ve lived on the Cape on and off for years and I kind of go both ways on it. I love it when it is a bit quieter and then Memorial Day roles around and the tourist begin to pour in and I am thinking well why not try Maine.
NETJ: Best response from someone who has received one of your carvings?
DT: I get a lot of cards and notes, or they will take a picture of them and their whale and where it is living now. Those are always nice to see. A lady just got a hold of me, there is a guy that used to make whales and as far as I was concerned was the gold standard in this tiny, tiny whale community, his name was Wick Aherns, and they wanted one of mine to go with one of his. And I was flattered by that because in this industry that is a borderline big deal.
NETJ: What is it like to send a whale away when done?
DT: It is always a nerve wracker until the whale gets delivered safe and sound because I have had a couple whales tossed off trucks and there is a broken tail or this or that. So it is always a gut burn waiting to hear from people that the whale made it safe.
NETJ: Do you have a favorite part of the job?
DT: No, I really like all aspects of it. I like hearing what a person wants, I like carving it as best I can to get it how they want color wise, shape wise, tail up or down, give it a little smile or make the eye a little deeper. I do the best to recreate what they want for them so that whole process is what I enjoy the most.
NETJ: Take me through entire process of carving whale?
DT: I get my wood locally sourced from a place called Cape Cod Saw Mill they are a tree business so when I get my wood, the day before it was standing in somebody’s yard. The wood had some rot in it or the town needs it down for some reason. It is all raw untreated wood, big slabs and I just take it from there so if someone wants a three-foot whale which is the most popular size right now I’ll just measure out three-and-a-half feet to give myself a little bit of leeway. Then some people want their whale strictly facing the left, so I will draw it out, do a rough cut out into some sort of big torpedo shape. Then from there it is just a lot of hammers and chisels and a lot of sandpaper to get some more depth.
I use 2 to 2 1/2 inch thick wood so I get more depth, it’s not just a flat plaque. That much extra wood gives me that much extra play so I can turn the belly under, make the back big and rippling as they are in real life, turn the nose down, work on the jaw or the teeth to give it more of a feel and work it into the ballpark of what the customer wants.
Once that is done it is just preparing the canvas, then it is painting the particular colors or shading what the customer wants; darker, lighter, here, there, more scouring across the face as naturally occurs or less or whatever the customer wants. From there I just do my best to get into the ballpark. I send customers photos as I go, five or seven pictures, so at the end there are no surprises. I keep them in the process to keep them happy and to be sure at the end they can’t say I don’t like that.
NETJ: How long does that all take?
DT: It varies, but I can do a whale beginning to end within a week if I push it. Right now I have 17 whales in different stages. I do a bunch that are just olive wood whales, which are just natural, there is no paint on them. The beautiful grain and patterns they have, those can take a little bit longer because olive wood is a brutally hard carve, you have a better chance of carving a manhole cover, so those are a real wrist snapper.
But the other ones are generally a softer wood; a pine, a birch, sometimes maple, sometimes black oak which cuts really nice. If customers want those natural looking I can do that, painted, or I can give them a weathered look so it can look like it has been hanging on your house for 50 years.
I can’t go out and batch cut 20 of them because everyone wants something different.
NETJ: Describe your workshop? How big it is? How it is set up?
DT: There are bigger toll booths on the Mass Pike right now. It is nine-feet by five-feet, your wingspan right now is five-feet minimum so it is a tiny space, it is a cramped space, it is a terrible space but after all this time I really got my system down for when I can be inside doing the fine cuts. I need a couple of dry days, sunny days, where I’m not freezing to death outside or sweating to death in the summer where I can make my outside cuts. Then I can bring it inside and fine tune it, carve my teeth in, sand it and work on the eye, all the little things that make a whale a whale.
NETJ: How many hours a day do you think you spend on the job?
DT: From answering emails, to the nonsense I post on Instagram, to actual carving, to answering questions so it really ends up being 12-14 hours because it is just me. I’m the finance officer, labor force, marketing director and somehow it is working so far. If I could just go and carve I’d be much happier with it.
I like the interaction with the customers, 99.1% of the time they are generally friendly and funny.
-Photos credit to the Wooden Whale Instagram and website
Article first appeared in April 2019