Wednesday, January 9, 2008

A Profile of Carver John A. Mehl

An Interview with
Scandinavian Fishing Figure Carver John A. Mehl

This past holiday season I was happy to get a chance and sit down with John A. Mehl, whose original fishing-themed carvings in the Scandinavian style are as original as they are attractive. John lives in Otter Tail County in Northern Minnesota, a region noted for its great fishing and its Scandinavian influences. Having grown up in Minnesota the son of a Norwegian father, I have always been surrounded by the beautiful and distinct Scandinavian style woodcarvings, ranging from the wonderful Rosemale-finished bowls to the famed Nisse figures so common in Norwegian homes. What I found unique about John Mehl's carvings, however, is that he has chosen to concentrate on fishing themes in his work.

A classic ice fishing figure in the Scandinavian style

Mehl, a retired Forestry Service and Department of Agriculture executive, picked up Scandinavian woodcarving fairly recently but is no stranger to working with wood. A lifelong craftsman who grew up in his father's greenhouse in Breckenridge, Minnesota working as a jack-of-all trades, Mehl has hand crafted working ice spearing decoys and hand carved fishing lures for a number of years. He also ties flies, which the author can attest are deadly killers for summer feeding panfish. But it wasn't until he took up Scandinavian woodcarving that he discovered his true passion.

Scandinavian woodcarving is a unique in that it concentrates on taking chips out of the wood using a special knife and a handful of gouges, with no sanding or finishing. All good Scandinavian woodcarvings are done completely by hand with tools virtually unchanged for centuries, as not only are electric tools (like dremels) unnecessary they are also inefficient for this kind of work.

The key to a good Scandinavian woodcarving is the knife, and John began his carving career by making his own. He would take the omnipresent Rapala fillet knives and grind them down to a blade about two inches in length, perfectly sufficient for this style of carving. Lately, however, he has taken to modifying the famed Mora knives of Sweden, which he prefers for their ability to hold an edge (which he keeps honed with a leather strop). Not having known anyone proficient in this style of carving, he purchased several pattern books and not long after was producing Nisse and other standard figures. But it wasn't until he completed classwork with Harley Refsal--pretty much the Godfather of Scandinavian carving--that he felt confident enough to begin making original carvings.

One of his first was an incredible Scandinavian horse. The traditional horses are a staple of the Scandinavian carver, but Mehl decided to make an original figure and came up with one that has classic and distinct lines. This was followed by original figures, including his first fisherman carved in the likeness of a fishing buddy. The overwhelming response he received from friends and family spurred him to work on more original fishing-themed figures. He then placed a few of his carvings in Ken's Bait & Tackle, a popular tackle shop on Otter Tail Lake, where they have been selling since early December.

A dedicated angler whose personal best is a 14-pound walleye, he is particularly interested in ice fishing, so it is unsurprising that he gravitated towards these classic northern scenes. Two figures he was finishing up when I visited him are an ice fisherman carrying the tools of the trade out on the frozen lake, and a scene of an ice angler sitting on a bucket over a hole in the ice awaiting a nibble. Both of them are incredibly evocative of such scenes repeated millions of times on frozen lakes across America every year.

A seated ice fishing figure

A walking ice fishing figure

The process of creating these figures is both technical and time consuming. "First I draw a pattern," he noted, "then cut the pattern out of a block of basswood. This is followed by the carving process, for which there is no shortcut. Then I paint the figures with watered-down acryllic paints, and they are finished." The entire process can take as long as ten to fifteen hours for more complicated figures. Most of the figures range from six to ten inches in height.

Because of their moderate prices--as little as $40 for the ice fishing figures--this is clearly a labor of love. "I truly enjoy carving," he admitted, "and designing unique and original figures." He has great plans for the winter months, including a series of fishing figures that will profile fly fisherman as well as a series on fishing with classic fishing lures and reels.

He also does work on commission, and recently completed a wonderful pair of carvings for the author that currently adorn my mantle. These custom works can be made to resemble whomever the purchaser chooses, and are perfect if you've ever wanted to see a likeness of yourself, or a friend, in wood.. Such orders are, of course, time consuming but in my opinion well worth it.

Perfect company for this brass Ocean City reel

John A. Mehl Original Scandinavian Carvings can be purchased from Ken's Bait & Tackle or directly from the author, who can be reached at We will certainly be keeping our eye on any new developments from this talented woodcarver.

-- Dr. Todd

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