Self-taught wood crafter of decorative birds sold works to galleries around world
Stepping into Virginia Stennett’s living room is like stepping into an aviary; only the noise is missing.
Robert Stennett, seen at home in 2008 with one of his bird carvings behind him, died in May of pneumonia. Del Norte Triplicate file photo
Pheasants, quail, geese, mallards and wood ducks paddle, waddle and fly along Virginia Stennett’s walls. Each belongs to her husband, Robert Stennett, but instead of feathers, these birds show off the luster and grain of the wood he used to create them.
“He taught himself through trial and error how to make the birds and how to laminate them together,” Virginia Stennett said. “He was originally a hunter, but once he started making the birds, he couldn’t kill them any more.”
Stennett, a Crescent City native and Del Norte High School graduate, died of pneumonia May 28. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II and came back to Crescent City.
For decades Stennett was known as the “Pepsi man of Del Norte County,” according to his obituary. But after a bout with cancer left him unable to continue driving a truck for PepsiCola in the 1970s, Stennett turned to wood carving. He was 50 years old.
Virginia Stennett said her husband had always worked with wood, building boats, cabinets and furniture. Robert Stennett was originally inspired by Smith River artist Oscar Johnson, who also carved birds and figured out how to put his own twist on them, Virginia Stennett said.
“It took awhile to get there,” she said. “They were never decoys. They were always finished and always intended to be decorative birds.”
According to Gordon Stennett, his father crafted his first bird, a shorebird, out of redwood. He had drawn the pattern by hand and carved it with a jigsaw. As he perfected his technique, Stennett also developed and perfected the tools he used, Gordon said.
“He once told me that if he was a man who had a lot of money he would have gone out and bought all the wood-
working tools he could think of and he would never have figured out how to do this,” Gordon said. “By having a wife and four children, he had to figure out how to do it with what he had.”
In 1977, the Stennetts opened the Paddlewheel gift shop and sold Stennett’s birds to galleries all over the West Coast. His birds have even migrated to Japan, Germany and other places abroad. One of his birds even had a home in a Congressman’s office in Washington, D.C., Virginia Stennett said.
Stennett’s birds have even been featured on the cover of Ducks Unlimited and Smithsonian magazines.
“He donated many, many birds to Ducks Unlimited,” Virginia Stennett said.
Gordon Stennett was in college when he and his dad began learning their craft. Now, Gordon is a successful wood sculptor living in Redding. He specializes in birds of all kinds, including songbirds, shorebirds and birds-of-prey. Gordon said his favorite bird to carve is a vermilion fly catcher.
“Myrtle wood, maple, redwood and walnut are the four basic woods I use,” he said of his pieces. “I hand-sand them, and then I put a couple coats of lacquer on them, then I sand them again and put two more coats of lacquer, then I rub them out with steel wool and put another coat of lacquer on it. There (are) five coats of lacquer on each piece.”
In addition to his birds, Robert Stennett loved to go ocean fishing and clamming. He and Virginia Stennett also enjoyed taking their children swimming in the Smith River.
“We tried to swim in every swimming hole Smith River had,” she said. “We tried a different swimming hole each weekend.”
Robert and Virginia Stennett were married for 67 years. Together they raised their family in the same house on Macken Avenue in Crescent City.
“We were high school sweethearts,” Virginia Stennett said. “We’ve been together just over 70 years.”