Award-winning woodcarver returns to Renton River Days

Jim Ploegman still has part of his first wood-carving attempt on his woodshop wall. It was a planter held together by glue. It got a D.

  • Monday, July 21, 2008 8:37pm
  • Life

Master woodcarver Jim Ploegman poses in his shop and classroom with a hawk mask he made in the Northwest coast style. It and other masks will be on display at IKEA Renton River Days.

Jim Ploegman still has part of his first wood-carving attempt on his woodshop wall. It was a planter held together by glue. It got a D.

“It was very crappily made,” Ploegman admits.

Ploegman’s woodshop teacher at Kent-Meridian High School in Kent said he was wasting his time. Good thing he didn’t listen.

More than 50 years later, the 72-year-old Ploegman has become a master woodcarver.

He has carved everything from toilet seats, carousel horses and five-foot–tall seahorses to European coats of arms and canon carriages. Plus dugout canoes, totem poles, canoe paddles and coffee tables. The biggest totem he carved was 30 feet tall, with a wingspan 36 feet wide. It’s at Highline Community College, where Ploegman taught woodcarving and was a sculptor instructor for 25 years.

Before Highline, he started an arts-and-crafts program at the Quinault Indian Reservation in Taholah, near Ocean Shores. He also carved for The 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, remodeled musical instruments in local bars and taverns and owned a butcher shop.

Ploegman’s sold more carvings than he can count. He also teaches a woodcarving class, called “Master’s Carving School.”

The Renton River Days booths he runs with former student Joe McConnell won best in show last summer.

The pair will return to this year’s River Days, which kicks off with Kids’ Day today (Wednesday) and picks up again Friday-Sunday, with a Senior Day BBQ Picnic in between.

Ploegman doesn’t sell his carvings anymore, but he’ll bring tools for sale and display items to River Days. Also look for Native American combs, masks, drums and other items for sale by his students. McConnell and his students will also have carvings for sale. And the whole gang will demonstrate carving techniques during River

Days. The activity is one thing River Days’ judges liked about the pair’s booths.

“We’re not just sitting there reading a book, we’re there taking the chips off,” Ploegman says.

Although he doesn’t sell carvings anymore, Ploegman still carves, “just about every weekend,” he says.

Carvings and carvings-in-progress fill the shelves and tables of his workshop on Renton-Issaquah Road. An eagle is beginning to emerge from a rough block of wood on one table, a hawk from a block in the freezer. Ploegman keeps unfinished carvings in the freezer. He sprays water on pieces while he’s carving, to keep fresh the recently chopped wood. He dries finished pieces in the microwave. Ploegman gets his wood direct from woodcutters and shake-block cutters.

Ploegman doesn’t just carve wood; he collects carvings, too. The shelves of his workshop are jumbled with dusty carvings. Totems, fish, fishermen, an orange cowboy boot, an owl, a fox, a spread-winged eagle, a tiny Japanese pagoda in a glass box, and his favorite, an intricately carved Hindu deity that cost him 50 cents.

Some of these pieces are by him, some by students, some by well-known artists and some by unknowns.

“I collect carvings from around the world; I have a lot of antique carvings,” Ploegman says.

The workshop is also cluttered with non-carving items. Old waterskis and snowshoes, ice and roller skates in the rafters, a deer head on the wall.

Bench grinders and sanders sit on a table. Knives, woodcarving gouges and chisels in bins on the wall. A sign above a work bench reads: “Master’s Carving Club.”

Ploegman’s workshop is also his classroom. He’s taught here 25 years. He has 84 students per week in his classes, offered day and evening.

Students, ages 14 and up, come from all over. A guy from North Dakota moved out here for three quarters during five consecutive years. Another student flew in from Texas. Others come from Tri-Cities, Olympia, Vashon Island.

They win prizes, too. One of his students has won either first, second or third Best in Show for 12 years straight at the Northwest Woodcarvers Show in Puyallup, the largest show in Washington, Oregon and Canada.

In that same show, one of his students won Second Best in Show in the expert division. His entry, a mask, was his first wood carving.

“My students can do work on their first project that I wasn’t able to do in my first 10 years,” Ploegman says.

Ploegman and McConnell are just two of the 65 artists scheduled for the Art Market at this year’s Renton River Days.

Unlike last year, all of the booths will sell handcrafted items. That’s an important change for new committee chair Toni Nelson.

“We’re trying to just give a little more excitement to arts and crafts,” Nelson says. She took the position after retiring from City Council, and much earlier, from Renton Flower Shop, which she ran for more than 25 years.

Mary Clymer of downtown Renton art store happy delusions is assisting Nelson with Art Market, as are city staffers.

This year’s wares will include jewelry, clay art, glass, tie dye, quilts, and food, like tea and fudge.

“It’s really a good mix,” Nelson says. Nelson helped start Renton River Days.

Ploegman has manned a carver booth at the festival since that first year. His booth partner McConnell joined him five or six years ago. Ploegman never plans to quit River Days.

“It’s one of the best family oriented shows around … and it has great food,” he says.

IKEA Renton River Days

• The 23rd Annual IKEA Renton River Days begins with Kids’ Day, Wednesday, July 23. A Senior Day BBQ Picnic is July 24. The main festival weekend is Friday through Sunday, July 25-27. Most of the festival is at Liberty Park, at 1101 Bronson Way N. A free festival shuttle is available. The festival is free to attend.

For more information, call the festival information line at 425-430-6528 or visit

• To enroll in “Master’s Carving School,” or for more information, call Jim Ploegman at 425-255-2433.

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