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Carving spiritual scenes in wood has deepened John McCarthy’s faith

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A lifelong woodcarver, John McCarthy has ramped up his skills to include laser etching of religious art.

During his 20 years in the U.S. Coast Guard, he was the one called on to carve gifts for retiring officials.

“There’s a spiritual intimacy that comes from working in this,” said McCarthy. “That’s a very gratifying piece.”

In 2014, he started a laser craft business he named Soli Deo Gloria, Latin for “To God alone the glory,” with a nod to artists honoring God.

For McCarthy, a parishioner of Church of the Nativity in Burke, the name of his company means more. It also honors his mother, Gloria, who died as McCarthy was getting the business off the ground.

He said his mom had a devotion to Our Lady and angels. Both play a prominent role in his works.

“If I’m working on an image of either, I can hear my mom saying, ‘Make her look better over here,’ ” he said.

McCarthy, who earned a master’s in information technology from Syracuse University, was given a membership to the TechShop in Arlington where he took laser etching courses. TechShop is a membership-based workshop that allows members the use of tools and equipment.

“I was always interested in computers and graphics,” he said. “I wanted to combine the technology piece with traditional handcarved effects.”

McCarthy said he became interested in religious laser etching when came across the Corpus Christi Watershed Project, which restored old archive images of Benedictine missals and Western iconic art from the late 18th century. He said they lent themselves perfectly to laser etching. He made Christmas presents for his brothers and sisters, and interest from others grew. McCarthy said he never intended to turn his artwork into a business. He now sells his etchings on the online marketplace Etsy, at craft fairs and through his website sdglasercraft.com.

The process starts with preparing the image for deep engraving on the laser. McCarthy runs scrap wood through to gauge the layout and laser settings before the piece is ready to engrave, etch or cut. Raw plates are then cut to size and edged, and the background is stained. Once the background is dried, it is masked with paper and tape to finish the foreground, which is treated with ink, varnish or other materials. Many pieces require extensive fine detailing.

Drying takes several days to a month and then museum-quality varnish is applied. To finish the back of the etching, high-quality, acid-free grass paper is applied and the edges of the backing are trimmed. The slots for wall hanging or table displaying are finished, and each piece is labeled, signed and a title is inscribed.

The work goes beyond the carving for McCarthy. He said it has become a means to explore his faith on a personal level and gives him an opportunity to speak with others about faith.

“There’s a spiritual intimacy that comes from working in this,” said McCarthy. “That’s a very gratifying piece.”

McCarthy said the technical challenge of the work interested him. Most of his custom work has been for priests. He spends a lot of time researching the images to ensure they are in the public domain, and he can personalize them with favorite prayers or Scripture passages.

McCarthy has done etchings of saints, including St. Benedict, Archangels Michael and Raphael, and St. Cecilia, a favorite with musicians. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016