Hopewell Valley high school senior fashions reptile from exotic wood

Nelson Gomez’ project took a year to complete.

By John Tredrea
   For a time, it became an obsession. "I was always trying to visualize how I wanted it to look," 17-year-old Nelson Gomez said Friday.
   "It" was the life-size cobra snake Nelson decided to carve for his senior-year project in veteran teacher Skip Johnson’s woods class at Hopewell Valley Central High School.
   "I had taken woods courses my first three years in school," Nelson said Friday. "A jewelry box I made came out well, I thought. Then I made a bow (as in archery) while I was a junior."
   A little over a year ago, Nelson was thinking he wanted "to do something more advanced" in woods during his senior year. The idea he settled on was inspired by his childhood.
   "When I was about 7 years old, we moved to Australia, because of my Dad’s work, for about a year," Nelson said. "I collected a bunch of wooden reptiles while we were living there."
   That collection nudged him to decide to carve the cobra — a project that took him a year to complete.
   "Nelson did some searching on the Internet to help him decide what kind of wood to use," said Mr. Johnson, who said the finished cobra looks fantastic.
   "Nelson did a great job," said Mr. Johnson. "He’s a great kid, too. Never out of school, always does good work, easy to get along with. He deserves a lot of credit."
   Nelson and Mr. Johnson agreed that lacewood — an exotic wood — would be best for the cobra. "The grain pattern lacewood has was the best we could find for this job," Mr. Johnson said.
   Starting with a plank of lacewood, Nelson cut it into sections, then glued the stacked sections together to make a block. "I cut the rough shape of the snake with a band saw," he said. "I had to cut from several different angles."
   The snake was made in two sections that were later fitted and glued together. The first section was the head and neck.
   Using chisel saws, raspers and filers of different sizes, Nelson carved the head and neck of the cobra from the lacewood. "The ridges on the neck took a long time," Nelson said. It’s easy to see why. The dozens of ridges look and feel as authentic as can be to someone who has not picked up an actual cobra.
   The second portion of the job is a stunning achievement. The snake’s body is coiled over the top of itself, several times. Looking at it, one can sense the tension required to hold the posture as the snake gets ready to strike.
   "It was a complicated plan," Nelson said. "You had to plan based on how it would look from multiple perspectives — both sides, overhead, from the back, trying to make each one look realistic without losing realism on any of the others. I made some mistakes as I worked through it. I had to make some adjustments to compensate for them."
   The entire snake is made of lacewood, except for a tiny piece of purple heartwood — picked for its color — used for the snake’s extended, forked tongue.
   During the most intense phases of the work, Nelson brought the wooden snake-in-progress home with him many nights and worked on it there. "I took the head and neck section home to get the ribs done," he said. "They took a lot of time. And I did a lot of sanding of the body section at home."
   The snake will go on the mantle of the Gomez home in Pennington, said Nelson. "My mom has seen it. My dad hasn’t yet," Nelson said. "She was in school for a basketball game and came into the shop to see it. She said she really liked it a lot."
   Nelson says his hobbies are sculpting and drawing. But what about pets? Have any of those? Any snakes?
   "Nope," he said. "We did have a Monitor lizard for three or four months. But it didn’t eat and my mom didn’t want us to have to feed it live mice, so we gave it away. And we’ve trained three Seeing Eye dogs. One didn’t pass the test, because of a hip problem. So we kept her. That was nine years ago; we still have her. Her name’s Vidette."
   Nelson will attend Landmark College in Vermont this fall. He plans to major in marine biology.