A legacy carved out: Robert Stennett dies

By Jessica Cejnar / The Del Norte Triplicate

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.

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."

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com .

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