ST. MARYS — St. Marys native John Zelt said when his father gave him a pocket knife at 7 years old, he knew he was destined to be a wood carver.
His first carving was a walrus, but he has come a long way since then, having taught himself to carve thousands of wildlife models throughout his lifetime, including birds, bears, a penguin, turkey, fish, an otter and eagles. Zelt has a basement showroom in his South St. Marys Street home, including several display cases, shelves and a table with all 19 species of owls in North America.
Zelt’s creations are found all over the world, including China, Australia, Europe and the United States. He has also built more than 30 violins, having joined the St. Marys Area band at 7 years old, playing the trumpet, alto and later, the guitar. Zelt’s coffee table in an upstairs room has wildlife creations inside.
Before he begins a carving, Zelt researches the animal and its characteristics and habitat, using YouTube, magazines and wildlife photography. He then draws a pattern to work off of, and creates teaching aids, since he sometimes teaches Boy and Girl Scouts and students the art of woodcarving.
Zelt recalls running into a former Scout who is now a woodworker.
“I enjoy passing on my knowledge,” he said. “It’s surprising how much you can influence people.”
Zelt carves each individual feather by hand, using glass eyes and making feet out of led and aluminum molds. It depends on the subject when it comes to the length of time he spends on one creation. For example, creating a gold finch might take about 50 hours.
Zelt’s creations are occasionally displayed in places like the St. Marys Area Chamber of Commerce, sports stores and the Elk Country Visitor Center, he said, but for the most part, he has his own private museum. He has also created wooden toys used by his children growing up.
He sometimes makes personal items, too, like the three parakeets his wife used to have, and characters like a golfer, puppet, sleeper sheep and hobo. Zelt has bags of ribbons collected from prizes he has won for his carvings at shows, attending ones in places like Cook Forest State Park or Ligonier.
He has carved all of the birds in the jay family, Zelt said, and all of the warblers, sparrows, woodpeckers and hummingbirds. He’s created ducks, bluebirds and toucans, as well as crow, owl and duck bird calls. His favorite birds, he says, are loons and owls.
All 19 of the owls he carved are life size, big and small, Zelt said. He has more than 600 birds on display in his basement, and has carved an estimated 5,000 pieces throughout his life. Several on display also include aspects of the bird’s habitat, such as gravel and plants on the wooden bases.
He’ll use other creative hacks for the carvings, too, such as using broom fibers for an animal’s whiskers. He was recently working on his first porcupine, carving each quill individually.