DeKALB – Like one of Santa’s elves, Ronald Rice of DeKalb is hard at work in his workshop as Christmas approaches, but he is making large wooden carvings, not toys.
Driving by his house at 3000 N. First St. in DeKalb, you can even see some of his carvings at the end of his driveway.
Rice, a 72-year-old retired chiropractor, carves large animals out of wood. He says his favorite animal to carve are bears, and he also has made eagles, owls, a Newfoundland dog and a pelican. In addition to animals, Rice’s creations include crucifix necklaces, a rocking horse, step stools for children and Santa Claus figurines. His latest creation is a large, life-size wooden snowman.
“For me, carving is a hobby, something fun to do,” Rice said. “It gets me outdoors, so I’m not sitting in a rocking chair all day. … Often, when men retire, they have nothing to do. With nothing to do, they die. Carving is my something to do, my hobby and my passion.”
Rice’s usually gives his creations to friends and family members as gifts, but he has started selling them for $100 a foot. His carvings can be seen throughout DeKalb County and have been found buyers in Kansas, Iowa, North Carolina and Minnesota. To purchase or request a carving, stop by Rice’s residence or call him at 815-751-6872.
Rice works outside under a portable garage structure. He carves his creations with chainsaws and a 4-inch angle grinder with a sanding pad. He prefers to carve out of pine or lindenwood, but he has used ash, oak, willow and locust trees, as well.
Rice said that the first thing he does when carving is to make a face, so that he can talk to it when working. He asks everyone who purchases a carving to name the piece and to send him a picture of it at their home.
The carvings are meant for outdoor display. Rice lightly burns the carving with a torch for color, then coats it with exterior deck stain. The carving is then sealed with polyurethane to keep the sun’s UV rays from bleaching the wood.
Rice’s interest in woodworking and carpentry began when he took a shop class in high school.
“My dad was a house painter, and I didn’t know if I would be able to go to college,” he said. “In shop class, I learned how to make furniture, like tables and bookcases.”
Rice is an Air Force veteran who says patriotism is important. Most of his carvings have posts for small American flags to be displayed.
After the service, Rice worked as a carpenter before he went to college for his chiropractic degree.
“When my dad was 30, he had a serious neck injury,” he said. “I was one of eight children, and we sometimes tagged along when he went to the chiropractor for adjustments. I always wanted to try to be a chiropractor, but it was costly for school.”
Rice finished his chiropractic degree in 1968 and practiced for seven years in nearby Oregon. Rice later opened his own chiropractic practice in DeKalb. Throughout the years, he continued his hobby of woodworking, making hand carvings and figurines. In 1990, Rice took two semester-long wood carving classes at Kishwaukee Community College in carving. He helped form and was the president of the Kishwaukee Wood Carving Club.
In 1996, Rice semi-retired and opened a small chiropractic office in Sedona, Arizona.
“There, carved animals were popular, because grizzly bears were always on our mind,” he said. “I began to weld a bit, and I made cowboys out of horseshoes.”
Rice returned to DeKalb, and in 2012 he retired and sold his practice. To celebrate, Rice’s wife Penny took their children to Disney World. Rice bought a step-by-step carving book and rekindled his love of woodworking.
“I spent a week carving,” he said. “When they came back, they came back to a 4-foot-tall bear.”
Peggy, Rice’s wife of 40 years, said that she has seen his talent grow over the years and thinks that it is amazing what he can make out of large chunks of wood.
“He has that talent, that knack, that eye,” she said. “He is very creative and is the perfect handyman. He is a visionary, and there’s nothing he can’t do or fix. With each work, he gets better and better. I’m just happy that he found his passion. The excitement and enjoyment is still there.”
Rice is currently working on a large carving of an eagle. He said that he hopes to create many more carvings because they allow him to share his work and his love of nature with others.
“I am inspired by my faith, knowing that God created all things,” Rice said. “I’m a Christian man. Jesus was a carpenter, and I relate to that. … I see carving as putting life back into that piece of wood. People can enjoy that old tree as a piece of art.