With a name like John Oakes, it's as if the rustic art of whittling was carved into his being at birth.
When we meet he is leaning against the fence of his Bridgewater home, whittling away.
Tiny curls fall to the ground as his knife coaxes shavings from the wood.
His backyard is swathed in sunlight and the twittering of birds is the only sound, apart from the snick of his pocket knife.
On this occasion, he is carving a comfort bird.
It is just one of hundreds he has made for sick patients at St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne.
He also crafts them knotty crosses, moulded to fit in the hand lest they should fall out of an elderly patient’s clutch as they sleep.
The birds and crosses are made to be held.
“They’re very tactile. It’s hard to resist rolling them around in your hand and feeling them,” Mr Oakes said.
He walks through the stages of the birds’ formation – the whittling leaves little dents; a gently pockmarked surface.
“It’s actually been suggested that I leave some of them like that because they’re tactile in their own way,” he said.
“You only get these with the harder woods – the real soft stuff is inclined to get a little whiskery or splintery.”
Once the birds are whittled to his heart’s content, he sandpapers them, rubs them with an ultra-fine steel wool, and slathers them with a mix of turps and linseed oil.
Over a few days the oil soaks in and he buffs it with an old cloth.
“The whole reason for doing this – instead of using a gloss spray – is it develops a patina from your own skin oils,” he said.
“That’s part of the whole thing, for family to realise and say: ‘Well, look at the polish on that from where mum’s been rubbing it for the past 12 months’.”
It’s quite something to look at a block of dull wood and envisage what it could become.
For Mr Oakes, it is almost a process of unearthing something hidden.
“A lot of wood carvers use the expression they ‘found’ this in the wood. They say it was already there,” he said.
The timbre of his voice is gravelly and warm – almost as if this too is an instrument to make hardened wood malleable in his hands.
His voice lifts clear when I suggest there is something special and rare about receiving a hand-carved thing.
“I think it’s wood itself,” he said.
“People like to handle wood, they like to touch wood. You watch people who have perhaps no artistic bent whatsoever, but you sit them in a chair with a Jacobean arm or barley twists on it, and watch them.”
“They can’t resist. Sooner or later they’re exploring each curve...it’s something about human nature.”
His hands don’t appear to bear the scars you might expect of someone who has been handling pocket knives since the tender age of six, and who has been blind in one eye since the age of 14.
“It was an accident with an air rifle,” Mr Oakes said.
He was entering adolescence at a time when a gun was still an appropriate Christmas present for a young teen.
It was also a time where recently returned soldiers, fresh from the trauma of Kokoda, were on edge around firearms.
“We were growing up among a community of returned soldiers from overseas. Gun safety was pushed down your throat at breakfast,” he said.
One day he loaded his air-rifle to shoot a can off a fence.
He put the gun on a mount and knelt to pick up something he had dropped on the ground.
“Part of my jeans hit the trigger. It shot up into my face,” he said.
The impact of the slug could have been much worse, but it had done its damage.
It’s clear it would take a great deal to stop him carving even the smallest, most intricate things.
He shows me the beginning of a woman’s body carved from a matchstick.
“I went through three boxes of matches to find that one, and even that has let me down. It’s bit whiskery, there’s just no quality in the wood,” he said.
“I doubt if they’d accept that as a reasonable complaint, if I said their matches weren’t worth carving.”
Mr Oakes twin obsessions – pocket knives and whittling – bled into and fed each other.
He simply “stopped counting” after he had collected 300 folding knives.
“My mother had trouble understanding why her six-year-old son always had a razor sharp knife, so I started out whittling as an excuse...and it’s evolved from there.”
But she took great pride his work, and herself carried a small pocket knife for all of her days, to snip a stray thread off one of her four children’s jumpers, or to scrape the dirt from under their fingernails.
Mr Oakes said creeping arthritis makes carving from dense wood more challenging.
“It’s a worry because eventually I guess it will stop me, as it has so many of the friends I’ve made on the web who were beautiful carvers,” he said.
“But if it stands still, I’ll carve it, one way or the other.”
Mr Oakes is a generous soul – his creations don’t carry a price tag and are purely for giving away.
There is an ongoing joke with St Vincent’s, where a patient named Sister Margaret was gifted a cross during her stint in hospital.
Although she adored it, she gave it away to someone who she thought needed it more than herself.
Mr Oakes expects she has given away six more crosses since then.
“My all-consuming passion is this whittling. I absolutely love doing it, and here I’ve got a steady home for all the stuff that I make,” he said.
“I could produce a lot more if I used machinery...but it would be just a job with no pleasure in it for me.”
“I’m a firm believer in a couple of lines from an old Tom Waits song, where he’s singing about hobos and being on the road, not being able to settle down. And part of one chorus he sings is ‘the obsession’s in the journey, not the destination’.”
“That’s about it – that’s where the pleasure comes for me. Once they’re finished I lose interest to a degree, it’s just something I did.”