Articles and Publications

A Carver With Old-World Style

Originally published in Tillamook PUD Ruralite, August, 1999 — By Matt Love

In an era of high-tech materials and computer-controlled processes, some artisans still care about craftsmanship and making things with their hands in a manner that upholds tradition.

"A piece of finely worked wood is the essence of civilization," says Cloverdale resident and master woodcarver Nora Hall, a local stalwart in preserving and passing on the skills of fine woodcraft.

As a child growing up in German-occupied Holland during World War II, Nora's father taught her to cherish craft traditions and how to intricately carve wood into ornamental and practical objects of exquisite taste and refinement.

Now, nearly 60 years later, living in South Tillamook County and working out of her rustic garage studio, Nora continues highly skilled carving and keeps adding to her nationwide reputation as an expert carver whose style reflects the legacy of the European masters.

Nora's work has been featured in prestigious design magazines such as Architectural Digest and House Beautiful.

She frequently travels all across the country giving workshops instructing other woodcarvers how to emulate her unique method. She will soon be the subject of a PBS program that profiles outstanding woodworkers.

Locally, Nora teaches beginning carving classes at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology on Cascade Head in Otis. She also has produced an instructional woodcarving video that received raves from both novice and professional woodcarvers.

One testimonial about her talent from an editor of a woodworking publication states, "Nora Hall is the rarest of teachers, her skill as a craftsman is matched only by her ability to instruct and inspire her students."

Her journey from Amsterdam to dairy country on the Oregon coast is a compelling story.

Nora apprenticed with her father, renowned Dutch woodcarver Johannes Leereveld. She recalls him fooling Nazis to help his family survive in war-ravaged Holland. He would carve fake antiques, bury them for a few weeks, later dig them up, and then sell them to the unsuspecting Nazi collectors.

"It was a hard time," says Nora. "We all thought it was the end of the world."

She later moved to the United States, married, had children and eventually settled in Colorado. A few years ago, she came to Cloverdale to be close to family. She discovered climbing hills and walking on the beach eliminated her asthma and invigorated her carving.

"The Oregon air cleared everything up in no time," she says.

Her son Wendell made the move to the Oregon coast first, and now helps her in the studio and with the business side of the operation.

Now in her 70s, Nora keeps a busy schedule, completing carving commissions and teaching a new generation of craftsmen that perhaps the old ways are better.

She shows no signs of slowing down, and occasionally pulls all-nighters with Wendell when working on a project close to deadline.

"We sometimes start at 9 p.m. and go until morning," admits Nora.

Typically, Nora begins an important commission by talking with a client to gain an aesthetic feel for what the patron wants. She then makes sketches and forms a clay model.

"I carve clay, and it takes all the three-dimensional problems away in a few day," says Nora.

Only after this deliberate pre-production process does the shaping of the wood commence.

It is fascinating to watch Nora work in her studio. Flanked by slabs of wood, and rows and rows of old European tools — some of them handed down by her father — Nora smooths away the wood in a delicate, effortless, gliding motion that sends shavings gently floating to the ground.

A dog sleeps near a wood stove, and Nora casually expounds upon her special technique. It is a work environment of total concentration and simplicity.

According to Nora, what distinguishes her "old world" style from contemporary carving methods is the coordinated use of two hands.

"My way of carving is faster, and it's fun to work with both hands," says Nora. "The movement in the hands is the key."

Nora says many experienced carvers who have tried her technique love the results.

"I've had people who have carved for years who say, 'This is the way,'" she says.

Nora works with mahogany, oak and walnut. She has carved mantles, mirror frames, reliefs, decorated fine furniture, musical instruments and wine cellar doors. The larger projects can take three months to complete.

Some of her more elaborate — and lucrative — commissions have been for the New York Public Library, Gibson Guitar and U.S. West.

Nora smiles when asked about her most interesting commissioned work.

"I did some carvings for some of the rooms in Hugh Hefner's Playboy Mansion," she says.

As for the most expensive piece of carving she has produced, Nora hedges and finally mentions a highboy — a kind of dresser — that probably would have been welcome in the lavish court of French royalty.

Even though Nora is at the top of her trade and has spent decades perfecting her art, she insists in her charming manner that even whittlers can carve attractively if they follow her advice: "Start the right way and enjoy it. Get some instruction or it can be frustrating."

It might be a good idea to begin with lessons from a master: Nora Hall. It certainly would be an opportunity to celebrate and continue tradition and learn how to craft beautiful objects from wood.