By Starla Pointer • Staff Writer • 

Ingrained technique

Marcus Larson/News-RegisterSteve Pancoast works on the handle of a cabinet door featuring an elaborate flower design. He finds the craft of woodcarving deeply meditative.
Marcus Larson/News-Register
Steve Pancoast works on the handle of a cabinet door featuring an elaborate flower design. He finds the craft of woodcarving deeply meditative.
Marcus Larson/News-Register
Marcus Larson/News-Register
Marcus Larson/News-RegisterSteve Pancoast in his woodcarving shop near Amity.
Marcus Larson/News-Register
Steve Pancoast in his woodcarving shop near Amity.
Marcus Larson/News-RegisterPancoast, whose website is, created this hope chest, then carved a French country motif on it using old-world techniques and tools.
Marcus Larson/News-Register
Pancoast, whose website is, created this hope chest, then carved a French country motif on it using old-world techniques and tools.
Marcus Larson/News-RegisterIntricately carved wooden doors set off the entrance to this home.
Marcus Larson/News-Register
Intricately carved wooden doors set off the entrance to this home.

“I’m the last of the old-world craftsmen,” the Amity resident said. “I’m a novelty.”

Computers and mass production have virtually taken over his vocation, he said. These days, no one bothers to learn the painstaking, time-consuming methods of carving and dyeing wood that he spent years mastering.

“The younger generation is attuned to the immediate,” he said.

Computer-aided design does have its place, he said. Computers can reproduce a design exactly, for instance. “But they can never make a piece that comes alive,” he said.

He is one of the few remaining craftsmen who focus on one item at a time, personalized to the user, the location and the wood.

“That’s the human spirit,” he said. “You can’t find what I do at IKEA.”

The first piece he carved, back in 1978, became a family heirloom.

Pancoast’s daughter inspired it.

As her birth date approached, he built a cradle, using woodworking skills he already had. To make it more special, he bought an Xacto knife and began carving Bambi and Thumper.

The finished piece “represents the passion I felt for my daughter,” he said. Along with the matching crib and chest of drawers he added later, the cradle now has been used by three grandchildren as well.

Pancoast had no idea he would become a master carver when he first came to Oregon in 1974 and met his wife, Lynn, a native of Beaverton. They moved back to his native Denver after they married.

He had planned to teach biology. But after becoming a father and discovering carving, he applied himself to woodcrafting and studied with masters to perfect old-world carving techniques.

“I like carving,” he said. “It allows me to meditate deeply, to spend hours in a deep focus.”

His dedication led to him being offered an apprenticeship in Germany.

Instead of going overseas, he took a job with the Red Lion hotel chain. He headed the design team charged with decorating each hotel with wood carvings and ornamental glass.

He carved wood himself, created master carvings to establish the overall look, and worked with a designer on complementary fabrics, colors and other decorations.

Calling his business Piece of the Wind, he also created carvings for the Oregon Zoo, the city of Portland and other clients.

Later, he continued his work in commercial art with Disney and in numerous casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Again, he did custom carving, made master patterns and worked with designers and art glass craftsmen on the overall look of the buildings.

For instance, he made the master patterns for the cast bronze and glass panels in the Bellagio. He also carved signs, featured pieces, light fixtures — you name it — in a variety of styles for the Trump casino in New Jersey.

“I had a reputation for being able to do anything,” he said, noting that his work was “applied architectural art, not fine art.”

As the casino boom of the 1990s and early 2000s wound down, so did the large-scale demand for his type of craftsmanship. He began doing more residential jobs, working with builders or homeowners to create one-of-a-kind carvings: doors, mantels, furniture. He also designed ornamental features for homes and served as a design consultant, helping builders or homeowners to choose colors and styles.

His work was featured in the Street of Dreams, Portland’s annual showcase of high-end construction and design. He won the prestigious “Craftsman of the Show” title at the 2004 event.

He enjoyed residential work. It “fulfilled my interests in science, art and people — I find people fascinating,” he said. “My true joy is working with clients, figuring out what they want and satisfying their needs.”

To begin each project, Pancoast said, he talks with the client about the design they favor, where the item will go and how it will be used. “We put together the story they want to tell,” he said.

They might choose totem pole images or European classic motifs, for instance. He creates the design based on its intended location.

Before carving a door, he examines its future location in relation to the movements of the sun. Then he carves accordingly. With the right angles and positions of cuts, he creates patterns of light and shadows that “can keep it alive all day,” he said.

The type of wood he uses depends on the look of the project and the material’s adaptability to carving — perhaps alder for a rustic design, cherry for finer work.

“Carving is a spiritual experience,” he said. “I want to form a partnership with the wood. I want to do it the way it needs to be done.”

While he uses some electric tools for the initial construction, all the carving is done by hand.

Hand chisels are the only tools with which he can achieve the look he wants, he said. He uses traditional German and English chisels, “the same type as have been used for centuries.”

He no longer carves with the X-acto knife he used for the cradle. And he never uses a Dremel or other electric carving tool. “That wouldn’t give me the crisp, clean results I want,” he said.

To accent the wood, he applies paint, faux finishes or dyes, all applied with old-world techniques and finishes.

When he completes a project, Pancoast goes through a closure ritual before presenting it to the client. 

“I carve for others,” he said. “My reward is to make other people happy ... my greatest reward is when they cry or hug me.”

In 2007, Pancoast’s wife was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. With surgery and natural healing techniques, she overcame the disease.

The couple decided to move out of the city to a more peaceful location. They found their place near Amity, attracted to it, in part, because its previous owners also had conquered challenges.

His wife also loved the log-cabin style of the house. The carver himself wasn’t looking to surround himself with wood, as he spends almost every day with it.

About the time they moved, Pancoast began having health problems of his own. “My body and mind were not working right,” he said.

At first, he attributed his “incredible, systemic pain” to back strain he suffered while halibut fishing.

But it got worse, not better. “I couldn’t tie my shoes or get out of bed,” he said.

Soon he could barely function.

Pancoast eventually was diagnosed with polymyalgia rheumatica, an auto-immune response disorder. It causes pain, stiffness, fatigue and anemia, destroys muscle mass and affects cartilage, ligaments, hearing and vision.

“Your brain is sending out killer cells to destroy foreign objects, which are all your soft tissue,” he said. “You’re literally burning up your own body.

“It’s a disabling, crippling disease that can put people in wheelchairs. Specialists told me I needed to accept the fact that I was disabled.”

He refused. But when he sought treatment, drugs prescribed to help actually amplified the condition, he said. His hands swelled to the point that he couldn’t hold his tools.

“I couldn’t draw,” he said. “I couldn’t think. But I kept working, very slowly.”

He took control of his own treatment, he said, depending on dietary changes, supplements and physical therapy instead of drugs.

Music also played a key role. He discovered that listening to the compositions of his friend Conni Ellisor helped him focus and move forward as he healed.

“I defeated it,” he said. “I’m healthy. Now I don’t even take aspirin.”

While he is free of illness, the years he spent fighting the condition took a toll on his business. Now that he’s again able to carve and design at a high level again, he’s rebuilding it.

He’s hoping to build contacts with the wine industry, as well as private clients. But it’s an uphill battle, he said, because “the newer generations are not as acquainted with old-world craftsmanship.”

Pancoast also is doing historic restoration work and repairing antiques using the techniques with which they were made. And he is thinking of starting a new line of products, something he can sell for less than the pool tables, such as mantels and shelves in a French country motif. 

“Maybe I’ll do something I want for a change,” he said. “My own decorative design, something for the Northwest environment.”

 He also has an assignment that’s close to home: Creating cabinets carved with pine cones, white oak branches and acorns for his kitchen.

“My wife waited 30 years for her cabinets, and now I’m finally building them,” he said. “She made me sign a contract.”

Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. She’s always looking for suggestions. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or

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