As a teenager, Chris Bruso spent hours in his family’s garage on Oak Lane carving ducks out of wood with his father. Years later, Bruso adopted this hobby into his own life, spending years learning and then mastering the craft to take his creativity to the next level.
Bruso admits, with a laugh, that he didn’t think of duck carving as an interesting hobby back then. He preferred to help his father paint the finished products rather than learn about how they were made.
After Bruso graduated Verona High School in 1981, he worked full time and went to trade school at night with the goal of becoming an electrician. Life only got busier between marriage and starting his own family, with years passing before memories of wood carving crossed his mind. It wasn’t until he was well into his career as an electrician in New York City and his children were grown that he decided to learn more about his father’s passion.
But it wasn’t directly from his father, who had died in 1999. Bruso did, however, have his father’s tools and his books about wood carving. He also did research on Facebook groups dedicated to carving animals. After visiting a few craft fairs over the years featuring wood carvings, Bruso stepped into his father’s cherished hobby, eager to carry on the wood-carving tradition.
“While I didn’t have time for the hobby before, I reached a point in my life in which I wanted to try something new and become good at it,” Bruso says. “Wood carving was perfect for me since I had a bit of background in it already, and the more carvings I saw, the more I wanted to try making them. Since songbirds looked simpler, that is where I started.”
Bruso learned early on that wood carving is anything but easy. The songbirds that he specializes in take at least 40 to 50 hours to complete; ducks are more complex. Starting out with a rough sketch of a songbird, Bruso then puts a block of basswood, a soft carving wood, underneath his sketch and cuts the profile of the songbird with a bandsaw. After that comes the sculpting to design the bird’s features. Using a Foredom, a tool with various blades and attachments, he cuts the songbird into its shape. This step involves a lot of dust, which is why Bruso typically works in his garage, just like his father did.
“While each carving is unique, the process is just as time consuming for each one,” Bruso says. “It all begins with an idea of making each bird different from the next, but they all start out the same. Up until I cut the bird into its shape, they are all rectangles of wood.”
Once the shape is formed, Bruso details and burns the feathers on the songbird and creates any other supporting features, such as a ledge. He recently created a cardinal for a friend in St. Louis, and added a baseball to reinforce the connection to the city’s Major League team.
Finally, Bruso sprays his craft in wood sealer to prevent cracks and aging, and paints the carving with acrylics. He designs songbirds in all shapes and sizes, but the colors are what he says makes them look so real because of his detailed approach to his craft.
If you’re looking for where you can buy one of Bruso’s creations, don’t: He gifts most of them to friends and family, often as Christmas tree ornaments and house decorations. During the pandemic when he was unable to commute to his job in New York City, Bruso devoted more time to his hobby, and even raffled off a songbird carving to healthcare workers via Facebook.
“Just for fun, I figured a nice way to give back would be raffling off one of my projects to someone who was serving the frontlines. I posted on a few of the Facebook groups to ask any healthcare workers to comment with their name. I pulled one of those names out of a hat, and mailed them a carving. It’s neat that so many people noticed my work online,” says Bruso. He says that the admiration he has received for his work has motivated him to keep at it over the years.
Social media attracts curiosity and attention to Bruso’s work, but he says he wishes to keep it as a hobby and not enter any competitions. He enjoys making the effort for something he never considered he would develop the skills to do. As Bruso plans to retire in a few years, he aspires to allocate more time to songbird carving and someday leave this as his mark on Verona. As yet, his children haven’t developed an interest in the craft, but he hopes they will.
“Wood carving reminds me of my childhood and now my adulthood, all in Verona,” Bruso says. “I want to give back this town as much as it gave me. I can give my creativity in the form of something that means so much to me, and something that I want people to smile about.”