This self-taught woodcarver used to design warheads for a living. Now his attention has turned to more tranquil and inspiring projects.
He used to design missles. Now Justin Gordon finds peace in wood.
Justin Gordon carves almost anything he can get his hands on: sand, snow, ice and, of course, wood. From an early age, he started whittling “little 3-inch men” out of scrap pieces of lumber and quickly realized he had a knack for it. His passion grew to the point that he wanted to major in art in college, but his very traditional parents steered him toward what they thought was a more practical direction: engineering.
Upon graduation, he landed his first job with a defense company — designing missiles. “Once you’re in that market, you kind of bump around to jobs with other Department of Defense contractors, but it’s all pretty much the same,” Justin explains.
Throughout this time, he kept his passion for carving alive and well, and he’d built up quite a reputation as an artist. “In my last DoD job, I landed a commission to carve a huge sand sculpture at a mall,” he says. “I was trying to figure out how to ask for two weeks off so I could do this carving, when I was called into my boss’s-boss’s-boss’s office expecting to give a report on my project, but was laid off instead. That solved my problem of how to get the time off that I needed,” he says with a chuckle.
But it was no laughing matter. It was exactly the push Justin needed to pursue art full time, and he never looked back.
In addition to sand and wood, he started carving snow and ice sculptures for New England ski resorts. At one sand-carving job in New York, he met a fellow artist who did chainsaw carvings with extremely fine detail and thought, “That’s for me.” He came home, bought a chainsaw and went to work. “Chainsaw carving beats you up real quick,
though,” Justin says. “The vibration tore up my arms, and it’s pretty dangerous. I still do it, but not as much as I used to.”
These days, Justin focuses on fine-carving projects ranging from small figurines to elaborate architectural details like mantels, balusters and timber-frame embellishments. No wood species is off limits for Justin, but he does have his favorites, like walnut, mahogany and butternut. “Usually, highly decorative pieces are done in walnut or mahogany, but it’s really about whatever wood goes with the job,” he says. “Butternut has a rich, golden color with darker grain lines that give it a very nice finish. For my figures, I use basswood. It’s considered the ‘woodcarver’s wood’ because it has such a fine grain you can get very detailed with it. Plus, it’s strong and easy to work with.”
That sounds a lot like Justin, himself.
TOP: Justin Gordon hand carves his signature intricate detail on a drop-point finial out of Port Orford Cedar, a wood he imports to his Massachusetts workshop from Oregon.
OPPOSITE, TOP: The same drop-point finial in the photo above after it was stained and installed in its permanent home in a New Hampshire timber-home kitchen.
LEFT: This fanciful 7-foot6-inch totem is carved from 10-inch diameter yellow pine. The figures represent a thunderbird (top), a raven and a bear with a fish.
FAR RIGHT: The amount of expression Justin is able to capture in the faces he carves is remarkable. He makes the wood come alive with emotion.
RIGHT: Titled “George’s Tree,” Justin proudly stands beside his vertical take on Mount Rushmore. The totem looms tall at nearly 18 feet.
TOP & ABOVE: For his tree carvings, Justin roughs them out with a chainsaw while the stump is still in the ground, then adds the finer points. Once finished, each piece, like this pineapple, is a landscape showstopper.
ABOVE: Carved from pure mahogany, “Piercing the Sun” takes its name from the story of Sagittarius shooting an arrow at the sun, symbolizing Pontius Pilate’s soldiers piercing the side of Jesus on the cross.
Justin is meticulous in his quest for perfection, sometimes carving a template before tackling the finished job. This helical hand rail for a Boston staircase is a prime example. BELOW: In addition to carving pieces from his own imagination, Justin is in the clock restoration biz, replacing missing decorative parts with such precision, you’d never know it had been damaged.
ABOVE, LEFT AND RIGHT: Justin is quite accustomed to creating architectural details to specific application specifications, dimensions and artistic requirements. For some, complete plans are provided. For others, the artistic values and dimensional requirements are developed through conversations between Justin and the builder and/or owner.