SPANISH FORK— Often when people stop to talk with Bill Burch, their first question is "What's the count up to now?"
The question refers to the total number of bolo ties the master carver has whittled over his five-decade career. As of late, the answer is 45,230. But the number keeps rising.
"I've whittled my whole life," Burch, 84, said with a smile accentuated by a well-trimmed, white mustache. "It's been a great, great experience."
Burch, who currently resides in Orem, was one of several expert woodcarvers featured Friday on the first day of the second annual Wood Sculpting Show and Competition in Spanish Fork. Sponsored by the Utah Valley Woodcarving Club, the competition exhibits hobbies ranging from scroll sawing to Burch's preferred method — woodcarving.
Burch said he acquired a taste for carving when he was a young boy. One day, while herding sheep on the range, his father whittled a whistle from a length of willow branch and gave it to him.
"Then he told me, 'Now go make your own,"' Burch chuckled.
A few years down the road, Burch became heavily involved with Boy Scouts in Spokane, Wash. He started carving his patented bolo ties for Scouts to wear on their uniforms after they earned their Eagle. Local troop masters started promising bolo ties to Scouts each time they earned a merit badge, advanced to a new rank or earned their eagle. That promise was a surprise to Burch when they finally told him.
"I gulped, and then I went to work," he said. "That really put me into production."
More important than the bolo ties was how Burch related to the young Scouts. Spanish Fork resident Jim Stout said he was always impressed with how Burch could retain the troop's attention while he sat by the campfire and whittled. One time Burch told Stout the best tool a Scoutmaster can have is a pacifier.
"A pacifier?" Stout asked.
"A pacifier," Burch replied. "You stick it in your mouth and just listen."
Thousands of Scouts across America sport Burch's bolo ties, but the whittling whiz has also passed them out across the globe. In 1994, Burch traveled to Russia with a troop for an international Scout camp. Russian children were extremely receptive when he tried to explain the Scout slogan to "do a good turn daily."
"I don't know how much English they understood," he said. Despite the language barrier, Burch enjoyed the way a child's eyes would light up when he presented him with a bolo tie.
"I'd try to shake their hand," he said. "And they'd knock it away and give me a hug."
Alpine resident Gary Dollar has whittled with Burch since 1990. He said Burch spends two to three hours carving each bolo tie. On average, he finishes 700 per year.
"I don't know many people who put that much time into service," he said. "There's probably few who've done more good for young people than Bill."
The Wood Sculpting Show and Competition will continue today from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the VFW Hall, 386 N. Main, Spanish Fork. Admission is $2, and children 12 and under are admitted free of charge.