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Photo by Sara Hacking Deer Creek woodcarver Neil Gregory gets out his carving tools at the workbench in his home. Gregory spends his early morning hours carving a variety of detailed projects while looking out his north-facing window.

Gregory likes to start day with woodcarving

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Woodcarver Neil Gregory's creative juices start flowing in the wee hours of the morning. He gets up by 4 or 5 a.m. to turn single chunks of wood into roses, feathers and other detailed designs in his Deer Creek home.

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"By the time I get three cups of coffee ... I light a cigarette and try to figure out what part I'm going to work on," he said.

He works in the house until 8 a.m. usually, he said, and then he's ready to get outside. Gregory retired from Federal Cartridge Co., in Anoka, Minn. He's lived with his wife, Joyce, in Deer Creek since 1999.

Gregory has carved ever since he taught himself as a little kid, he said. He's never taken any classes.

"God gave me the talent to be a woodcarver," he said.

Joyce has encouraged his talent over the years, he said, even when they were up to their ankles in wood chips.

"I do think he does beautiful work," she said. "Maybe I'm just prejudiced."

Gregory's subjects range from American Indian-inspired pipes and totem poles to custom gun stocks and waterfowl. Carving humming birds was one of Gregory's creative "spurts," Joyce said.

His favorite type of carving is deep relief, Gregory said, where he sculpts a design into a single piece of wood. He can really get behind the subject and dig down into it, he said.

A deep relief carving titled "Autumn Bouquet" is one of his favorites, he said.

Milkweed pods, oak leaves and acorns, and grape vines with leaves and clusters of fruit appear to grow right out of a flat slice of basswood. He draws his own designs, he said.

Gregory's work has won ribbons at the Minnesota State Fair and best of show at the International Woodcarvers Festival held in Lake Bronson State Park.

Some people are welders, electricians or plumbers, Gregory said. But those aren't his talents. He's a carver.

"I don't need much," he said. "I don't have a garage full of power tools."

He has a window facing north, a small workbench with rows of carving tools, a radio, an ashtray and a Dirt Devil nearby to clean up the wood chips and sawdust.

"It's all done by hand," Joyce said about his work.

He doesn't sell his work very often, he said. God gave him the talent, but he didn't give him any indication that he would make any money off of it.

"I'm doing this because I enjoy it," he said.

Basswood is the easiest for carving, he said.

"But I like butternut and walnut, too, because of the amount of detail I can put into it," Gregory said.

Sometimes carving is a relaxing pastime and sometimes it's not, he said.

Transforming a piece of bird's eye maple into a muzzle loading rifle was a formidable undertaking.

"I think it was the orneriest piece of wood I ever held in my hands," he said.

The wood warped while he worked on it, he said. Apparently, it wasn't dry enough. He had to change how the action fit into the wood, he said.

Gregory's frustration was rewarded with a surprise at the end of his project, however. Tiger tail stripes showed up in the wood when he put the finish on, he said. He wasn't expecting that to happen.

Finishing is usually the part of the project he hates, he said. It's the carving itself he loves.

"It's funny when I get done with them I don't have any kind of sentimental attachment where I think it's the best I've ever done," he said.

Joyce does get sentimental, she said. She believes Gregory's deep relief carvings of Indian corn are some of the best work he's ever done.

He was really happy with those, he acknowledged. And he has always liked the carving he did of a bufflehead sitting on a book.

Gregory is his own biggest critic, Joyce said.

"Every time I get done with a piece I think of how I could have done [it] better," he said.

Perhaps it's that very lack of satisfaction that keeps Gregory carving. He has a photo album filled with projects including carved Bibles he made for his daughters' weddings and a Scandinavian-style love spoon he made for his stepson's wedding.

"I have a project going all the time, winter and summer," he said.

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