A woodcarver from Plymstock, Devon, has been showing his appreciation to the NHS by hand-carving and donating wooden plaques to hospitals. Johnathon Whittaker was inspired to design and carve his first ‘NHS hero plaque’ while out clapping for key workers, one Thursday evening. His son Alex suggested he should carve something, and so he did. He shared his idea on social media and the original post received 350,000 hits in one week.

Carved By Hand

Johnathon began his career as a Civil Engineer focusing on coastal defence before he gave it up to become a full-time parent. He started his own business around 12 years ago, specialising in outdoor furniture and garden structures. Now a self-taught, self-employed woodcarver, he began by carving ‘thank you’ plaques and signs in his spare time. He soon realised he had a passion for carving and his business changed direction. He moved away from his original business, Urban Garden Structures, and relaunched as ‘Carved By Hand’. 
Initially, he continued with the plaques and signs but his natural talent meant he mastered new skills quickly and soon moved on to carving more intricate and detailed designs. He watched YouTube videos by established woodcarvers, such as Ian Norbury and Andrew Thomas, to further his skills. His portfolio consists of a multitude of wall art, pendants, seahorses, hares, whale tails, sharks, and lots of abstract pieces made from wood he finds on walks. More recently he’s been working on realistic knots, horse heads, and the human form. Most of the pieces Johnathon carves are sold or on display in local shops and galleries.


An evolving skill


Johnathon has been carving for five years now and his skill set is constantly evolving. The fact that he is not a traditionally taught woodcarver leaves him free to explore with all manner of tools. He uses chainsaws, angle grinders, routers, power carving tools, knives, chisels, and rotary tools. He really likes to experiment, particularly with the finish and the use of colour and resin. His favourite wood stains are by Chestnut Products, both the traditional colours and the rainbow spirit shades.

The idea behind the design

Johnathon shares his skills and ideas through the classes he teaches in his workshop. His longest-standing student is 76-year-old Pat Waters; she has not only learned carving skills through his classes but has benefited from the confidence that comes from learning a new skill.
Johnathon had Pat in mind when he designed his first NHS hero plaque. The idea behind the design came from an NHS advertising campaign featuring the ‘S’ as the familiar superhero symbol. Unbeknownst to Johnathon the amount of attention the plaque would receive, he took the design and adapted it. He carved his first plaque for Pat, to let her know he was thinking of her and acknowledge everything the NHS does for her. He also thought Pat may like to have a go at carving one for herself. She has underlying health issues and has been in isolation for many weeks.

An unexpected response

The plaque received such a positive response from Pat, that Johnathon decided to make a larger version; this time for some friends who work in his local Derriford Hospital in Plymouth. It was this larger plaque that Johnathon posted on his Facebook business page, Carved By Hand. It didn’t take long for requests for more plaques to start dropping into his inbox. Johnathon’s partner, Christie Lee Waters, has been helping with the admin.
“We never expected to get the sort of reaction we did. It has been truly phenomenal and (I may be biased but) so well deserved. He is carving all day every day, well into the evening – although that isn’t necessarily unusual. He is doing this for everyone else, not for his own benefit at all. Recognition for producing something beautiful is all he really wants,” she comments.


The woodworking community

Johnathon has committed to carving 73 plaques himself. He put a call out on woodworking forums for carvers to join him, so that he might commit to more. If he can get enough support from the woodworking community, he would like to adapt the design and extend the gesture to include care homes.
The Royal Devon and Exeter (RD&E) Foundation Trust was one of the first hospitals to receive their NHS hero plaque: “We’d like to thank Johnathon and Christie for the beautiful woodcarving they donated to the hospital. Following quarantine, it’s now sitting proudly in our main reception,” said a spokesperson for the RD&E Foundation Trust.
Axminster Tools & Machinery heard Johnathon’s story and wanted to help. Supported by suppliers including Hermes, Mirka, DMT, Dura Grit, Kirschen, Leigh, Trend and Tormek, Axminster supplied Johnathon with a bundle of tools and consumables to make carving quicker and easier.
He commented: “Thank you Axminster Tools - I’m blown away! The tools are a carver’s dream. We can’t thank you enough and with your generosity, we’ll be able to keep on carving and donating these plaques to the amazing NHS facilities around the UK. If my designs make staff feel more appreciated at the end of a long shift, it’s the least I can do.”

How to make an NHS hero plaque

If you have been inspired by Johnathon’s design and would like to have a go at making one of his NHS hero plaques yourself, take a look at this useful video he has put together. Coming soon will be a tutorial on how to create the plaque using a router and power tools. Subscribe to Johnathon’s YouTube channel here

Tools & equipment

60° V-groove gouge
6mm shallow cut back bent gouge
Flexcut MC150 six-piece mallet tool starter set – includes a 60° ‘V’ groove gouge as mentioned above
Chisel set – 5-25mm width 
Abrasives – 120 & 240 grit 
Large wooden mallet 



Liberon Woodstain
Shellac flakes – please note: this is a large amount and will need mixing
Acrylic lacquer


Johnathon tries to use locally sourced wood: regular pine, 2x4s and scaffolding boards. Materials that you should be able to source easily at your local store, rather than exotic wood

Can you help?

If you think you can help Johnathon with his mission to put a smile on the faces of our key workers, please get in touch with visiting his website or connect on Facebook or Instagram