The Wood Calling – Wild Safari Wall Art

We’re really proud that the woodworking community is full of really accomplished and enthusiastic hobbyists adept at looking for new and novel project ideas to create and share in your spare time, but have you thought about boosting your quality time with family by getting your kids or grandchildren into your wood shops to enjoy the accomplishment of creating something together? Getting family hooked on making is a win win: it’s fun, you pass on your experience, they get to learn new skills, and you all benefit from the camaraderie creating shared memories together, even if it is messing things up on the way! Making quick and easy keepsakes using fun clipart to add interesting detail without the hassle of modeling from scratch is a great way to start. Maybe a storage box, coasters, chopping board or even a picture frame to evoke memories again and again.  Keeping busy with shared woodworking projects has already had such a positive impact on Sonny and Hale Johnston who are always buddying up to create things to use around the house or their Etsy store. Sonny shared his latest project with us on Instagram and we simply had to find out what motivates him and his son - woodworking partner in crime – Hale to create this Safari themed wall art.

Hi Sonny, thanks for sharing yours and Hale’s inspiring maker journey. Tell us a bit about yourself and how you started The Wood Calling.

I’m Lucian aka Sonny and my son is Hale. We’re a father and son team sharing our love of all things wood, designing and creating projects as The Wood Calling. I’m a retired Oil & Gas service industry executive but still keeping my hand with consultancy work serving on several board of directors including a financial instruction, a Little League Challenger league as well as a guardianship service. I also love photography so in my spare time I photograph for a local AAA baseball team, my area Special Olympics organization, the Little League Challenger team, as well as projects for our area high schools. Both Hale and I spend our time outside of the workshop enjoying bike rides as well as photography, and Hale has a great photographic eye thanks to his dad :).

Hale has been woodworking with me since he was a young boy, pretty much as soon as he started elementary school. He has Cerebral Palsy and neurodiversity but this has never stopped him living the best life, and he has already enjoyed so many amazing opportunities. After graduating from high school in 2022 and his local school district's REACH Program (Ready for Employment and to Assist as Community Helpers), he started two part time jobs; one at an area plant nursery and the other as a greeter for an AAA baseball team which he loves. Hale is also a really keen sportsman and takes part in Special Olympics sports and social activities at The Arc of Fort Bend County, which is a place where people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families can access a network of support services.  As well as playing baseball with a Little League Challenger team, Hale has also featured in a national NBA All-Star TV ad, been interviewed for PBS news channel, and also featured in a local news TV story. As if this wasn’t enough, he’s also enjoyed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play in the Little League World Series Challenger Exhibition game back in 2015. Basically, any game or sport which involves the use of a ball, you can count Hale in!!

Wow, you could say Hale is a bit of a sporting celebrity! That seems so different to woodworking so when did you guys get into that and how do you find the time to fit that all in?

I grew up in Arkansas and spent my time outdoors exploring, hunting and learning about nature in the pine forest behind my home, and one of the town’s main industries was logging and paper mills. I was intrigued by the Southern Yellow Pine trees and the surrounding forests I explored, and this influenced my lifelong interest in creating objects out of a simple pieces of Southern Yellow Pine wood. When I was a teenager, I taught myself how to build things from my college dorm room bunk beds to train sets where the paint never dried!  As soon as Hale was old enough, I taught him how to work with his hands and we now both get a real buzz out of designing and creating wood projects.

That really inspiring to see how you’ve devoted your time to passing on your skills to Hale. How did you make your wood shop safe and fun?

I’ve spent a lot of time adapting woodworking processes and tools to let Hale explore being creative and most of all to enjoy himself. He always gets stuck in helping me design and create new hand-crafted items like the wooden signs you see for sale on our shop and with each project, our skills improve. I introduced battery powered tools after a while then Hale's skills and creativity just took off! The Wood Calling has a great respect for tools and workshop safety, and I regularly teach Hale tool usage and safety.  I build jigs and adapt battery and power tools for Hale to be able to use tools on his own because independence in the workshop is our daily goal. If we encounter any difficulties while creating new products, we try not to stop but instead find a solution or workaround.

You’re a credit to your son and it’s fantastic you can enjoy the best life together making woodworking fun! How did you get into doing projects together?

On weekends as Hale grew up, I started teaching him how to build items and how to use tools safely. Learning together and working on joint woodworking projects helped us produce models of US aircraft carriers, the Titanic, golf clubs, hockey sticks and picture frames... basically anything with wheels was a ‘Hale favourite’! We started building these items with me using the power tool then shifting the project to Hale for him to use hand tools to finish the work. You’ll always find us out in the shop every spare minute we have, working on projects together and separately...maybe I’ll be turning a bowl or creating a cutting board while Hale might be creating a handcrafted sign. That’s basically how The Wood Calling came about - from cutting boards and handcrafted signs.

What a great way to introduce family to the wood shop. How did you get into CNC?

Hale wanted to sell his wood signs and we thought this would be a good, fun experience, but I also thought it would provide Hale with the ability to manage his own time and self achievement, so we started the Wood Calling. We thought in the beginning that he would sell generic signs and decorative wood items. Hale is great at creating an original sign or decorative item, however, he does not have the patience to make multiple copies. I looked for a solution to duplicate his unique style and I chose to purchase a CNC. The CNC gives Hale flexibility to create an original then duplicate his creation into reproductions he can sell but more importantly, it gives Hale an additional challenge to master!

We started with VCarve that came with our NextWave HD510 cnc machine to scan a photo of Hales hand routed original sign and auto trace/edit to achieve an exact duplicate. We upgraded to VCarve Pro for the ability to print a job sheet. The job sheet is important to The Wood Calling. I create the sheet as it gives Hale a visual, step by step, job setup process (zero position, orientation, bits,  etc) when moving to the CNC machine. I also hand annotate the drawing on the job layout section on the job set up sheet so Hale can visualize the safe clamp positions to complete the job set up.

It’s fantastic to hear that you converted your hobby into a business so quickly. When did you start your growing Etsy business and what projects do you sell?

We started making simple family gifts like the buffalo plaid sign Hale made for his mother, then progressed to some seasonal home decorating gifts to see how they would sell.

We started The Wood Calling featuring signs by Hale in 2019 with simple signs and seasonal decorative items that Hale made by hand. With the purchase of the CNC, Hale moved to making multiple Valentine’s Day conversation hearts, multiple Easter eggs and bunnies, then Christmas gonks and snowflake tree decorations. It’s been a great bit of tech as Hale’s skill level has evolved so we are now focusing on this process with making his original hand routed custom signs and designs then CNC duplicate the seasonal decorative items for sale in larger quantities. Hale always has a busy month in October creating gifts for me and his mother’s birthdays. We each got a Halloween pumpkin ’boo!’ and Happy Fall signs!…all using clipart, VCarve and finishing touch painting by Hale! 

Wow, that must be so rewarding bringing completely different abilities together to make something really workable. What drew you to the Design & Make African Safari Collection clipart?

We had not long returned from an amazing safari where we stayed at the beautiful Nkala Safari Lodge in South Africa. We spent our holiday tracking lion, leopard, black rhinoceros, African bush elephant, buffalo and other endangered species such as Cheetah to watch them roaming free... truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I love big game and I wanted a way to keep those memories alive so why not make a physical piece of wood art inspired by my holiday photos. I didn’t have time to spend modelling from scratch so I had a root through the Design & Make store and found these lovely African Safari models to upgrade my VCarve clipart library.

What an amazing sounding holiday. It’s great that you found the perfect clipart theme to match your trip. Can you talk us through each step of the process you took to make such a detailed piece of wall art?

For the Safari scene we deviated from the southern yellow pine that I normally use for projects. I used Bass wood since it had a similar color but a much finer grain that would support the detail engraving needed in 3D wood art.  I got started in VCarve building up a design, creating the frame and adding the clipart animals from the Safari Collection of models. It was really easy to recreate the wildlife scene of the creatures I had seen during the safari. The clipart is a great way to add highly detailed 3D models to a project in a quick and easy way, and it saved me so much time from having to model each of the creatures by hand. Once the machining was complete, I set to work with a range of deco art acrylic paints to subtly pick out the animal colours, trees and watering hole using grey, green, brown and blue. I left the rest of the project untouched because the Southern Yellow Pine heartwood is a lovely yellowish-brown and this was a perfect colour for the African savanna. We are now looking at producing more projects like using 3D relief carvings based on my photographs which will be the next fun step in our clipart journey.

That’s a really clever idea to adapt the wildlife clipart models to fit your safari experience. Can you tell us about other projects you make?

My first use of Vcarve’s 3D clipart was of seashells, sand dollars and sand which I used to embellish the back of a two-sided hand mirror project. This project was a surprise gift for my daughter on her wedding day. This safari scene is my second project including a 3D relief but not my last and there’s always a trade-off between machine time and engraving detail. Not all the elements in this safari scene needed the same level of detail so in future, I would limit the fine detail bit runs to only those areas that really could benefit to make those stand out and reduce machine times. The new modeling tools in version 11.5 made the fine adjustments easy and the increased 3D modeling speed allowed for extensive simulation and fine tuning before the actual machining. This is really useful as it eliminates the need for a “test” run which saved us a whole bunch of time.

Do you have any top tips for other makers starting their own journey with friends and family?

Start small, be safe and enjoy. The first project Hale and I made was a simple on/off-green/red sign for the bed of the CNC that serves as a safety reminder.

That’s a really clever idea. What other projects do you have in the pipeline?

Well, we went big and Hale created a six foot tall hand-routed nutcracker for Christmas! It’s too big to post so we’ll be scaling that down and creating our 2023 Christmas ornaments from it on the CNC then get those on the Etsy shop. Right now we’re in the middle of updating our shop but the plan is to use VCarvePro and the CNC to make several new jigs for the drill press and table saw when the shop is back in action. Longer term, I would like to upgrade to Aspire then try integrating model building with my photographs to “print” in wood.

We love how you guys make such a great team blending your VCarve and CNC experience with Hale’s painting by hand to offer this beautiful signature style. We can’t wait to see what you come up with next. Thank you for sharing your wonderful story and we wish you every success with your Etsy business!

Check out the project gallery and if you’d like to see more projects, go to Sonny & Hale’s website The Wood Calling or keep an eye on their Instagram feed.

Sonny & Hale Johnston – The Wood Calling, Texas


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