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Steve & Santa
By Carol McGarvey | Photography by Ben Lochard
HOME FEATURE December 2017/January 2018
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A West Des Moines woodcarver has a special bond with ‘a right jolly old elf.’

Steve Hooten has only to look in the mirror to get inspiration for his woodcarving hobby. There, looking back at him, is a likeness of his favorite subject, Santa Claus himself, with a ready smile and a white beard.

While he grew up with a dad who enjoyed woodworking, Steve watched and learned and made items such as birdhouses, kerchief slides for Scouts, and small toys. He got serious about carving about 1983, when he took some classes through Des Moines Public Schools Community Education. He also had dabbled in oil paintings.

His wife, Marty, collected little carvings of various subjects and had started collecting some Santa figures. “One year when I didn’t know what to get her for Christmas, I started carving away,” he says. A sweet and loving tradition was begun.


Steve gets his inspiration from catalogs and magazines. A close look at his Santas on the mantel shows he interprets the jolly old elf in many ways, just as the rest of us do.

Marty sometimes operates the scroll saw for some of Steve’s work. And she insists that the Santa figures have piercing blue eyes, just like her husband’s. “That helps them be full of expression,” she says.

The carver also fashions detailed songbirds and various other caricatures. A former member of Mid-Iowa Woodcarvers, Steve also has created chess sets with mini characters.

A signature of his Santas and other characters is that he carves them on both sides for a finished look. Not every carver does that.

Start to finish

He also doesn’t mass produce his pieces. “I easily can spend eight hours on one piece, but I complete it from start to finish before starting another one.” Painting with acrylic paint can be time-consuming. Steve prefers a watered-down, softer paint look so that some of the wood shows through. Otherwise, the figure can look like porcelain, he says.

Steve carves other ornaments, too. In fact, his “set” of ornaments numbers about 30 pieces. He makes a lovely gift for weddings in the family of a whole set. That way, the new couple has a start on their first Christmas.

“I have a single niece who asked me once if she was going to have to get married to get an ornament set,” he explains with a chuckle. He relented, of course, and she has a full set now.

Steve enjoys sharing his pastime with others. He taught several colleagues at GuideOne Insurance, where he worked in information technology. Also, he has done demonstrations for Boy Scout and 4-H groups. “Once I was going to give a hands-on class to some youngsters, who would start out with a plastic knife and a bar of soap. About 140 kids showed up. Amazing.” He also has demonstrated carving at Living History Farms in Urbandale and at Silver Dollar City in Missouri.

Besides Steve’s Santas, Marty has other Santa displays in their home, such as ones made from large gourds, cloth, or wood, including some intricate ones by international artist Jim Shore. Not all of Steve’s Santas are roly-poly. Some are tall and thin or wear other colors of cloaks or jackets, not always red.

For some of his other pieces, Steve has carved moose, cowboys, birds, halloween figures, and a hobo or two. A textured and wood-burned owl looks as if it has three-dimensional feathers.

And he’s proud that two of his eagle figures were displayed in the offices of former Senators Tom Harkin of Iowa and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia.

The Hootens have two sons and one grandson, who is a year old, so Steve has some new inspiration. “I now want to carve a Noah’s Ark and a Nativity set,” says the proud grandfather.

Historical note

He also loves studying the history of carving. “Most people don’t know that President Dwight ‘Ike’ Eisenhower was a sander on intricate carousel horses. If you were good, you got to work on the horses’ heads. That’s where the term ‘head man’ came from.” Who knew?

Steve can see the smiles his carving brings to other people, but what does it actually do for him? “It relaxes me, especially when I was still working in IT. Plus, it just takes my mind off everything when I focus on the carving or the painting. Also, it keeps me off the streets.”

With his table saw, scroll saw, band saw, drill press, and table sander, along with his handy carryall case of a variety of knives and chisels, this Santa’s elf likes turning wood into beautiful items.

“It’s hard to carve ugly,” he insists.


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