Pickens residents Johnny and Pat Denney with their larger-than-life nutcrackers, which Johnny builds at his workshop. These nutcrackers bring joy to the Denneys and their family and friends during the holidays.
There’s almost nothing that evokes the holidays more than a nutcracker, those stately, colorful wooden men that, according to legend, protect homes and serve as messengers of good will to families who have them.
Most of these figures are fairly small in stature, with a levered mouth just big enough to crack nuts popular during the holidays – hickory, pecan, and walnut. But one Pickens man has brought the nutcracker to new heights with a series of giant – sometimes life size – versions of the classic German toy.
After he retired, Pickens resident Johnny Denney, a drafting instructor who taught at Pickens Tech for 30 years, took his CAD skills in the workshop with impressive results.
“You can’t really find big ones,” Denney said from home in the Burnt Mountain Area. “And if you do they’re so expensive. I decided I wanted a lathe and wanted to make my own.”
Denney’s figures are ironically devoid of the nutcracking feature, which gave the toys its name, but they still evoke more than their part of holiday spirt.
“I’ve just never really liked the way the mouths looked,” Denney said. “That, and they’re a lot more difficult to make with mouths.”
His tallest nutcracker to-date is 82 inches. Some are shorter, but still large compared to the standard-size counterpart. Denney does a 3-D sketch of his concept using CAD, then laminates pieces of wood together, mostly fir but sometimes pine, and forms it into the familiar nutcracker shape on his lathe.
Denney paints the majority of the bodies and faces (eyes are the hardest part of the entire process for him), but enlists his wife Pat’s help with painting, as well as with crafting nutcracker’s accoutrement like capes, faux bearskin hats, and bedazzling and laces on the chest and boots.
“These two we made to look like the guards at Buckingham Palace,” said Mrs. Denney, who grew up in the U.K. before moving to the states as a young adult.
Nutcracker dolls originated near Pat’s home country over 300 years ago in the Ore Mountains region in Germany, and grew more popular after Peter Tchaikovsky adapted E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse Kingas a ballet, first performed in 1892. According to Steinbach, the Germany wood company that’s been making high-end nutcrackers for 200 years, the ballet’s popularity in America skyrocketed in the 1950s. During WWII, U.S. soldiers stationed in Germany would bring back nutcrackers for family at home, which led to a rise in collecting in the U.S.
And the Denneys no doubt have picked up the collecting bug, with somewhere around 50 of the more standard-size nutcrackers at their home. Every year they add to the collection and decorate with the smaller army of wooden toys, as well as with several of the larger nutcrackers. They don’t sell the big figures, but choose instead to give them as gifts to friends and family.
“At our house, two go one on each side of the front door,” Mrs. Denney said. “Every year go out and cut a tree at Jack’s tree farm and have three other trees, and will have family over. It’s a lovely time.”