ROSEAU, Minn. — Stuart Rice started collecting shed antlers about 20 years ago as a way to get out and enjoy the outdoors in the late winter and early spring, but he didn’t do much with his growing collection until a few years ago.
“Back then, I’d find one and throw it in the corner,” he said.
These days, Rice, 55, takes nature’s beauty and adds utility to that beauty by making lamps from the antlers he collects when buck deer drop their horns, as people in northern Minnesota often call them.
Rice says he didn’t start collecting antlers with the idea of making lamps, but the projects have lifted his hobby to a new level.
“It was just the fun of finding them, but now, it’s the fun of finding them and then doing something with them,” said Rice, who with his wife, Debby, lives and farms northwest of Roseau. “You’ve got to have an interest in it, but it’s a good pastime.”
Rice says the hobby started about three years ago when his wife bought him a kit to make a chandelier from antlers.
The kit included an instructional video, along with the electrical components for the chandelier and an assortment of tools and drill bits for drilling holes into the antlers to feed the wires.
From there, Rice was on his own to pick out the antlers and piece them together into the work of art he eventually created. The chandelier, along with an assortment of antler table lamps, are prominently displayed in the couple’s home, giving the house a cozy, rustic feel.
Rice used 13 antlers to shape the chandelier, including eight 5-point antlers on the bottom layer. He wanted the antlers on the bottom layer to curve upward and the points on the top layer to curve downward for maximum strength.
Three smaller antlers in the center of the chandelier tie all of the pieces together.
“It’s nothing that happens real quick, especially with a chandelier,” Rice said. “I think it took me the better part of a day just with setting them down and arranging them. It’s surprising — you can take two horns and try to set them together, but they don’t lay right.
“You can do these a million different ways, I suppose. … It’s just a lot of monkeying around.”
Learning the ropes
Rice says he used to wonder how people who made lamps from antlers were able to feed the electrical cord through the bone and ultimately out the base of the antler where the fixture attaches.
The answer, he discovered when making the chandelier, was by drilling holes — sometimes lots of them.
The more an antler wraps or curls, the more holes that have to be drilled to feed the cord, Rice says.
That’s where precision and patience come into play.
“You put a lot of time into finding these horns. You don’t want to start drilling holes and say, ‘uh-oh,’ ” Rice said. “When I did the chandelier, it was like, ‘Wow, I’ve got to plan this.’ That was kind of my first go-round, and I was pretty happy when I got all done with it.”
Last summer, Rice started tinkering with making lamps, which are relatively easy to make by comparison. Most of the lamps Rice makes consist of two antlers, one forming a base and the other the top, where the fixture is attached.
The key, he says, is finding two antlers that balance so the lamp sits squarely. He’s used three antlers but says it’s not necessary for most lamps.
“You’re kind of wasting that third horn” using more than two antlers, Rice said. “It’s kind of like, ‘why have it there?’ “
Rice, who has made about 15 lamps this winter, uses wood screws to connect the antlers, sawing off the heads of the screws and covering the holes with putty when he’s done. He lets the putty cure for a day before adding a clear coat or gel stain to protect the antlers and keep them clean.
“I try to make them look as real as I can,” he said. “It’s like any little project; after you do a few, you kind of figure out how to make them. “
Rice also makes lamps from the diamond willow he comes across during his antler-hunting excursions; he usually adds an antler or two as an accent to the finished product.
All of his projects, including the chandelier, have come from shed antlers and diamond willow Rice has found within 5 miles of his house, he says.
“When I go out for my walks and look for horns, I either bring a horn back, and if I don’t, I find a diamond willow,” Rice said. “I look for willow that’s really detailed. The more detail it’s got, the better.”
Rice has put a few of his lamps on display for sale at Artists on Main, a shop in Roseau that features the work of craftspeople from around the region. He says his supply of larger antlers is dwindling, but he’s looking to make wall lamps from some of the smaller ones, mounting the antlers and fixtures on plaques sawn from green elm burls.
“I’d like to do another chandelier, but I’ve got to find some more product,” he says with a laugh. “That’s why I decided to do some lamps because, I don’t know, they’re kind of neat, too, and you can just take two horns and they don’t have to be real big and they still make a nice lamp.”
Because all of the antlers in his projects have come from bucks nearby, Rice has a connection with the work he produces.
“They’re all local deer,” he said. “I’ve shot at some of them, and I’ve actually gotten some of them.”
And, he adds, a couple of them are still out there.
That personal connection, he says, is part of the fun of making the lamps.
“It’s deer that I’ve been watching, so it’s kind of like my hunting season never quits,” Rice said. “As far as the deer hunting with the rifle, that quits and then I can start hunting for (antlers), and that’s just about as much fun.”
For more information on Rice’s antler and diamond willow lamps, contact him at (218) 689-1831 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.