The route from Eastchester, N.Y., to Tarpon Springs, Fla., was a bit circuitous — and not just geographically speaking — for Ken D’Ambrosio, the former award-winning Manhattan commercial photographer and advertising executive responsible for among other things, the “Reach Out and Touch Someone” and “Be All You Can Be” advertising campaigns.
But as the life of the now 72-year-old took the usual twists and turns, a welcome constant in it was a love for working with wood and his own two hands.
Recently I had the good fortune to visit D’Ambrosio in his newly constructed woodshop, which looks out on the Gulf of Mexico and Three Rooker Island. In response to a question, he explained that though he started playing around with tools on his own at home, his skills were really developed at Eastchester High School in those days when all students — college prep, business or trade school — had access to and encouragement for electives in the wood, automotive and metal shops. D’Ambrosio said that in those courses he machined a knurled handled metal hammer, poured molten aluminum derived from scrap metal into molds and bonded wood strips of different types together to be turned on a lathe into various visually interesting items. A life-lasting result was that he was infused with skills, knowledge and confidence to make all sorts of things from scratch on his own.
As he tells it, “My hands slowly became an extension of my mind while I took those courses.”
As he matured, D’Ambrosio began to look at things differently. For example, a tree was not just a tree any longer, but something that might furnish woods of different hardness and grain patterns that could be used functionally as well as artistically.
While serving in the Army in the 1960s, he was a frequent visitor to the arts and crafts centers that existed on most posts. In his spare time, he continued to develop his turning skills, turning out such things as a black walnut chair and turned bowls. The Army also afforded him access to a darkroom where he developed his photography skills.
While in Germany, D’Ambrosio visited the famous Neuschwanstein Castle of King Ludwig II. Not surprisingly, what caught his eye were the elaborate wood carvings that ornamented the carriages, fireplace mantles and room moldings. A practiced eye picked up on the fact that these carvings were done in hard oak, not the simple clear, straight-grained basswood that he had seen carved before. This was the real deal and D’Ambrosio decided that he was going to have to give this more challenging carving a try.
He found out that there was a school of wood carving in Oberamagau directed by Raymond Schneider. Though the class had already formed, D’Ambrosio was able to persuade the powers that be to let him stay on as an observer. He followed the apprentices around, learned to sharpen their tools for them and absorbed all that the various craftsmen were doing.
Returning home to a basement apartment in Eastchester, the newly married man began his downtown “day job” as a commercial photographer though still finding time to build a little woodshop and acquire more carving tools such as some fine old Sheffield steel chisels. He even built a wooden lathe body for himself. Recognizing the value of a good teacher, D’Ambrosio hired a Westchester carving expert for 10 private lessons and learned to use things like a half-moon chisel to carve such intricacies as fish scales. Eventually, after moving to Rhode Island in 1986, D’Ambrosio purchased one of those all-purpose Shopsmith Mark V510 machines that contained a drill press, table saw, lathe, jointer and sander. Subsequently, a custom built lathe by John Nichols of Oregon was acquired.
Working with the wood
His technical woodworking skills now at a very high level, D’Ambrosio’s creative side was given free rein and a new master began turning out a plethora of very artsy looking bowls, vases and whimsical pieces. Besides always being on the lookout for distinctive pieces of wood, sometimes found by the side of the road when storm damaged trees had to be hauled away, D’Ambrosio contacted local arborists about acquiring “interesting” stock. It might be a burl or a limb with a twist in it or a piece of wood with a mineral discoloration or even a piece with fortuitously positioned insect damage. The chunks, trunks or boards would be carefully dried and stored for future use or even to be used as trade items among his circle of wood-loving friends. Stock for projects was never purchased.
Sometimes a piece of wood would be scrutinized for weeks while D’Ambrosio evaluated what was in it; just waiting to be proverbially released by chisels, saws or files. A knot, crack or stretch of rot might be incorporated into the final carving and you could be sure at a glance that you would never see a duplicate of anything that originated in D’Ambrosio’s shop.
As readers of Woodshop News well know, there are craftsmen everywhere who work away at a vast variety of projects. They do it for fun, profit, relaxation or therapy. Occasionally they like to get together with like-minded souls. At these gatherings, works are displayed, new tools showcased, as yet un- or underutilized species of trees are evaluated for specialized applications and workshops or classes are offered which expand all sorts of possibilities for future projects. D’Ambrosio co-founded, along with Rudi Hempe and Bruce Arnold, the Rhode Island chapter of the American Society of Wood Turners, growing Ocean Turners from a handful of amateur, but enthusiastic, artisans into a thriving assembly of about 120 turners spanning all levels of competence.
Through the years, I have known some very competent turners and some very competent carvers. But I have never seen someone as capable with both modes of woodworking as D’Ambrosio. He did not set out to be the master that he is, but he did follow a basic love for wood and handiwork that led him to where he is today.
Tools of the trade
The 20’ x 18’ air-conditioned woodshop by the Gulf is well-equipped with a band saw, multi-function drill press, flexible shaft grinders, wood burners, a high-capacity compressor and a good vacuum system. D’Ambrosio continues to dabble with new ways to work wood including using a repurposed electric toothbrush for sanding and using Gesswein power tools originally designed for fine jewelry work. The latter include rotary heads of tungsten or high-carbon Swiss or German steel, some coated with diamond grit. D’Ambrosio has even designed and made a few heads of his own from hardened steel pieces ordered from Enco in Nevada.
According to D’Ambrosio, abrasives from Sanding Glove, Klingspor, Mastercarver, as well as Foredom-supplied rotary grinders and burs and reciprocating chisels all contribute to making possible a high degree of detail in his carvings without stressing the hands and wrists as much as occurs with the more traditional tools and methods of wood carving.
Looking around at D’Ambrosio’s many finished pieces, some legacies for children and grandchildren, all of which would be prized by galleries or museums, I ask him which was the most interesting one or the one he valued most. As he surveyed the shop and several unfinished pieces he broke out into a big grin. “The next one,” he said without hesitation.
Greg Coppa is a freelance writer and author of “November Christmas and Other Short Stories” (available on Amazon). The movie November Christmas has become a Christmas classic of sorts on the Hallmark Channel, starring John Corbett and Sam Elliott.
This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue.