Art: An Interview with Robbie Woolner (Woolner Wood Arts)

Wood carved rock and roll heavy metal band figurines, drummer, two guitar players, bass player and singer.

If you’re anything like myself, you probably don’t immediately think of carving when you hear the word art, yet when you see it well done… that perception/association quickly changes. Robbie Woolner’s carved art is a perfect example to demonstrate that point with.

I was lucky enough to catch up with Robbie (an old friend I met in my Creekwater Junkies days) who’s become seriously talented working with wood and other mediums. He’s used his skills to start his own business Woolner Wood Arts (based in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada).

In this interview, Robbie and I discuss how he started working within this unique niche of art and how he successfully used his carving talents to start his own business. Of course, I also managed to get some advice from him for other artistic types to help them do the same with their own creative talents.

Me: Hey Robbie, how have you been my friend? Long time no see!

Robbie: I’ve been good man, nice to hear from you!

Yeah, it’s been nice to catch up! That being said, it’s great to have you here today, because I think what you’re doing with Woolner Wood Arts is really cool. As I think you’re sort of familiar with the format of these interviews, let’s get started!

Let’s start with you: tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get started in carving? How long have you been doing it?

I started carving in 2016. Nothing fancy to tell really as I just went to the beach one day and brought home a piece of driftwood, picked up a knife and just started whittling it on my porch. The next thing you know, I had a face carved, and I started showing it to some people, and everybody loved it. I found that I loved doing it, and it wasn’t much longer before I started doing it full time.

Robbie Woolner of Woolner Wood Arts
Robbie Woolner

So you just started on a whim?

Kind of, yeah. I mean, my Dad used to carve when I was in my teenage years, and my Mom’s also an artist, so in a way, art comes with my genes, I guess. I’ve got artist genes in me.

That’s interesting. Kind of cool how carving, which is a craft that I will admit to me seems pretty unconventional, was just something that kind of popped out of the blue for you. Now I understand you do it as sort of a side hustle?

Yes, currently, that’s the case. I was doing it full-time for a while – but I’ve reduced my work to part-time at the moment. I took on a full-time job a few months ago, and so I’ve slowed things down since then.

I’m still carving, but I’m just not taking on as many commissions. I’m more so carving a lot of pieces for myself, things that I like that I will sell.

But you do you still do commissions, right?

Of course. I’m just not taking on as many because my time is limited. Some clients will come to me with an idea, but they want it done within a week. That’s fine, but many times, they don’t realize some of these things might take me a month or more to do properly.

I could see that. I’ve seen a lot of your work… it can be pretty elaborate.

Definitely.

So how would you describe your work? Of course, anyone perusing your site or this post can see some of it, but how would you describe your style?

My style is pretty obscure. The type of stuff I’m really into – skulls and heavy metal inspired art – I’d say that my style takes a lot from that category.

But honestly, I don’t need much more inspiration than whatever pops into my head at the time. Otherwise, I might see something online or somebody else’s work that I thought I could improve upon or change to my liking and so I’ll do that.

Well regarding your heavy metal comment, I can see in the background of our chat you are sitting in front of your massive wall of band t-shirts…

Yeah! Recognize this one? Creekwater Junkies! *laughs*

*Laughs* Takes me back! So heavy metal artwork is a prime influence – that’s cool crossing mediums like that.

Yeah, I’d say so. It’s definitely a massive influence on my art. I used to draw a lot too when I was younger, and the only types of things I ever drew were skulls and demons. I didn’t draw angels or puppies or anything like that, you know?

*Laughing*. Didn’t take you for the type. So do you have any personal influences then? You did say your Dad was a carver.

I would say that, yes, he would probably be my prime influence – both of my parents would be.

But also there are some heavy metal artists like Pushead (who did designs for artists like Metallica and the Misfits) and the artist that does Iron Maiden’s artwork – Derek Riggs – he’s been a significant influence.

I used to constantly try to draw Eddie of Iron Maiden (the band’s mascot). They’re my favorite band, and so I used to draw Eddie everywhere I went for years and years. Derek’s artwork was a big influence on me when it came to skulls and art themes like that.

I mean, I have to wholeheartedly agree with you on how cool their artwork is – my left arm is wholly tattooed in Iron Maiden artwork. They have some of the best artwork in music, in my opinion.

THE best.

So even though you’ve limited commissions for a little while – what do you like most about carving? About creative types of work?

When I’m carving or drawing, I find that it pretty much takes me to another place. I kind of disappear into my mind when I’m doing it – I’m not worried about things like this COVID-19 virus. I’m not thinking about it, and I’m not thinking about anything else that I usually think about. I just disappear into my own little world.

Sometimes I’ll be carving something, and I will look up at the clock and go “wow, I started doing this at 9,” and meanwhile it’s then 1 o’clock in the afternoon.  I always find myself asking, “where did those hours go?” but then I look down at my work, and I’m like, “oh, that’s where they went.”

Your slogan/tagline “Carve into it” – is that where that comes from?

That’s exactly where it comes from. I found that eventually, instead of just wood, I was picking up everything that was “carve-able” and making all sorts of different things out of all kinds of different materials… and so “carve into it” kind of became applicable – and I use that philosophy with life too… like, just jump right in and give it a shot.

A little life philosophy thrown in there too – I like that! But also… you don’t just do wood art then?

No! Anything that I think I can carve –  any medium that can be shaped or moved with another medium, I’ll pretty much try it. I do golf balls, I’ve done rocks, and right now, actually, I have a pool ball I want to shape into something.

Actually, now that I think of it, I saw something you posted about these bone rings you were working on.

Yeah! I have some bone rings I’ve been doing – making skull-shaped rings out of real bone. I also want to carve a couple skull pendants, and some people have asked me to do some dreadlock beads carved out of bone as well.

So if someone found like antlers, or something like that…

Yeah, actually, here’s an antler tip right here *shows me*. I’ve actually got a grim reaper already ready to go drawn on it ready to carve. So I’ll turn that into a pendant or something you wear.

Wow, that’s awesome.

Yeah but it stinks man – not the art, the actual smell of it *laughs*.

I’m telling you working with some of this stuff – bone and antlers – it smells like you’re at the dentist; it smells like burning teeth. It can be terrible – but otherwise, I like working with it, it’s a fun medium for art.

Hmmm… yes, I can imagine burning organic matter… working with that might smell a little off-putting *laughs*

Yeah it sure does.

*Still laughing*

So that kind of leads me nicely into my next question then – what projects are you working on right now? What kind of stuff do you have coming out?

I’ve been doing some fence board painting actually. I’ve made some things for my sensei, and I’ve got a few projects other clients want me to do – making some signs for people’s cottages and stuff like that, but as of right now, I’ve got a commission to do some work on a pool cue holder. The client wants it monogrammed with an 8-ball on it and a custom way to hold the cues.

That sounds interesting, how does that work exactly? Do you just sort of carve into it – no pun intended *laughs*

Actually, I don’t know yet how I am going to go about doing it because of the holder’s design. It has weights in it and rubber on it – and while mostly the client just wants it personalized, I am still going to have to figure out how to do that without ruining functionality.

What’s something like that cost then?

Things like that cost a little more, but nothing outrageous.

Pricing for custom jobs can be tricky, but for me, I usually charge by asking a bunch of people, “what would you pay for that?” and sooner or later, I’ll get a consensus of a price in or around the same price range. So that’s usually where I base things. Some of this stuff is super unique… and I don’t always know what to charge people *laughs*

Wood sign with Japanese text, two karate fighters in karate poses

Well, as long as it’s worth your time and you like doing it, I guess that’s a start.

Well, that’s the best part about it – I didn’t charge anything at first – people actually made me start charging for my work.

I didn’t even start my business, other people actually started it for me.

No kidding!? Elaborate on that a little bit… that’s interesting.

I don’t know if I can. Honestly, I just had people contacting me that they wanted specific things made, and so they pretty much pressured me to start selling my stuff so I’d actually make those things.

I mean I was having a good time by myself just doing it because I loved it, and I’d offer to give some things away sometimes – but then people started telling me “no, your hours are worth time and money, so I’ll give you 50 bucks for this” and I kind of said, “sure, no problem.”

That’s when I thought “well, I might as well start a business”.

Why not if there’s a demand for it?

Right? That’s why you start a business *laughs*

So do you have any favorite stories that have come from carving and doing this business since you started?

If I had to pick one, I guess it’s really just that first time that I carved something, the first piece of wood I brought home from the beach. I didn’t realize I had a talent at all when it came to this kind of thing. I just kind of sat there doing it, and at the time, it took me a couple days to do, but even now, when I look at what I made –  something I could do in an hour now – it reminds me of how far I’ve come.  

Not really an elaborate story for you – just me sitting on the porch with a couple of beers and ending up with this result – that’s my favorite story.

Three elaborate wood carved fantasy houses

I mean most of what I do revolves around me sitting here by myself, so there aren’t many stories to tell *laughs*

And yet… in its simplicity, that’s a great story. A piece of wood, a knife, a couple beers, and some time on a porch turned into a passion, talent, and business for yourself! That’s pretty amazing. And the fact that you said that basically, your business started because other people kind of did it for you – that’s a cool story too in itself.

I guess it is when you put it that way.

Now, this is a niche that I personally don’t know anybody else who does what you do. It’s very unique.

Neither did I when I started.

If you were to give someone advice – someone who wanted to get started in carving or in any kind of artistic medium for that matter – and if they were going to start their own business – what advice would you give to those people? For both carving and for business?

For carving and any art really – make sure you’re having fun doing it, that’s number one. I don’t really care what anybody else thinks about it, to be honest. If you’re having fun doing what you’re doing, and you can make some money on the side… then all the power to you, because that’s all that really matters. I’m having fun doing what I’m doing – that’s why I do it. The rest can come after that.

Straight, simple, and to the point: can’t go wrong with that advice.

Would you say there are any lessons you’ve learned along the way – things that maybe you could have avoided – things that if you went back and did it all over again, you’d do differently? From a business standpoint?

Well, first of all, my business really didn’t take off huge for me for awhile – I’m only really applying for income tax for my business this year for the first time because last year was the first year I made enough real profit.

And then, with things the way they are now, I’m not even sure that’s going to happen again this year… I had plans to do a showcase table with all my work at this local bar, but I haven’t had enough time to do enough things (apart from commissions) to fill a table right now. And with COVID-19 effectively banning public gatherings and bars being closed going into this summer… who knows how the rest of the year will go.

But for business, I would say to take all the courses that you can and learn as much as you can about your product or your craft that you’re doing.  Study and learn – what else can you say about business, really? I went and took some courses at business school because I wanted to learn more – if you don’t pay attention to your business and your craft every day or make an effort to learn more every day… it’s going to fall, eventually.

In my situation, for example, I’ve put some of my work on various platforms like Youtube and Facebook. I have a Youtube channel with some videos of my original stuff, and just by looking at it, you can actually see how much my work has progressed since I started. I only have some still shot videos with music at the moment – no live videos for now – but through my channel and my social media pages, I’ve met a lot of friends in that niche, and I’ve seen how effective social media can be. One friend of mine started a carving channel on Youtube, and he only had maybe 10 subscribers at the beginning… and now he just reached 15,000 within a year as of yesterday.

So it’s all about how you push yourself, how you sell yourself, and how much of your work you’re putting out there to the public.

That’s quite the jump in a single year – it just goes to show you how quickly things can change when you actually put your head down and just start something – kind of like you did.

Yeah, exactly!

Well, I think that’s great, man. I think that’s about it for today, though, so thanks again for joining me here at the Creative Wealth Project, and thanks for sharing your work and wisdom!

You’re very welcome Mitch, it was nice chatting with you!

Be sure to check out Robbie’s Facebook page for Woolner Wood Arts, where he’s most active (there are tonnes of photos of his carvings and updates for what’s coming up), but don’t forget about his Youtube channel to see some of his work!

Don’t forget to follow The Creative Wealth Project (below) so you never miss a post – and don’t be afraid to share – knowledge is power, let’s grow together!