Gary Browning: Portrait of the Portrait Scroller


Gary Browning: Portrait of the Portrait Scroller

issues-ssw13-browning-leadHis Marine Corps Training Serves Him Well

When the premier issue of Scroll Saw Workshop came out in the fall of 2000 not many scrollers had heard of Gary Browning or his method of scrolling portraits, which he introduced to us with a portrait of “The Duke.” Less than a year after that, his first book, Fox Chapel’s Scroll Saw Portraits, came out and was a big hit on showing all scrollers how to make their own patterns out of pictures. Now, three years later, we’re invited to learn more about Gary Browning, the person

In the Workshop

When he finds time to spend in his workshop, Gary is surrounded by his top tools for portrait making. “You don’t need a lot of tools to get started in scrolling, but you find tools work well for your needs and stick with what works for you.”

At the top of the list are Gary’s two scroll saws. One is a 1985 Jet Industrial model, and the other is a recently purchased DeWalt. “The Jet runs off of a camshaft and piston set up that gives me a more true up-and-down movement. Frequent lubrication and oil changes keep the Jet running. I’m still getting use to the DeWalt, but, from what I have experienced so far, it is a very good saw for its price.”

Other tools besides the scroll saw that are instrumental to Gary’s work are a jigsaw, hot glue gun, rotary tools, palm sander, shop vac and his newest tool, a 10″ drill press. “I have really been relying on my jigsaw a lot lately. I purchase large sheets of plywood and sometimes cut wood to fit different frame sizes. I use a palm sander to sand the back of my scroll saw work. The palm sander sounds intimidating but the weight is distributed, and I do not break off fragile pieces if I am careful. I also have a rotary tool that I use to sand off the small fuzzy pieces of wood on the backside of my portraits that the palm sander misses. I use a shop vac to try to keep a handle on the dust that collects. A hot glue gun comes in handy when its time for framing,” Gary explains.

Also found around the workshop are portrait-making materials, including Gary’s favorite wood, birch plywood. “It doesn’t have distracting grain patterns and finishes very nicely. Oak plywood would be my second choice. I have also tried to cut paper to make cards and stationary, some SSV, Corian materials, thin aluminum and plastic. The saw seems to do well on each material. The key is in the set up and the blades required for each material.” Gary uses a spiral blade for the bulk of his work “because I like how they can dart in and out of tight spaces, and you don’t have to move the wood around the blade. This makes life easier for cutting pieces that are larger than the throat of the saw you are using.”

Meet the Man

When he’s not scrolling or designing patterns, Gary spends time with his family or enjoys fishing. For him, favorite family dinners include “a well done steak off the grill, and my wife makes a great chicken linguini also.” Gary, his wife, Jennifer, and their 5-year-old son, Robert, call Greencastle, Pennsylvania, home. Part of Gary’s non-scrolling time is spent working full-time installing residential and commercial burglar, fire alarm and other security-related devices.

Because of his busy schedule, Gary doesn’t spend as much time as he wants to at the saw actually sawing. “Since I work full time, I try to get in a few hours during the week if I am busy. If I have a craft show to prepare for, I try to get in 15 to 20 hours a week.” The craft show prep is usually done at night so Gary can spend more time with his family. That flexibility is what he likes about scrolling, “If I have a few hours of down time after work I jump on the saw.” And it doesn’t take him long to create a piece of art.

Although making art doesn’t take him long now, it wasn’t always that way. Gary first started scrolling about eight years ago, after seeing work at a craft show. He recalls thinking to himself, “‘wow I can do that. Now what types of tools are out there that I can get my hands on to make something like that of my own?’ Well, I did not get much farther than the scroll saw.” The first two years he didn’t scroll much at all, but the last six, he has been at it actively.

About two years after he began scrolling, Gary stumbled upon his innovative portrait pattern method. “I had my brightness and contrast settings off on a copy machine one day in the library and the wheels got to turning to try to make a pattern out of it for my saw.” Though fate handed him an idea, Gary’s Marine-Corp-bred hard work really made it happen. “It was very frustrating in the beginning. I would try to work out a photocopy that I did of a family member and get three quarters of the way through it after about five hours. Then I’d just step away from it for a few days. Had I not been stubborn, someone else would be in my shoes today.” With the help of the computer and scanner, he got the portrait-pattern-making technique down within a few weeks. “I got to the point where I felt like I could show others a progressive process about three months after that.” Since that day at the copier six and a half years ago, Gary has refined his process and is still finding improvements and easier ways to do things. “Just as with most things, I’m not sure if it will ever be completely perfected.” New ways and ideas keep coming up; they add to the process and give it a new prospective.

With the years of work and the “master” status came a plethora of patterns. Just how many patterns are there? “I get asked that question a lot, and to tell you the truth I have not and most likely will not count them all. Off hand I know I have a few CD ROM disks full and a pile of patterns printed out.” Though the patterns have piled up, Gary’s ultimate goal is to make patterns that appeal to his family, other scrollers and himself. His favorites, of course, are the ones of his own family. “They always make me feel good; they make me feel able to be close to the subjects, even if he or she is not alive anymore. To see the images of loved ones lost is always powerful and means a lot to you no matter what media they are displayed in.”

Scrolling Community Leader

For novice scrollers and pattern designers, Gary compares scrolling possibilities to traveling on a highway. “To novice scrollers I say that you are about to embark on a highway that will take you to many destinations. You can take the off ramp on intarsia, merge onto scroll saw clocks or take a left on compound scrolling, and that is just in the first mile. There are thousands of miles on this highway, with thousands of directions that you can explore or ponder. Take your time to discover and learn about each technique so you can find one that you know you like, and you can start down that long road to discover even more about it. To pattern designers, I just say that you have to keep at it and constantly try to learn new techniques and software possibilities. This fast-paced world does not stand still. You have to get in there and start learning no matter what age or what level you are. You will find that you have more artistic ability than you think.”

For expert scrollers, Gary has a great appreciation. “Those that have chosen to master their field or technique do so with a passion much like a master painter, and they bring more ideas and beautiful work to the table than anyone could hope to see.” Moreover, he is astounded by the way scrollers act toward each other. “There are few people in the world today that will actually take a few minutes to help you out or to give you pointers. People who scroll saw don’t dismiss you or keep a tight lip when asked how they do something. They share what they have learned and that will keep scrolling alive for many years to come.”

And where could scrolling go in the next 10 years? Gary sees it going strong with a larger audience than today. “To tell you the truth, it’s hard to believe that there are not more scrollers today. It’s such an easy art form and hobby to pick up. I can see works that will be animated with small motors that run off of batteries, such as a silhouette of a child on a swing, actually swinging on the branch of a tree limb. I can also see work that is more hands-on by the viewer, such as a lever on the piece. When a person moves the wooden lever, it changes the state of the art work. I urge all scrollers to be open with their talent to keep it alive and to draw in more individuals. I am honored to be able to create work that holds scrollers’ interest, and I will try my best to hold their interest in the future.”

Gary is a very busy man, as you can tell from all of the above, but he still makes time to contribute to the scrolling community. Last February when the Columbia space shuttle tragedy occurred, Gary spearheaded an effort to gather scrollers together to create something very special and unique for the families of the tragedy—a portrait of each member of the Columbia crew. “The idea of organizing a group of volunteers from different countries, states and backgrounds to complete a project through the Internet would seem impossible.” Tasks varied from cutting the portraits to helping with shipping costs. Gary adds, “everyone did his or her part, and it all came to me through the mail. I fine tuned each portrait, framed them and had them shipped out to a contact who hand delivered them to the family members. This is just the tip of the iceberg of what can be accomplished when scrollers with a common goal and big hearts set out on a unified mission. To think that one man or woman sitting in his or her garage in a small town could play a role in bringing such a personal gift to someone who has lost so much is just remarkable. I think this group of scrollers has set the standard for kindness and teamwork. It proves just how far away from the scroll saw table their work reaches. I am honored to know them and I look forward to future projects like this one.” To learn more about this group or to join, visit

Tip: Gary’s Hot Tips for Beginners

  • As far as cutting goes, just stay relaxed from your shoulders down to your fingertips and don’t force the blade into the wood with a lot of pressure. Let the blade to the cutting.
  • A slower feed rate on dense material make cutting easier
  • I started out using a #2 reverse tooth blade, and I recommend it to any scroller who is just starting out. It’s an all-around good size, and the blade works well for a variety of stock.
  • If you are starting out with designing portraits, I recommend starting with a close-up of the subject’s head or face. The closer you are to the face, the more detail you get. With a lot of detail, you have room to mess up a little, and the portrait pattern will still come out as a good likeness.
  • If you experience and difficulties, log onto the Internet and join a scroll saw club or list. Scrollers are the friendliest folks around, and they will help you.

Make Money with your Scroll Saw Custom-cut Company Logos

Gary Browning was commissioned by Fox Chapel Publishing to create a sign for the Woodcraft Corporation to acknowledge their 75th year in business. But you don’t have to wait for a company to approach you for commission work. Look around your town for businesses and organizations that may be prime for some creative signage. Restaurants and booster clubs are possibilities.

Generally there are two ways to approach potential sales. You can actually design and cut the sign with the hopes that the potential buyer says yes. Or you could talk to the key decision maker about your proposal to cut a sign. Presenting a portfolio of photos of other signs you’ve cut, letters of reference and a sketch of what you’d like to cut for the company gives a professional first impression and go a long way toward making the sale.