CHAINSAW CARVING THOUGHTS #1

This particular post is about chainsaw sculpture.  I say “sculpture” because I am not a “chainsaw carver” per se.   Thirty years of classical carving and other highly detailed woodworking has made it almost impossible for me to leave a log in a less than “refined” state.   I start out with a chainsaw, but usually end up with my mallet and gouges in hand before I decide a sculpture is finished.

Of course, pragmatically speaking, if I am trying to carve to the market, I will deliberately stop myself at times before I have invested all the time that might be spent on a piece simply because there is a point of diminishing return.  I have discovered that a lot of folks seem to think that American artist/craftsmen should be working at Chinese or Asian prices.  (Something is wrong with this picture.)  There are a lot of very skilled chainsaw artists out there who ought to be recognized for their talent and their work and very well compensated, but who are forced to be hacking out cheap junk bears and other garbage carvings because the majority of people don’t appreciate any longer the value of true creativity or the price an artist pays to become the master of his craft.

Most people do not realize, or care to know, that the stuff that comes from Asia is made by nearly enslaved labor in sweat-shop factories that turn artists into human machines who are working under such conditions because they cannot escape them and they have to survive or die.  We, in America, simply cannot compete on this ground.

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Back to the point of this part of the blog:  Chainsaw art is a sub-set of woodcarving that has been growing in popularity for a number of years now.  It is more visceral than other carving:   There is something very satisfying about creatively destroying trees with the most dangerous hand-held power tool on the planet.  It used to be that chainsaw carving was dominated by big hulking men, but today some of the most talented artists are petite women who bring to the academy a creative vision that includes much more than bears and eagles.   The art form is now circling the globe, and a Google search will discover that artists from other countries certainly think much differently than do American chainsaw sculptors.

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Cherie Currie – The Chainsaw Chick    and Deborah Lloyd of New Zealand

I hope that this blog will become for some an exploration of the art.  I will share what I am doing and learning.  I would like others to do the same.  I will offer what advice I might have, and answer any questions or try to point you to someone who can.   I will share photos of great carvings as I discover them, and links to other sites.  I am in process of reinventing our life after having it trashed by Hurricane Sandy:  Marilyn and I are rebuilding from the ground up in a completely new part of the country and I think that chainsaw art may become part of the product inventory that I offer as I reestablish Sonrise Woodcarving Studio.   We live near to the Appalachian and Great Smoky mountains, and these areas are big tourist draws with many venues that support chainsaw art.  I am sure that this part of our adventure will make for some interesting blogging.   I desire very much that this blog become a lively conversation with many participants, and only ask that the topics remain relevant and the general atmosphere civil.

All chainsaw artists need to be able to carve bears.  This is a photo of  my first real effort to accomplish something more than a “typical” chainsaw bear.  I spent about 80 hours releasing this lifesize black bear from a 9′ by 46″ red oak log.  I did most of the heavy work with my Stihl MS200T chainsaw with a 12″ dime-tip carving bar and a quarter-pitch chain and then did the detailing with my Arbortech carvers and my Automach.  The bird on the bear’s head is a sarcastic raven, which, unfortunately, did not photograph all that well.  Other details in the carving included two rattlesnakes and a raccoon hiding in the pile of rocks.   The sculpture is in the Delaware WaterGap/Montague, NJ area, near High Point State Park, which has one of the highest counts of black bears in the country and also is timber rattlesnake habitat.

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This Great Blue Heron was carved from a piece of white pine.  There is a lily pad with a flower and a frog between the bird’s feet.  The dragonfly is an ad-on of birch and mahogany.   Eastern white Pine is a more durable and weather resistant pine, favored by chainsaw artists.  It is a softwood and carves quickly.  All pines tend to “check” because of their high moisture content.  Chainsaw sculpture is done in “green” wood.  It is almost impossible to dry a log.. to remove its cellular moisture the wood before carving it.  It takes about a year per inch of thickness to air-dry a board to 15% moisture, which is considered “stable”, and a log is generally too thick to set aside for the necessary time.   Because of this all chainsaw type carvings, if they are done in “wild wood”, will check or split as they slowly dry out.  This is because as the water that is in the cells (wood is about 85% water when it is alive) slowly evaporates, and the then hollow cells begin to shrink.  This cellular shrinkage creates tensions that must be released as the dimension of the wood grows smaller  (a log is a closed circle), so in softwoods this usually means there will be one or two large splits, and in most hardwoods there will be a number of smaller checks and cracks throughout the whole carving.  In most cases this checking does not overly affect the appearance of a sculpture and it usually adds “character” to the piece.  In some situations a severe crack needs to have a piece of wood inserted and then recarved as a repair.   There are steps that we can take which can sometimes help to minimize these natural processes.  Any carver with integrity guarantees his work for life and will always work with a client to deal with such issues.

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This barn owl is also carved from a white pine limb.  I had a lot of chunks of pine because the highway department was clearing the power lines along the highway near where we were living and they were leaving the wood where it fell.  I got a great deal of exercise that Spring and Summer collecting carving stock.  Most chainsaw sculptors are very environmentally sensitive.  There is rarely a need to cut down a tree simply to do a carving, though in specific cases a particular tree might be the only one suitable for a special sculpture.  Trees are being felled all of the time, either by arborists or by nature, and there is always a supply of wood suitable for sculpture without cutting standing timber.   There are also standing dead trees that can be sculpted “on the stump”.   Even a living tree can be carved, as long as care is taken and the artist understands something about trees and horticulture.

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