Seated in a patio chair on the back lawn of his Baiting Hollow home on a recent Sunday afternoon, Chris Rowett positioned a two-foot piece of beach driftwood on his lap.
He held a large magnifying glass a few inches from the wood and waited. In just seconds, the magnified sunlight had burned a dark line onto it.
Mr. Rowett, 31, is a solar carver. Harnessing the sun’s energy, he uses magnifying glasses of varying sizes to burn designs into driftwood he finds at nearby Long Island Sound beaches. He can etch almost anything, but the majority of his pieces feature sayings like “NOFO” and “Long Island, New York.” More detailed pieces incorporate drawings with nautical themes like sailboats, suns and seahorses.
“I’ve always been into art,” Mr. Rowett said. “I used to paint and draw. This is just a different medium for me to use.”
The ease with which he approaches his craft gives him the look of a seasoned professional, but Mr. Rowett, who grew up in Blue Point and works full-time as a physical education and health teacher at Comsewogue Elementary School in Port Jefferson Station, has been solar carving for only two years.
He was at a beach in East Marion one day, he said, when he realized that if he held a magnifying glass over driftwood on a sunny day, it produced a scorching effect.
By manipulating the magnifying glass, Mr. Rowett discovered he could create letters and pictures on the wood.
“I just kind of fell upon it,” he said. “I started playing around with it, making letters, then went off that.”
At first, Mr. Rowett made solar carvings as gifts for friends and family. During the summer and early fall, when the sun is at its hottest, he usually designs three or four pieces a day. A simple design, like “NOFO,” takes just a few minutes, he said. More elaborate pieces take up to an hour.
Now, solar carving is much more than just a hobby for Mr. Rowett. Woodside Orchards in Aquebogue began selling his pieces this year and his work will soon be for sale at East End Getaway, a boutique opening this month at MacArthur Long Island Airport in Islip.
Mr. Rowett recently put the finishing touches on a piece of driftwood with butterfly etchings that he custom-designed for the Long Island Aquarium & Exhibition Center in Riverhead. After he appeared in a feature on News 12, Mr. Rowett was contacted by the aquarium about designing some pieces to be sold at its gift shop.
“His work is very interesting,” said Nadine Ferrara, gift shop assistant manager and assistant buyer at the aquarium. “To do that with a magnifying glass and not have a template or anything is amazing.”
Mr. Rowett said he finds his recent — and unexpected — recognition exciting.
“Everything is growing,” he said. “It’s hard because I can only make so many pieces, because each piece takes about an hour. When it’s sunny out, I feel like I have to burn. But it’s enjoyable. It’s exciting to have a few people appreciate my work.”