The handiwork of Lebanon woodcarver John Butler allows a person to take a walk with their dog whenever they would like — even if the beloved pet has bid this world goodbye.
Over the past 15 years, he has crafted more than 200 walking sticks, many of them custom carved with images of canines, some living and some deceased.
While most of his walking sticks or shepherd’s crooks feature dogs and horses, he also carves such mythical creatures as dragons, unicorns and winged horses.
“For me as an artist it’s just a journey. I pick up a piece of wood and roll it in my hands and say, ‘I can see that.’ Most of the time the dog or horse is in there. You just got to bring ’em out.
“People say, ‘How did you see that?’ And I say, ‘How did you not see it?’ ”
Butler said that his customers often simply want a basic walking stick but some ask, “Say, can you put my dog on your stick?”
“Most of the time you outlive your dog but you want a memory. That says something to me about the love you have for your dog, one of God’s creatures,” said the woodworker, whose wife, Carol Leeman, has been active with U.S. Border Collie Handlers Association for years.
“Carol takes a picture of the dogs. I’ll take her photograph of the dog and transfer it to a three-dimensional object. I try to get as close to natural as I can. Mother Nature has a way of making some things hard to recreate. These sticks are all a part of me,” said Butler, who uses Dremel Power Tools and other basic woodworking tools to accomplish his task.
His customers find him by word of mouth and at field trials. The price ranges from $125 to $225. Each stick takes him two to three weeks to complete with a minimum of 40 hours of work.
“I feel like I’m putting a part of me in it, and I don’t want to rush it. I put a lot of thought into it, not haphazardly making it just to sell. If you a buy a stick from me I stand by it till the end of time. If you break it or lose it, most of the time I will replace it. I make my sticks for life,” said Butler.
Creating the walking sticks
His walking sticks are crafted from a variety of woods, some found on he and his wife’s Spring Creek Farms.
“The whole farm is my pallet. I can go out back with the dogs and sheep and see a piece of wood I like and haul it back to the shop and start working on it. I use cedar most of the time because of sense: You can see it, you can smell it, and it just feels good in the hands. Cedar is the kind of wood that lends itself to whatever you’re making,” he said.
While most of his sticks consist entirely of wood, about 25 percent of his customers choose to have ram horn, water buffalo horn or deer antlers used to form the bend in the crook of the stick.
The horn is more durable. Ram and water buffalo horn can bend after boiling in water for 30 minutes, while deer antlers will not bend.
Thurman Mullins, foreman of Charlie Daniels’ Twin Pines Ranch, has a collection of two dozen walking sticks. Three are Butler creations, and one has a handle made from ram horn. He spotted Butler’s work at Wilson Farmers Co-op when he spied a stick that bore the image of an Australian heeler similar to his own.
“I walked in and looked at it and thought, ‘That looks almost like Bear does.’ I went outside and started back to the truck and thought, ‘I need a stick with a dog on it and I’m gonna get it.’ It had a tag with contact information on it,” recalled Mullins.
Deciding he would like to have a custom-made stick of Bear, he called Butler and then sent him a batch of photos of his dog. Later he went to Spring Creek Farms to pick up the finished stick.
“He did a beautiful job and detailed Bear down to her striped tail. He took me into his shop and showed me what he was working on, a blackthorn stick (aka an Irish shillelagh) with ram’s horn with a shepherd dog carved in it. So now I have three of his sticks. Photos don’t do the carvings justice. John is totally amazing, definitely an artist and a nice guy,” Mullins said.
As for how Butler began making walking sticks, he said, “I got involved with (sheep) herding with Carol. I would go to different field trials, and I noticed crooks the handlers were carrying, and I’m thinking I can make one of those. And from then on, I have been making them.
“I wasn’t a herder. I did obedience with my dogs, totally different from herding. I enjoyed meeting handlers when working with my dogs. I learned you could talk dogs with pretty much anybody.
“My woodworking started when I got out of the Army but going all the way back to elementary school I worked with my hands. I made toys for kids. The materials tended to get bigger and more detailed. So, for my carving, it was a process of doing it every day, even if just 15 or 20 minutes, and coming up with my own style.”
The Nashville native graduated from Central High School, served in the Army for 3½ years and then earned a bachelor of art degree in art from David Lipscomb University. As a commercial artist he worked 25 years as a production manager for L.M. Barry Commercial Art Company which produced South Central Bell phone books in Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi.
“I’ve made at least 200 walking sticks. There are 20 in here (his shop) right now, and I’d like to think I’ve got 200 more in me. When it gets to the point I feel like I’ve carved my best one, that’s when I’ll stop,” said the man who puts dogs into bark.
Woodcarver John Butler’s walking sticks are available at the Wilson Farmers Co-op, 107 Babb Dr. in Lebanon. He also has Christmas ornaments on sale at Edwards Feeds, 123 W. Market St. To commission Butler to create a personalized walking stick with a likeness of your favorite dog, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (615) 969-0561.