Sign Language

The artful carvings of Paul McCarthy

by: Joshua H. Balling

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

Curled shavings surround his hands and tools as layer by layer, the master wood-carver creates out of a simple block of wood a Jeep Wagoneer that will become the centerpiece for a sign advertising the new Alice’s Restaurant at Nantucket Memorial Airport. A cup of coffee and a scarred wooden box filled with his knife collection are always within reach.

Dressed in sawdust-flecked jeans, deck shoes and a gray short-sleeved Oxford shirt with a handful of pens and pencils poking out of the chest pocket, he’s surrounded by dozens of wooden signs and quarterboards in various stages of completion: Fully-carved, ready for his business partner, graphic artist Jean Petty, to paint; partially-carved; and some little more than blocks of wood with a sketch thumb-tacked to the front.

Business is brisk. McCarthy is the only full-time sign-carver on the island right now, and his work is in high demand not only from new businesses looking for an attention-grabber, but from homeowners in search of a high-quality, long-lasting quarterboard or house-marker.

McCarthy’s been a wood-carver since he was a student at Scituate High School, when his skills with a knife and chisel saved him from failing shop class.

“Back in my day, every boy pretty much took shop class and we all had to make that water-pump lamp, where you pulled the handle down and the light came on. I couldn’t make that pump-lamp for the life of me. I kept screwing it up,” McCarthy says.

“My shop teacher told me I was going to fail the class, but then he went into the back room, and came back with a set of carving tools he had picked up in Germany. He knew I was something of an artist. I sat down and laid out my first eagle. I was 15. It’s still on display at Scituate High School. I’ve been doing it ever since. And I passed the class.”

McCarthy opened his first shop in 1969, after being discharged from the service.

He arrived on the island about 20 years ago, at the request of Nantucket wood-carver Bill Rowe, his former apprentice in Scituate.

“Billy asked me to come down and help him out. He was a little behind with all the work out here,” McCarthy says. “So I came down off and on for a while to help him out. He and his girlfriend eventually asked me to stay full-time to help him out in the shop. I decided I wouldn’t mind just working 40 hours so I turned over my shop in Scituate to my son Michael, who moved it to Braintree, and I came down here.”

His wish for a more leisurely schedule hasn’t exactly come true, as Rowe ended up moving south and the demand for McCarthy’s services is as clearly evident on the streets of downtown Nantucket as it is in the workshop he shares with Petty in the basement of the Arrowhead Nursery Showroom.

In addition to the Alice’s Restaurant sign he’s currently working on, the rough outline of a new sign for Bartlett’s Ocean View Farm sits on another table. Petty is busy putting the finishing touches on a new quarterboard on the other side of the room.

McCarthy’s finished work hangs on the Jared Coffin House inn, the Brotherhood of Thieves and Atlantic Café restaurants and the Nantucket Historical Association’s Museum Gallery Shop, among dozens of other businesses. He also carved “Going on the Whale,” which hangs proudly on the NHA’s Broad Street museum complex.

“I really enjoy what I do. How many people like to go to work every day, if you can even call it work?” he asks.


Joshua H. Balling is an associate editor of Nantucket Today and the managing editor of The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.