The Wire @ WPI Online
VOLUME 13, NO. 1     DEC 1999

Roy Bourgault: The Bird Man of Einhorn Road


Bourgault perches with a few members of his flock

Back in 1964, a Sunday Telegram columnist bemoaned the fact that no one whittles anymore. A reader promptly wrote to set him straight. To prove that whittling still had its enthusiasts, Roy Bourgault '42 sent photographs of some of his own projects and pointed out that Boy Scouts were still turning out wooden neckerchief slides with their trusty penknives.

Today, those boys are old enough to be Scout leaders, and Bourgault, who retired from WPI as professor emeritus of mechanical engineering in 1985, is still at it, whittling and teaching his grandson's Scout troop to carve. Over the past three decades, he has witnessed a revival of the craft, with books, magazines, supply stores and exhibitions devoted to woodcarving.

Bougault's own creations fill a curio cabinet in his home on Worcester's Einhorn Road. There are miniature animals and whimsical figurines, including the entire "Peanuts" gang. There are wooden puzzles and intriguing toys that beg to be handled. But what arrests a visitor's attention are the birds.

A bevy of birds inhabits the Bourgaults' sitting room, alighting on the walls, or roosting on branches and stands. They stare with beady glass eyes, their gnarly feet clenched around their perches. Their plumage looks so soft and delicate that it takes a touch to remember that the finely detailed feathers are actually etched and painted wood.

Birds were a natural subject for Bourgault, an accomplished photographer, avid hiker, and a longtime Scoutmaster and recipient of the Silver Beaver Award. He says, "I decided that as long as I was in the woods, I was going to learn about the birds and all that was around me...the trees and the stars and everything." Bourgault knows birds. He can identify them by song, and is familiar with their habits and habitats.

Although he subscribes to birding and carving magazines and collects related books, Bourgault says he occasionally finds some of their craft patterns lacking. The proportions aren't true, and the coloration looks artificial. "A bird is not a nice solid color," he explains, showing how he blends and graduates layers of acrylic paint to avoid a sharp line of demarcation. Another key to turning out a lifelike bird is getting the head cocked at a natural angle, he says.

Bourgault doesn't sell his work or take commissions, but instead delights in creating meaningful gifts for family members. His catalog has grown to 35 birds, from his first attempt--a puffin modeled after photographs he took on Machias Seal Island, off the coast of Maine--to an affectionate pair of cardinals that was a gift to his wife, Betty.

While Bourgault's work draws on time-honored techniques, it also takes advantage of modern woodcarving tools and accessories that are now readily available. "I stopped being a purist a long time ago," he says. He uses power tools for the tedious work and purchases precast metal feet from hobby shops instead of soldering his own. Still, there are times when he will spend hours using a razor-edged burning pin to inscribe each line of an individual feather.

Just how lifelike are Bourgault's birds? Many first-time visitors to the Bourgault home mistakenly think his hobby is taxidermy. Once, an amazed photo shop clerk handed back photos he'd taken of his "flock" and asked how he managed

to get so close to wild birds without scaring them off. On the other hand, the long-eared owl that Bourgault set out as a scarecrow for his blueberry bushes didn't work as well as he expected. Perhaps, when it comes to birds of a feather, it takes one to know one.

--Joan Killough-Miller

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