Canfield man carves out his own niche with wood hobby

Correspondent photo / Bill Koch .... Ray DeBonis of Canfield shows off several years of wooden Santas that he created. Every year he looks for a different image of St. Nick.

CANFIELD — Ray DeBonis has spent a lifetime creating things, whether in factories, at home or at a weekly wood carving group.

DeBonis grew up in Hubbard, worked as a teenager at the A & P in the McGuffey Plaza, and married his high school sweetheart, Carol, 63 years ago. They have three children: a teacher, an aeronautical engineer and an attorney, as well as two grandchildren.

“We were blessed with a smart family– thanks to Carol,” he said.

After high school, DeBonis worked at Commercial Shearing in Youngstown and joined the Army Reserves for welding instruction. In 1962, the newlyweds just settled into their apartment on Hager Street in Hubbard when he was called to active duty. It caught him by surprise, but it was shortly after the Berlin Wall was erected and during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The country was at the height of the Cold War, and the military needed to be at full strength.

He was stationed at Fort Bragg. “We were a pipeline unit. We built storage tanks and ran pipes for storage tanks.”

He was expecting to be sent to France, but a unit from Louisiana was called instead, and after a year he was able to return home.

DeBonis was hired at General American Transportation (GATX) in Masury building railroad cars. Eventually he complained to Carol, “This is crazy. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter and I’m tired of this.” Carol told him, “You need to do something about it,” so with her encouragement he attended Youngstown State University and obtained a degree in metallurgy.

This culminated in employment as a welding engineer at Greenville Steel Car Co., back to GATX, and eventually Pittsburgh Forging. He retired in 2002.

But a family trip to North Carolina more than 40 years ago ignited his passion.

“On the way home, I kept seeing these signs for a decoy factory so we stopped. I’m looking at the painted ones and Carol says, ‘They have these kits. Why don’t you buy one?’ What I got was a body and a head. The head was loose so you could position it however you wanted. And painting instructions like paint-by- numbers and eyes in a plastic bag.”

A few years later, his secretary bought him a book about carving. “I still have that book.”

He began creating his own decoys. He eventually branched out to other birds. He carved walking sticks with exotic faces on them, taking special care not to “knock the person next to you in the head when you flip it around.” An angel in the living room is what he considers his best effort. He has a box full of wooden Christmas ornaments. And he has made more Santa Clauses than anyone can count.

Every year, he looks for a different image of St. Nick. He sketches it in pencil and uses his drawing as a pattern. He then spends a few months bringing a gang of them to life to give to his family as Christmas presents.

His latest challenge is a wooden potato for an upcoming potato bake at Canfield Presbyterian Church, where they are longtime members. Carol noted that he “doodles on the attendance pad every Sunday” in search of new ideas.

Several years ago, DeBonis’s brother-in-law started going to a carving group at Park Vista.

“He kept wanting me to come. Finally I started going, and I just stayed there,” he said.

It is now run by the Ohio Living Vivo Center located in First Presbyterian Church on Wick Avenue and meets every Wednesday. Although he utilizes his basement workshop, he’ll take pieces to the meetings to continue working and getting feedback.

This is in addition to Carol, who said, “I get to make suggestions.” Ray agreed. “Let me tell you, she’s a critic.”

DeBonis has been involved in the Youngstown Model Railroad Association, and he owns a 1940 Ford.

“I’ve always been a gearhead. My closest friend in Hubbard collects Hudsons. I call them the upside-down bathtub. We always tried to build hot rods back when you went to the junkyard instead of ordering parts on the internet.”

Besides the carving group, Vivo Center director Mona Mangiarelli recently started a prostate support group. As a longtime cancer survivor, DeBonis agreed to join them. He first had surgery in 1994 and said, “it’s been a dogfight ever since.” He has dealt with atrial fibrillation and recent congestive heart failure. But he takes his health issues in stride and jokes, “I’m a walking knucklehead.”

Although DeBonis’s hobby is labor-intensive, he said carving gives him a feeling of peacefulness. When he completes a project, it is gratifying to see the result.

In addition, he enjoys the weekly meetings and the friendships that have developed, noting the conversations are as important as the carving.

To suggest a Saturday profile, contact Features Editor Burton Cole at bcole@tribtoday.com or Metro Editor Marly Reichert at mreichert@tribtoday.com.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *


Starting at $4.85/week.

Subscribe Today