Cancer did not halt Helps’ woodcarving

Rural Princeton resident Don Helps, who will turn 80 on Jan. 7, continues to turn out carvings and other wood creations.

He also continues to surprise his cancer doctor because he is still alive.

Helps and his wife Pat live along Green Lake east of Princeton, where his woodcarving began in earnest when the couple moved there from Crystal in 1995.

Reminders of Don’s hobby are all over the Helps’ home – caricatures carved from wood, clocks and wooden whimsy houses. A finely-detailed walnut, six-foot grandmother’s clock that he made from scratch, sits in one corner. (He explains that a grandfather’s clock is one that is at least seven feet high.)

His kit projects include two each of scale model stagecoaches and ships.

Reminders of his hobby also are found elsewhere, in the homes of friends, acquaintances and family members.

Each of the couple’s four grown children and eight grandchildren have some of Don’s wood creations, whether they are carvings, clocks or whimsy houses. Whimsy houses are more tall than wide and are full of tiny windows and doors, looking like what you might think of as dwellings for tiny, mythical forest dwellers.

Don carves his whimsy houses from the bark of cottonwood trees, making the houses in sections. He glues the sections together, into a gentle arc, reinforcing the joints with narrow strips of wood in back. He pointed to a carved face behind a window on one of his whimsy houses and also pulled open a little door on the house.

Many of the carvings Don has passed down to family members are caricatures, his favorite type of carvings. Caricatures are figures, either animal or human, that some would describe as folksy. They have the backwoods country look that Don says have traditionally reflected denizens of the Ozark Hills.

Don and Pat are Robbinsdale natives who met on a blind date. They seem to be a good match.

Pat talks proudly of Don’s woodworking. That includes Don’s more than 100 carvings. Many of these carved wooden caricatures stand inside a bay window in the Helps home, while several whimsy houses hang on the walls, along with some wooden case clocks.

By the time retirement arrived, Don had decided he would like to live in one of two kinds of locations – either in the middle of 40 acres of woods (for a supply of trees for woodworking), or along a lake for fishing. Don and Pat chose Green Lake, buying their place in 1991, and moving there four years later. The couple’s house has flat rock siding, something that Don put on.

Don attributes the woodcarving magazine Chip Chats, as getting him interested in the craft. It wasn’t that Don was new to working with wood. He began making clock frames in the late 1970s, some with ready-made plans and some he designed. Don cut his woodworking and carving costs over the years by scrounging for and purchasing rough sawn lumber and wood pieces, and then planing them to his desired thicknesses.

He has so far made about 10 clocks and the woodworking creations or carvings he has given to children and grandchildren reflect each of their interests. One piece shows a character with a banjo, and another reflects the child’s interest in seals and dolphins.

One of his woodworking pieces involved sawing, more than carving, and is a wooden horse for a daughter who owns a horse.

Some of Don’s woodworking involves scroll sawing. Don explains that he goes in streaks as far as his projects, sometimes concentrating on carving, sometimes on clocks and sometimes on scale-model radio controlled airplanes.

While his house mainly has some of his woodcarvings and clocks, his garage workshop has a number of RC model airplanes hanging from the ceiling.


The cancer

Don’s woodworking and woodcarving slowed, starting in the fall of 2000. That was when he had an intestinal blockage and he was diagnosed with stage 4 non Hodgkins lymphoma. Doctors did tumor removal in his small intestine and kidneys. The cancer had also gone into the lymph nodes and bone marrow, and Don said it all “took a lot of strength away.”

During his two years of chemo treatment at the Cambridge Medical Center, the nurses treated him so well, that he gave them each a woodcarving.

Don recalled his oncologist saying that a person with his diagnosis usually only lives four to five more years after learning of their cancer. But the last time Don visited his oncologist was last year and Don said the oncologist told him then, “You’re cured.”

“They couldn’t figure out why you were still here,” Pat commented.

The CT scans ended five years after his cancer diagnosis and “every time I was down there and came in the door (starting about three years ago, the oncologist had an expression on his face of) ‘You still here?’”

Don remembers the day the oncologist declared, “All I can say is, ‘You’re a clinical success.’”


Some thoughts on carving

Don calls woodcarving an always challenging and enjoyable hobby for him and shared some ideas for anyone interested in looking into carving. One tip that a woodcarver quickly learns is which woods are best to carve in – and those are the softer woods like basswood, butternut, white pine and sugar pine. Don also recommends carving in seasoned wood.

Don recommends someone looking into woodcarving, to take an introductory class on it, like through community education.

Regarding equipment, Don says a beginner can get by with carving knives that will cost about a minimum of $15 each, and says that for most carving, four or five knives will be needed. If you buy them from a woodcarving catalog, the steel will be of good quality, he says. A woodcarver will also need blade sharpening materials or equipment.

As the woodcarver becomes more skilled, they will likely be carving bigger objects and that is where a band saw is very important, and a table saw helps, Don says. The band saw removes a lot of material to come up with the rough shape, rather than having to remove so much with a knife.

Don also recommends some V-shaped carving tools and he even uses some old dental tools for fine work. Another avenue that woodcarvers sometimes go, is power carving with a roto tool, he noted.

Woodcarving is a hobby where a person can practice patience and be creative. And if they succeed in carving a piece of blank wood into something humorous, or even spiritual, it can be uplifting to look at and touch when a day isn’t going so well.

Don Helps says that the cancer he went through didn’t affect how he looks at life or affect how he works in wood. But who knows if what he had gotten out of carving and making things out of wood and giving much of that away, perhaps helped him get through that rough time with cancer.

“He had a good attitude,” his wife Pat said.