In the News: Shop looks like Santa's

By Lynn Arave
Deseret Morning News

DRAPER - You could say John Bruce, a master woodworker, is nuts about nutcrackers. And at age 60, he could also lay claim to being one of the world's oldest kids at heart.

Visiting his woodworking shop in Draper is a lot like visiting Santa's workshop, minus the elves and the North Pole geography. With a beard, Bruce could pass as Old St. Nick himself, tinkering about in his shop.

Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker," one of his favorite musical selections, plays while he works. Endless wood crafts, lumber piles and an army of tools and toys are found throughout every nook and cranny of his large workshop. PictUres on his wall represent the 15 countries he's visited or lived in.

It's a woodworking shop that would make most woodworkers envious.

Bruce specializes in nutcrackers and also dabbles in wooden toys ranging from huge water balloon slings to rubber band rifles and various towers for racing marbles. He can build furnitUre, other wood creations and even metal jewelry with the best of them.

"I make toys and things pretty much for the fun of it, " he said. "I'm big on toys, kind of like a big old kid."

His rubber band rifle, "The Terminator," is fearsome to fire. And his water balloon launcher can propel a payload of balloons or candy dozens of yards. An unusual car shaped like a "bent nail" was his entry recently in a Cub Scout pinewood derby.

He's self-employed these - day and the variety of nutcrackers he's built over the years is staggering. He's done one as small as a matchstick and one as tall as 8 feet, the one he carved from a fallen spruce tree in 1978. He refurbished that creation earlier this year, and it was delivered to a buyer in Washington state.

He made this "Scrooge" nutcracker back in 1979. It later sold to a doctor in Utah County, fell into disrepair and was later stolen. Bruce bought it back years later after it was recovered, refinished it and sold it in September to a buyer in Lynnwood, Wash.

Bruce also has created Pinocchio versions of a nutcracker, as well as a cow, a cowboy, Uncle Sam, Eve, a "Runny Nose," "Yeoman of the Guard" (Beefeater), a "mallet" version and many more variations in the nutcracker theme. One of his mini-nutcrackers made its way into a special nutcracker museum in Leavenworth, Wash., but he has larger goals.

"I'd like to make the world's largest nutcracker," he said.

It would have to be 16-feet tall. "It would beat the Germans (originators of the nutcracker) at their own game," he said.

Unlike many woodworkers today, Bruce doesn't use yardsticks. He uses ,a machinist's calculator to measure to the fraction of an inch for most of his creations. He doesn't paint most of his creations; others do that finish work because nutcrackers are produced as unpainted kits for decorative artists.

"I'm not getting rich," he said. "I take too much time on the detail.... I always marched to my own drummer."

For example, a small wooden jewelry box he recently finished (for a daughter) required what he estimates at $1,000 worth of labor at minimum wage.

Indeed, he admits that finishing all his uncompleted projects might take ai lifetime, He's sold most of his nutcrackers through teachers who teach painting.

He'd hoped to sell more of his nutcracker creations to stores, like, Zim's, who approached him about making them. But he could not make the quantity they needed by lowering his quality in the process.

"So they went to Asia to get them," he said. "But I do feel my work is what got them started with nutcrackers."

His few nutcracker customers these days are those who prefer the highest of quality.

He started carving as a Cub Scout in California and has been doing so ever since. He also served in the California- Oakland mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

His working career has been varied. At one time, he was employed as a lighthouse keeper in Alaska and also served in the Coast Guard, where he was stationed in Italy for two years. He moved to Draper in 1989.

Much of his woodworking has been self-taught. He worked briefly with a master woodworker in Denmark and took all the shop classes offered in school, but that's it.

Bruce suffered one major accident. In 1976, he sawed off the end of one of his fingers while he was a student at Brigham Young University. It's taken him the better part of 25 years to regain his sensitivity in that finger.

He has created a wide spectrum of work - rocking chairs, baby beds, benches, stools, combination bunk-bed playhouses, racks for the paints tole painters use, leaf carvings, ammunition boxes, Christmas ornaments and bird houses (which adorn his front yard). He also has delved into complicated puzzle rings of both wood and metal over the years.

Bruce has saved many special pieces of wood he's inherited or found over the years. One piece is a leftover part of Howard Hughes' "Spruce Goose" flying boat, which Bruce's father gave him.