Carving gratitude into a tool for vets' recovery

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Lisbon - posted Wed., Jun. 1, 2011
Ray Johnson works on carving an eagle head for the top of an injured veteran's cane. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
Ray Johnson works on carving an eagle head for the top of an injured veteran's cane. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

Turning a block of wood in his hand, Ray Johnson carves away the excess and gradually transforms it into the head of a bald eagle.

As the carver works, he’s thinking about far more than a realistic appearance. He’s thinking about the hand of the veteran who will eventually use this eagle head as an aid in recovery from the wounds of war.

Johnson, who hails from Uncasville, is making a personalized cane for a veteran from Granby, currently a patient at Walter Reed Army Hospital. He’s working with a circle of friends at the Lisbon Senior Center who gather on Wednesday mornings to carve together and shoot the breeze.

“We come here to socialize,” said Johnson. “Sometimes I carve on my canes, sometimes I carve on something else.”

Johnson has made, by his own estimation, about 30 of the canes as gifts to newly-disabled veterans of the current Gulf War. Several other members of the carving circle at Lisbon have made canes, too.

“They’re all personalized for each individual,” Johnson said of the canes he makes. A completed cane he displays tells the military history of its future owner, SPD Adam Castagna: the word “Army,” the Purple Heart, the Dragoon unit he served with, his jump wings indicating that he was a parachutist.

Veterans who request a cane can specify what they’d like the woodcarver to add to the shaft. Castagna’s nickname was “Pops,” so Johnson carved that in, along with the military operation he served in Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom. Some of the details are carved and painted: others, like the combat helmet and boots, are decals enhanced by wood-burned outlines.

Johnson added his own personal touches to the handcrafted cane, too. “I’ve been doing all my canes with a red, white and blue stripe. That’s my signature,” he said. Besides that, he burned in a message next to his name, near the bottom: “Thank you for your service.”

“These are all given to veterans at no cost,” said Johnson. “Every one is a little different, depending on the carver doing it.”

The hand-carved canes for veterans project originated in Oklahoma shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, said Johnson.  A Tulsa woodcarver named Jack Nitz came up with the idea and offered an online tutorial on creating a believable eagle head from a block of wood, so others could participate. His website,, also has a list of veterans who’ve requested a cane, organized by state of residence.

Johnson said that he became involved through his membership in the New England Woodcarvers, which began making canes for New England vets. “Every now and then they’d send me a Connecticut veteran,” he said. Eventually, he volunteered to organize the effort himself.

Carving the head is an involved process, said Johnson. Along with roughing out the shape and gradually refining it, he uses a wood-burning tool to create the texture of feathers. The head is painted with a primer called gesso, then with white acrylic paint. Glass eyes are embedded in the piece for added realism.

Johnson said that the Central Connecticut Woodturners recently offered to turn shafts for canes, which will allow the carvers to focus on the eagle heads and on the carved personalized details.

The Mystic Woodcarvers, another organization to which Johnson belongs, will also hold a workshop for those who’d like to make eagle canes on the last weekend of June at the Quiambaug Firehouse on Old Stonington Road, starting at 9 a.m.

“I’ll have the blanks so [participants] can get started in laying it out,” said Johnson. Experience isn’t a prerequisite, he added, “but it would be helpful if they have some carving experience and their own tools.”

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