In the News: Whittle While You Work

By Christopher Smart
The Salt Lake Tribune

John Bruce loves wood.

And if someone came along with enough money to buy it, he'd like to build the world's largest nutcracker. It would have to tower above 19 feet to surpass the record-holder in Neuhausen, Germany.

As it is, the biggest nutcracker Bruce has created is a mere eight feet tall. Nonetheless, it will crack coconuts. It's best not to stick your head in its jaws.

Bruce is not just a macro nutcracker-maker, however. He once carved a working nutcracker on the end of a match stick. That one resides in a museum in Leavenworth, Wash. And, no, it won't crack coconuts.

He's been tooling wooden nutcrackers for the past 30 years. In his living room, he's got a Santa nutcracker, as well as Pinocchio, troll, pirate and cowboy nutcracker, and more. He even has one shaped and painted like a Campbell's Soup can.

"I call it my Andy Warhol nutcracker," he says with a smile.

How many nutcrackers has he made? No idea, he says. Hundreds and hundreds.

But nutcrackers are not his only game. Bruce dabbles in birdhouses, clocks, rocking chairs and even rubber-band guns that can drop a fly at 20 paces.

He is, in fact, a chip off the old block. His father was a woodworker before him. In the 1940s, the senior Bruce signed on with Hughes Aircraft to build the famous Spruce Goose - Howard Hughes' huge seaplane made of Baltic birch. A coffee table of that same Baltic birch stock adorns the Bruce home in Draper, and several boards of it sit in his shop out back waiting to become who knows what.

But at the moment, Bruce is busy filling orders for paint shelves - a specialty item he created for decorative "tole" painters to easily store hundreds of small two-ounce bottles of paint.

Although Bruce carves, cuts and spins out nutcrackers on his lathe, he doesn't paint them. That he leaves up to the toll painters - artists who decorate such things in intricate detail. (That's how he learned of their need to organize all those paints. And the made-to-order shelves help pay the bills.)

"Right now, I've got people waiting for shelves," he says. "I can only work on nutcrackers here and there."

Bruce, who says he is "60-something," can't remember a time when he wasn't carving or working wood.

"I can't really explain it. I just started whittling a piece of pine. I used to carve in English class. My teacher wasn't worried so much that I was failing her class. She was mad that I left wood shavings behind."

By the time he had graduated from high school, he had produced a slew of elaborate carvings - including wooden puzzles. But he thirsted for more.

"I wanted to do two things: I wanted to visit Texas - I don't know why. And I wanted to study woodworking in the old country."

And he did work with masters in Denmark and Germany for a time. But it wasn't until the mid-1970s when he took a job with a small outfit in Utah County that he began making nutcrackers.

"I started working there and I began to see we couldn't make them fast enough to make money at it. Everyone else quit. But I was dumb enough to stay."

He's been making nutcrackers ever since.

One of Bruce's four grown daughters, April Bruce, recalls that her father was continuously making something from wood.

"We always had to clean up all the sawdust. That was annoying," she says. "As far back as I can remember, he was carving or chipping something."

J.R. Bruce, one of Bruce's two adult sons, says growing up with the woodworker "was always exciting."

"He'd take us out in the shop, and it was something new every day," J.R. recalls. "He's one of a kind. I don't know anybody who is such a perfectionist."

In his shop, crowded with saws and lathes and stacks of wood, a sound system plays the Coldstream Guard's version of Verdi's "Nabucco Chorus" while Bruce demonstrates a prototype of a child's folding rocking chair. He hasn't quite got around to putting the finishing touches on it.

"I'm sort of an oddball," he acknowledges. "I come up with problems to solve. I spent a year trying to figure out a way to cut a perfect spiral on a band saw. But who needs spirals cut on band saws? Practically nobody."

But all those innumerable projects keep his hands on wood. And for Bruce, that's the main thing.

"I can see a piece of wood and just save it because it's beautiful," he explains. "I'll save it until I know what it wants to be."