Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | January 16, 2010

Chainsaw Sculpture

Back in the late 60’s I got pretty excited about chainsaw sculpture.  There were a few artists doing chainsaw art and I thought I would give it a try.  Starting simple, I carved a few mushrooms and some tiki heads.  The mushrooms were pretty boring but the tiki heads allowed for a bit of creativity.  Once carved, I burnt the surface with a torch and brushed them down with a wire brush.  I used western red cedar and it worked well.  I remember lining them up in the front of my driveway and selling the mushrooms for $10.00 and the tiki heads for $35.00.  I don’t recall if everything sold but most did and I felt pretty good.  Back then I used a Pioneer brand chainsaw.  It was considered to be a decent saw at the time without going into the high priced professional saws.  But, its bar and chain were designed for cutting fire wood and not for carving.

When driving around, I will, from time to time, see a chainsaw carver set up on the side of the road or I see others at a crafts shows.  For a long time, I thought that chainsaw work could only go so far with the quality.  Clearly, many chainsaw carvers are creative but somehow their work still looks like chainsaw work-rustic.  One mystery to me is why so many chainsaw carvers carve bears… bears sitting; bears standing; bears hugging a tree; bears doing most anything.  I had never attended a chainsaw competition but most chainsaw work that I had seen was pretty rough.

Then, some years ago I heard about a chainsaw artist named J. Chester Armstrong from Sisters, Oregon.  I saw pictures of his work and could not believe they were the product of a chainsaw.  His work is nothing short of spectacular.  Armstrong has even carved 8 running horses in an 8 foot diameter walnut log.  The University Press of Mississippi has published a book about Armstrong and his work titled Chainsaw Sculptor, The Art of J. Chester “Skip” Armstrong.  It is a wonderful, motivational piece to see work like Armstrong’s illustrated and to even hear the story of Armstrong’s rise in the art world.  I believe the book is available at Amazon.

Skip Armstrong with Horses

Skip Armstrong with Dragons

Skip Armstrongs Deer

Then, for several years, I thought Armstrong was the only truly great chainsaw artist on the planet.  That has turned out not to be true.  A Whidby Island woman named Jessie Groeschen has written a book titled The Art of Chainsaw Carving.  It is published by Fox Chapel.  In her book, Ms. Groeschen has profiled some 18 chainsaw artists beginning with the guy who put chainsaw carving on the map, Ray Murphey.  Murphey began chainsaw carving in 1953 and his works include writing the alphabet on a pencil.  If you don’t believe it, a picture is in Ms. Groeschen’s book and in the publications of Ripley’s Believe it or not.  Murphey’s first saws looked like old wringer washing machines, they were so large.  I don’t know how he held them.

Ms. Groeschen also profiles the famous McVay family, an entire family of award- winning chainsaw carvers.  But in amongst a list of chainsaw carving “characters” are some truly incredible chainsaw artists including Armstrong and several others.  In addition to the many illustrations, Ms. Groeschen proves herself to be a skilled writer.  I highly recommend the Art of Chainsaw Carving.  It is wonderfully presented and is a great motivational piece.  This book retails for $19.95 and can be ordered from Fox Chapel or Amazon.

In the end, I have a whole new respect for chainsaw carving.  I am going to be doing a lot more of it.  These days, special bars and chains have been made for chainsaw carvers.  Believe it or not, chain tips are now as small as a dime and the chains are made for carving.  The chainsaws themselves are also a great deal smaller and lighter than years ago with even more power.  Recently I purchased a chainsaw carving package offered by Bailey’s ( ).  Bailey’s has assembled all the required parts in one package at a reasonable price and less expensive than going out and buying the parts individually.  The saw is a small Echo that is configured perfectly for chainsaw carving.  The package includes a nice little video on carving that is pretty good.  There are also several other DVDs for sale on the subject of chainsaw carving.

Laying Fawn by Heart of the Woods

The above carving is from the Heart of the Woods Chainsaw Carvings ( ).  I urge you to visit their site as there are lots of examples of very fine work found on their Gallery Page.

My first project out of the box with my new saw turned out pretty darned good for having been away from it for 40 years and coming from such rustic beginnings.  Unfortunately, I do not have a picture as I gave it away before getting a picture of it.

Eagle Carving from Grouse Mountain

The eagle, above is from Grouse Mountain in Vancouver BC.  Grouse Mountain is home to many fine carvings done by B.C. natives.

A note on safety.  Chainsaws can be dangerous and appropriate safety equipment is required when carving with a chain saw.  I highly suggest using heavy duty chaps, a helmet with full face visor and ear protection.  I also recommend wearing heavy duty boots.  This all may sound like a bit of overkill but believe me, one small screw-up and it may well cause irreparable damage.

So many chainsaw artists have proven that chainsaw art does not have to be crude… nor does it have to involve carving bears.

Stay Sharp and Happy Carving!

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