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Just horsin around

Metalwork was Jerry Vinje's career; woodcarving is his passion in retirement

Jerry Vinje glances at his latest creation, clamped in a vise on his workbench, one story above Southeast 34th Avenue just off Belmont Street. It's a carefully crafted horse head, its high cheekbones delicately chiseled just so, with a mane carved to flow as much in wood as it would in hair.

'Probably 50 pounds of wood came off that, one chip at a time,' Vinje says.

It's been peeking out onto 34th for months now, just like its six full-grown predecessors did, eyeing the hip crowds walking toward the venerable Belmont Inn and the trendy Aalto Lounge. And it'll peer out for a few more months, until the 64-year-old metalworker turned woodcarver carves and smoothes its body, legs and tail.

And wings. His latest carousel creature is a Pegasus.

He's not in any hurry. 'Maybe I work an hour, maybe I work all day,' Vinje says, adding as he always does: 'Maybe I play my clarinet.'

Three years ago, the Portland native went to get supplies at Woodcrafters in Northeast Portland and walked in on a carpenter demonstrating how to carve a miniature carousel horse. Even without woodworking experience, Vinje wanted to try it. Seven handcrafted sculptures later, he has a house full of horses.

'He's been good at everything he's tried,' says Donna Vinje, who after 46 years of marriage would know. 'I'm still amazed, and I've been married to him almost all my life.'

'I'm a sheet metal man,' says Vinje, who goes by his middle name, Jerry. 'This is an extension of my trade, really. Sheet metal workers are as much artists as painters.'

Vinje has worked with metal since graduating from Jefferson High School, and he taught metal fabrication for 12 years at Benson High, where his students made an 8-foot-diameter pie tin, which at the time was a world record, for the Rose Festival's pumpkin pie. He then returned to the private sector, running V. Vinje & Son, a sheet metal shop he founded under his first name, Victor.

The metal business always has been steady for V. Vinje & Son, which Jerry's son, Bob, took over eight years ago.

In the 1980s, the National Weather Service relied on Vinje's copper rain gauges, and the family's copper boilers were a mainstay at the Jack Daniel's craft store in Lynchburg, Tenn.

On a recent trip to an antique store, Vinje and his wife found one of their copper bins. Once used for canning and laundry, it's now more of a decorative piece. On the bottom was a familiar stamp:

HANDMADE V. VINJE & SON

PORTLAND, ORE.

Three horses look out the windows of the Laurelhurst home Vinje bought 36 years ago.

'They're not like stamps, where you just stick them in a drawer,' Vinje says of his hobby. So he wheels them on a dolly from his workshop, up Southeast 34th Avenue and through Laurelhurst Park, past Burnside and Northeast Glisan streets to his Hassalo Street home just off Sandy Boulevard.

A labor of love

The going rate for carousel horses at companies such as San Francisco-based Nostalgic Design is between $1,000 and $10,000, depending on size and detail. But Vinje carves them for fun, not profit, so they stay with him unless someone else has room for them.

They've made dandy gifts that promise to be family heirlooms, though. His first, a small rocking horse like the one he saw in the demonstration, is a favorite of Bob Vinje's sons, and another is a full-sized rocker that sits at his daughter's house.

'When he sees something, he looks at it as a challenge,' Bob Vinje says. 'He's challenged because he's never done that before. He takes it on and tries to conquer it.'

One of the horses stands alone in Vinje's living room, tucked beside a chair next to a large window. Vinje recently wheeled its roommate back to the shop to be repainted because he didn't like the way he colored the body.

'I'm too sloppy to paint. I just can't do that kind of stuff,' says Vinje, who passes the painting off to his wife.

Too detailed for a man who spends hours carving with chisels 'sharp enough you could shave with,' detailing horses down to the looks in their eyes?

Looking at Vinje's paint job on the two horses in his dining room window, you wouldn't believe that. Both are ready for battle, one armed with a pistol and sword, the other with a delicate crossbow and shield.

You'd swear both were made of metal, the way they were painted with deep copper sign paint. But they started the same way the Pegasus did: with their heads in a vise on Vinje's bench and a mass of glued-together wood you might never guess could be carved into the body of a carousel horse.

'I work on it a bit, then I sit down with my clarinet and look at it: Now, what does it need? That's just the way I do it,' Vinje says. 'Pretty soon it's a horse.'

Tootling away

In his stripped-down workshop above V. Vinje & Son, a stereo, music stand and clarinet are as much a part of his tools as the chisels and vise. He started playing the clarinet just before he retired at age 55 and took lessons for a while, but now he mainly plays duets with his daughter or between chisels in his workshop.

'Playing in here,' he says of his shop, 'it doesn't matter if you stop and take a drink of coffee in the middle of a bar.'

Traces of Vinje's metalworking past shine through in the woodcarving workshop. He uses a sheet metal pattern of a horse as an interchangeable map to plan each one of his projects. Maybe it turns out to be a rocking horse, or maybe it'll be a flier, a horse with its legs stretched out.

Some will be painted bright to look brand-new, others decorated to look antique or metal Ñ though he still won't concede he's the best person to apply the paint. And some won't be horses at all: He has plans for a lion, then a giraffe, in the future.

All will have at least one thing in common, though. On the bottom, there'll be the small round stamp that Jerry Vinje and his family have used all along to mark their creations.