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Posted: Friday, March 23, 2012 12:00 pm

Group gathers once a week at Harker Heights Recreation Center

By Kim Steele

Harker Heights Herald

Jim Blankinship wedged a small knife tip into a wooden carving Tuesday and gently whittled out its edges and links as he chatted with other woodcarvers at the Recreation Center.

After pausing to show off a box of woodcarving tools - a variety of wooden-handled knives and gouges, as well as a leather-topped sharpener - the Harker Heights resident held up a completed model of his current project. Called a firewheel, the tiny carving begins with a small piece of wood that has holes drilled in it and is whittled down with a knife.

"I enjoy coming here and carving wood," said Blankinship. "Everyone has to have goals in life, and making things is my goal. Once you retire, you can't just sit at home for hours and watch television. That's wasting away."

Blankinship, 82, has attended weekly gatherings of the "55 and Up Chippers" for about 10 years. The group's 15 senior members meet at noon each Tuesday for companionship and woodcarving that includes woodburning, chip and relief carving on flat squares, and carving in the round from blocks. The activity is part of the Harker Heights Senior Recreation Program.

Although Blankinship has been woodcarving for years - he carries a copy of his Boy Scout merit badge for woodcarving from June 1945 to prove it - he only got serious about the hobby after he retired in June 1991. At first, Blankinship tried oil painting, but quickly switched to woodcarving after seeing how easy it was to clean up and put away the tools.

Since then, he has crafted birds, dogs, cats, cowboys and other characters. Currently, he is making a gun-stock lamp and hopes to carve deer in it. Blankinship said he uses soft wood, such as basswood, as well as harder woods such as black walnut and butternut.

Bob Porter, a Killeen resident and coordinator of the "55 and Up Chippers," said it began about 20 years ago when he approached the Senior Recreation Program about starting a group for men. At that time, said Porter, all the activities centered around women, such as quiltmaking. Ironically, said Porter, more women initially joined the group when it began.

"But as word spread, we got more men involved," said Porter. "And we started out with projects and classes, but that got to be too much for me. Now the members have their own interests, and I am there to help them out."

During the meetings, participants share patterns and magazines, learn new techniques and work on their projects together. Over the years, members have attended classes together and organized community projects, such as making canes for wounded soldiers and building a saloon for Big Hoss B-B-Q in Killeen.

Gloria Hlebasko, of Harker Heights, is one of the women who attends the weekly gathering. Hlebasko, 80, said she has been woodcarving for about 15 years and spends much of her time making rosebuds on stems that her knitting group attaches to the ends of the shawls they create. Hlebasko also does relief carving, where she etches barns and trees into wood.

"I love the smell of wood, and when I found out the group was meeting here, I wanted to try," said Hlebasko. "It's nice to be able to socialize here, and you can compare what everyone is making. Also, it's relaxing and gives you the chance to think. If you have problems you want to figure out, just pick up a piece of wood and work on it."

Nearby, Phil Barts carefully copied a pattern of a pelican resting on a pier post onto a piece of wood in preparation for a woodburning session. Barts, of Killeen, joined the group three years ago, right before he retired. Barts said he also carves in the round, from blocks of wood, and has made a cowgirl, Santa Claus and even a walking stick.

"This gives me something to do," he said. "My favorites are woodburning and chipping. I get a lot of relaxation out of them. At times, they can be stressful, but they're something different to do, and they're fun for me. And I get just as much entertainment out of meeting with the other club members and talking with them. I always look forward to that."

Contact Kim Steele at ksteele@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7567.

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