December 2010
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Craftsman Turns Hobby into Enjoyable Sideline Venture

Whittling Man Rex Thrash specializes in walking sticks and birdhouses

Above, Rex Thrash doubted he could carve a figure on his hiking sticks, but his first attempt was successful. Since then, he has carved many mountain men sticks, but his first “mountain man” is not for sale. Below, he spends many hours whittling sticks. All he needs is a stick, a sharp blade and a warm place in the sun.

 
 

Rex Thrash puts the blame on Charles Adams.

Or maybe it wasn’t so much Adams as it was his own son who married Adams’ daughter.

But the blame lies either on friend or family because Thrash is not taking any of it himself.

In a hundred years, he would not have thought he would be sitting around at arts and crafts shows whittling on sticks and swapping—or stretching—stories with perfect strangers. But, for the last ten years, that’s exactly what he has done and "blame it" he does.

"I think it was Charles who got me into all this," Thrash said with a grin. "I know I didn’t think it up myself."

Adams is an award-winning stained-glass artist whose Troy studio is a little more than a stone’s throw from his daughter’s in-laws. Adams and Thrash were friends long before they became family-in-law, but the marriage "soldered" the friendship.

"Charles is an artist, but I just kind of fool around with sticks," said Thrash, who, at first, went along with Adams to arts and crafts shows just to help out. At one show, the idea occurred to him that if he had a craft it would add a little more interest to the shows and put a little jingle in his pocket.

Thrash observed walking sticks, once leaning posts for old men, had found new life among the masses as hiking sticks.

"Hiking sticks had been popular with people who do a lot of hiking or walking in the woods, but now people are walking for exercise and they are carrying hiking sticks along for stability or for protection from dogs or snakes. A lot of farmers and people who are often in grassy or wooded areas for different reasons use them mainly for snakes," Thrash said.

So, ten years ago, Thrash recognized hiking sticks could be crafted into decorative items as well as functional ones.

 

Rex Thrash cuts his “sticks” in the winter and dries them in the open air in his workshop. His workshop behind his home near Brundidge is as much outside as it is inside.

"I started walking in the woods on winter days looking for young trees that had something odd about them or ones vines had grown around, giving them a twisted look," he said.

Thrash found Mother Nature was a rather good artist and, if he played his cards right, the two of them just might turn out some rather interesting walking canes and hiking sticks.

"I cut the young trees in the winter and let them dry out," Thrash explained. "Some of them I leave the natural color and others I stain different colors. I’ll leave the bark on some of them. It just depends on the look I want the sticks to have."

The sticks often dictate the look and, when they do, Thrash takes what they give him.

On some of the "sticks," Thrash adds knobs or leather and on others he carves the face of an old mountain man.

"A man at one of the shows had a stick with a bearded face on it," Thrash recalled. "I liked it, but I wasn’t sure I could carve anything because I’m not an artist. But I tried anyway just to see what I could do."

Although Thrash didn’t know heads or tails about carving, he pulled out his pocketknife and started to whittle. To his surprise and pleasure, what the wood gave up was a bearded man who looked much like how one would expect a mountain man or Rip Van Winkle to look.

"I liked the way it looked," Thrash said. "I’ve still got that stick because I never thought I could do anything like that."

Thrash may not be an artist, but he is certainly a fine craftsman. He has turned a hobby into a sideline venture as relaxing as it is enjoyable.

His workshop is a shed attached to his party barn and his detail shop is a straight chair carefully placed in the sunshine.

"I really enjoy sitting outside and whittling the old men," he said. "It’s about as relaxing a thing as I can find to do."

But Thrash also enjoys going to the shows, meeting people, showing his hiking sticks and hoping to sell a few.

"I make different length sticks because a lot of kids like them and there are also a lot of collectors out there," he said. "I’ll sell sticks to some of the same customers year after year. They’ll find another one they like to add to their collection."

Hiking sticks and weathered board birdhouses are Rex Thrash’s signature crafts. Old barns, smokehouses, fence posts and hollow trees are fodder for Rex Thrash’s bird feeders.

 

Thrash has ventured out from hiking/walking sticks to birdhouses he designs and builds with only the birds in mind.

"I don’t build birdhouses to put inside the house and admire or really for outside decoration," he said, with a smile. "I build birdhouses for birds to make nests for laying, hatching and living."

The birdhouses are made from old barn boards or other scrap lumber Thrash is gifted.

"People will be tearing down barns or other old farm structures and they’ll call and ask if I want the boards," he said. "Sometimes people will just be cleaning up their property and want to get stuff hauled off. I can use just about any old wood with some character to it."

Often Thrash will find square nails in the wood and he uses those for bird perches. Horseshoes make interesting doorway arches and give the birdhouses a trimmed and finished look.

"If I can find a hollow tree, I’ll use it," he said. "It will make several round houses. They are different and fun to make."

 

A squirrel attracted to Rex Thrash’s feeder can be observed dining in a glass jar.

Thrash also has gone squirrely with his crafts.

He is now making a squirrel feeder popular among those who enjoy wildlife watching.

"The feeder is made using a half gallon jug," Thrash said. "The opening is in the back of the feeder. The food is put in the jar inserted in a hole on the front of the feeder. When a squirrel comes in to get the food you can watch him in the jar. It’s a different kind of squirrel feeder and people of all ages enjoy it."

Thrash isn’t sure where his craftmanship will lead him. If it’s no farther than where he has already been, then that’s far enough for him.

He travels with his artist friend to arts and crafts shows all around Alabama and several adjoining states. He looks forward to every show and the fellowship it brings and, "blame it all," he wouldn’t take anything for being a whittling man.

Jaine Treadwell is a freelance writer from Brundidge.