Stefani Priskos Published

In North Carolina, Master Woodcarvers Nurture Century-Old Craft Tradition

Two older adults sit at a table carving wood. One adult is female and the other is male.
Angela Wynn and Richard Carter carve tiny beavers out of basswood at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina.
Stefani Priskos/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

This story originally aired in the March 3, 2024 episode of Inside Appalachia.

On a foggy morning, Angela Wynn heads into the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina. Normally, she’d be starting a day of work as a housekeeper here. But today, she’s at the school for a different reason. She’s here to learn how to cut out wood blanks from Richard Carter, a longtime Brasstown Carver.

The Brasstown Carvers were once so celebrated that in the 1930s, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt purchased some of their carvings as state gifts. Today, only a handful of Brasstown Carvers remain. But a dedicated teacher, an enthusiastic student and a supportive community are helping to keep this local craft tradition alive.

Wynn pays close attention as Carter flips through a binder of photos, diagrams and instructions. Using this pattern book as a guide, they’ll use a bandsaw to cut out wood shapes to carve into animal figurines. 

Six wood carvings are shown on a table. All are different birds - cardinel, duck, owl - except for one that appears to be a dog and another that is a pine tree.
Finished and in-progress carvings sit in front of a box of wood “blanks” or “patterns.” Carter is responsible for cutting out all the blanks for the Brasstown Carvers. The carvers then carve, sand, buff, finish and detail each figurine to arrive at the final product.

Photo Credit: Stefani Priskos/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Wynn began learning to carve about a year and a half ago, after moving to Brasstown from Florida. She had tried different crafts before, but this just felt different. 

“I was instantly hooked,” Wynn says.

Well, almost instantly.

“The first carving night, I absolutely was clueless and I didn’t even know where to start,” she says. “I could see what I wanted to do, I just didn’t have the nerve to do it.” 

Then, Wynn got some help from Carter. 

“He was very generous with his praise on my first carving,” she says. “I look at it now and … it’s pretty sad. It was a squirrel. I still have it. I laugh at it now.”

There’s a long tradition of whittling and woodcarving in Brasstown, but being an official Brasstown Carver is a special honor.

“People want to know, ‘How quick can I get to be a Brasstown Carver?’” Carter says. “And it’s not quick.”

Big Carving Dreams? Start With Tiny Beavers

Two wood carvings are shown on a table. One is a goose while the other is a pig.
Some of the Brasstown Carvers’ signature carvings are “least ones” — tiny animal carvings that stand under two inches tall. Carving small is hard, which is why “least ones” are on the list of carvings that aspiring Brasstown Carvers must master. Wynn carved this pig and “gossiping goose,” two classic Brasstown animal patterns.

Photo Credit: Stefani Priskos/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Now 73, Carter grew up near the Folk School and has been a Brasstown Carver for almost 50 years. He says each aspiring Brasstown Carver has to complete a checklist of challenges to prove their skill and consistency. One of those challenges is carving “least ones” — tiny animal carvings that stand under two inches tall.

A close up photo of two sets of arms and hands carving small wooden figures.
Carter and Wynn compare “least one” beavers. Carving side by side allows Carter to give Wynn feedback and demonstrate techniques in real time. It also encourages ample chit chat — another time-honored woodcarving tradition.

Photo Credit: Stefani Priskos/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Wynn has already successfully produced a “least one” goat, bear, goose and pig, among others. Today, she and Carter are carving tiny beavers out of basswood. As they work, Carter shows Wynn some shortcuts and tricks.

Wynn says she’s learned a lot from carving — including patience. 

That’s something I can relate to on a personal level. I used to work at the Folk School, and I attended the carving nights that the Brasstown Carvers hold every week. I loved chatting with my neighbors while my hands were busy, but it was hard for me to see anything in the wood. I usually felt like I was getting nowhere. 

But Carter says Wynn showed promise from her very first carving night.

“We watch people in here and we can tell when they’re going to be able to do real well and she does real good,” Carter says.

Being able to visualize the animal that a block of wood “wants” to become is key — and it’s one of Wynn’s favorite parts of carving.

“For me, the joy is just finding the animal in there and making it my own,” she says. “It’s just like a little surprise every time.”

Carter agrees. 

“I know one of my great friends, he was here a month ago,” he says. “He took a bird home with him. And he brought it back last week and it was a little gnome.”

Seven small wood carvings of hedgehogs line the top of a desk. Underneath are other small carvings and a sign that reads, "Least Ones, $15.00 each by Brasstown Carvers, Brasstown, NC."
Although Brasstown Carvers all work from the same patterns, Wynn has enjoyed seeing her own personal style emerge as her carving skills have progressed. She has also developed her own original carving patterns, such as these walnut-shell hedgehogs on display at the John C. Campbell Folk School’s craft shop.

Photo Credit: Stefani Priskos/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Carvings Fit For A Future Queen

A black and white photo of an elderly man and woman sitting outside, in front of a porch carving small pieces of wood. Between them is a small white dog.
Brasstown Carvers Sally and Clarence Fleming carve on the porch of their house in Brasstown, North Carolina, circa 1935. Sally was known for carving pigs with curly tails. Brasstown Carvers hailed from around the region, including the nearby communities of Warne, Gum Log, Pine Log and Martins Creek.

Courtesy/Western Carolina University, Historical Photograph Collection

The Brasstown Carvers were started by Olive Dame Campbell in the mid-1920s, a few years after she co-founded the John C. Campbell Folk School. The carvers were encouraged to carve what they saw — typically animals — and they became famous for their realistic figures. According to Caroline Baxter, the Folk School’s craft shop manager, the Brasstown Carvers program was part of Campbell’s larger vision of an economic future for Appalachians that didn’t require moving away from home.

“One of [Campbell’s] goals was to provide economic development for the carvers, give them a way to make money in the season where their fields were not being worked and they kind of had downtime,” Baxter says.

A photograph of a letter that appears to have been written on a typewriter.
For many Brasstown Carvers, the earnings that they received from carving served as an important source of supplemental income. To express their gratitude, in 1947, the Brasstown Carvers organized a letter-writing campaign to Murrial “Murray” Martin, who was the carving instructor of the John C. Campbell Folk School from 1935 to 1973. In 2024, revenue from selling carvings is still a meaningful source of “side money” for Brasstown Carvers, although the money doesn’t stretch as far as it did in the 30s, 40s and 50s. The letters also mention other benefits of carving such as friendship, community, a meaningful and productive artistic hobby – which remain important to Brasstown Carvers today.

Photo Credit: Doris M. Reece/Courtesy Western Carolina University, John C. Campbell Folk School Records

The Brasstown Carvers soon began selling their work in shops across the country. By the 1930s, says Travis Souther, the Folk School’s archivist, Brasstown Carver fame had reached the White House.

“Some of those woodcarvings were purchased by [President Franklin D. Roosevelt] and Mrs. Roosevelt,” Souther says. “They were later given as gifts to a young lady who was living in England at the time.”

The young lady? Future Queen Elizabeth II.

There’s a legend in Brasstown about a family that was able to purchase a house during the Great Depression with the money they earned from carving alone. For today’s Brasstown Carvers, carving is still a meaningful source of extra income, but the earnings don’t stretch as far as they did during the carvers’ heyday. For one thing, carving requires immense hand strength and physical stamina, and many of the carvers now are in their 70s and 80s. For Wynn and Carter, carving is also something they fit in between other jobs and home and family responsibilities.

“It’s only side money now,” Wynn says. “I would love to be able to carve full-time, but I’m not to that point.” 

A New Generation Of Carvers

These days, Wynn is more than just a student of Carter’s. At age 53, she’s the newest official member of the Brasstown Carvers, representing a new generation. To support her continued training, the North Carolina Arts Council recently awarded Carter and Wynn a folklife apprenticeship grant. Wynn says she looks forward to passing on what she learns to the next generation of Brasstown Carvers.

On Thursday nights, the Brasstown Carvers host their free weekly carving night at the Folk School. It’s a place for experienced carvers to spend time together and talk shop.

Four wood carvings are on display, all appear to be different animals.
A collection of Wynn’s “least ones” carvings at different stages in the carving process. From left to right: a wood blank of a goat; a carved and sanded bear; a finished pig and “gossiping goose.”

Photo Credit: Stefani Priskos/West Virginia Public Broadcasting
A gathering room. Dozens of people sit at chairs and tables crafting. A large sign hangs from the ceiling that reads, "Good to be together."
Every Thursday night, Brasstown Carvers, Folk School students and staff, and Brasstown locals of all ages gather for the Folk School’s community carving night. Attendees get to know each other as they try their hand at a new or long-loved craft.

Photo Credit: Stefani Priskos/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

It’s also a place for newcomers to try out carving. Carter and Wynn especially want to encourage young people to come. 

“We got a young one, a nine-year-old, coming tonight, so hopefully he’s excited to get into this,” Carter says. “I’ve got a six-year-old at home that wants to do it, but I’m trying to hold out on that for a while. I may give him a bar of soap and something to let him work on.”

As the newest Brasstown Carver, Wynn has some advice for beginners: 

“Don’t be afraid. Don’t be intimidated,” she says. “Just give it a shot. You never know what you can do until you try it.”


This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council.

The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts and culture.