YORK COUNTY — An electric scroll saw has been Hugh Kalns' friend for decades.
The machine helped him achieve a degree of fame in eastern Virginia's crafting community. Delicate, lace-like carvings of angels, kittens, Christmas wreathes, even late stock car driver Dale Earnhardt and Pope John Paul II, are the products of the tool and Kalns' steady, artful hands.
His creations — which also include ornate clocks and jewelry boxes — have been shipped to California, Hawaii and Australia.
Recently, though, Kalns and his mechanical friend haven't been spending much time together.
The 82-year-old craftsman was diagnosed with lung cancer last year, and back in February, a surgeon removed a third of his right lung.
Recovery, he said, has been slow.
"The last doctor said, 'By Christmas, you'll be fine.' But he didn't say which Christmas," Kalns said, smiling. "Last month I got the doctor's blessing that I'm clean," he said. "Now, I consider myself almost alive ... I still have pain in here daily," he said, pointing to his chest. "But what the heck. I'm going to one of my favorite craft shows."
Next weekend, Kalns will make his 29th appearance as a vendor at the Newport News Fall Festival of Folklife. It's likely to be his last, he said.
While his doctors say Kalns is cancer free, the retired civil service worker is ready to give up the business side of woodworking. He plans to continue his craft while ditching its less rewarding aspects: hauling his pieces from show to show, packing and unpacking, boxing up, shipping his treasures to customers.
"It got to the point where it was too hard on him," said Judith Kalns, his wife of 45 years.
He plans to sell what stock is already in his shop. In the future, he'll plane, carve and glue only for personal satisfaction.
"One day, when I kick the bucket, my grandson or granddaughter can have what I make, but it won't be for sale," he said.
Kalns speaks with a distinct accent, a clue to his globe-trotting early life. A native of Latvia, a country in the Baltic region of Northern Europe, he was a boy there at the outset of World War II. Latvia was invaded by the Soviet Union and many members of his family, including his father, were detained and shipped off to Siberia or elsewhere. They were never heard from again, he said.
Kalns, along with his mother and sister, escaped to Germany, only to be placed in a labor camp for a year and a half.
In 1949, when Kalns was 18, the small family relocated to the United States. Soon after, although he wasn't yet an American citizen, Kalns was drafted into the Army where he would serve the next 26 years, eventually retiring as a sergeant major.
That initial career was followed by a second one in civil service. He worked at Fort Monroe for another 20 years.
"One of the main reasons why I started to enjoy woodwork is because it was relaxing for me," Kalns said.
When he would step into his brightly lit garage workshop he was able to leave his cares behind.
With his dogs, Daisy and Lucky, as company, he would immerse himself in a world of creativity.
"They don't mind four-letter words when I mess up something," he said, nodding to his furry companions. "I used to work 10-12 hours in an office. It drives you nuts ... It was nice to get away, on a Saturday or a Sunday.
"It's attention-needing work, but it's relaxing. It takes your mind off everyday business and problems that occur in the world."
Carving and assembling one of his solid-wood clocks could take as long as 50 hours, but Kalns didn't rush. His pieces show a painstaking attention to detail.
"He's very accomplished," said Mike Palfrey, manager of the Woodcraft store in Norfolk, after looking at photos of Kalns' handiwork. "That kind of thing is definitely a labor of love. You've got to be committed to it. It takes a fair amount of time to do all those cuts."
If Kalns could pass on one trait to craftsmen who follow in his footsteps, it would be determination.
"It's not simple," he said. "After the first couple of tries you'll get discouraged, but if you stick to it and have the patience — and it's a good place to learn patience — you most likely will succeed."
McDonald can be reached by phone at 757-247-4732.
Want to go?
What: The Newport News Fall Festival of Folklife
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, Oct. 5-6
Where: Newport News Park, intersection of Fort Eustis Boulevard and Jefferson Avenue.
Admission: Parking fee is $10 per vehicle at the park and at satellite areas Greenwood Elementary School and Woodside High School. Free shuttle bus service will connect the satellite parking lots with the festival.
More information: To learn more about Hugh Kalns, go to http://www.skiminorun.com.
To find out more about the festival, call 926-1400 or go to http://www.nnparks.com/festivals.php
To see video of Hugh Kalns in his workshop, go to http://www.dailypress.com