A blending of the new and the old, chainsaw carvings mix an archaic art form with modern technology. The elaborate wood outcomes are feats that seem unachievable considering the chainsaw’s weight and power.
If an arborist is a tree surgeon, than that must make me the butcher, having only one experience with a chainsaw where I spent close to an hour cutting through a 10″in thick branch, all the while seriously questioning the kickback and brake safety features. Probably something that comes from watching too much Tobe Hooper. The point is, they are not simple things to control.
This is also probably the reason I’m so enthralled by chainsaw art. The skill of the artists to handle such a powerful hand tool for the most fastidious tasks separates chainsaw carving from any other art form. This unique art style has the power to transform massive tree stumps to anthropomorphic wood features that carry as much detail as Japanese chisel sculptures.
Chainsaw Sculpting In History
Chainsaw art was given a thrust into the spotlight in the early 1960’s when an artist by the name of Ken Kaiser created a series of tree carvings for an American roadside museum. These carvings were huge and incredibly detailed, inspiring others to try their own hand at chainsaw sculpting. Among these others were pop culture figures like Runaways vocalist Cherie Currie, who’s status only propelled the growing art.
Chainsaw carving continued to build momentum into the early 90’s where it had been growing with exhibitions at the Lumberjack World Championships as well as forming it’s own dedicated Chainsaw Carving World Championship. The art form which had previously been recognised as performance art was becoming more refined and classical as the sculpture quality increased.
Professional chainsaw wood carving reached Australia sometime in the 90’s with the official Australian National Chainsaw Championships. Although a seemingly masculine art form, chainsaw art was immediately adopted by female artists. Female carvers quickly established their own competitions and an international female chainsaw team was formed, titled the ‘Chainsaw Chix’. Australia’s own Angela Polglaze was a pioneer in this female driven art movement. Aside from carving professionally for Australia since 2004, Angela’s career spreads over two decades of chainsaw carving. In these 20 years, she’s noticed some big changes in the scene,
“When I first started I thought I was the only one doing it, but the Internet made the world a smaller place. Things that were being done in days twenty years ago are now being done in one hour carving competitions … There has been progress in the tools but I also think there is a different ilk of crafters coming through. There are carvers with fine art backgrounds now”Angela Polglaze
The tact of the craft has aged like fine wine. Compact chainsaws are now helping artists achieve more delicate and complex wood sculptures. There are also special guide blades that have been developed specifically for chainsaw carvings and constant innovations to the tools have allowed for incremental refinement within the art.
Beginner Chainsaw Carving Tips
The chainsaw craft, like anything that involves chainsaws, is not something you’re going to want to jump blindly into. There are important safety precautions to be considered when approaching wood sculpting, mostly concerning you keeping your own limbs, but there are also tips for looking after your general well-being. One of Angela’s top tips for beginners was to respect the tool;
“People get complacent and they hurt themselves, you have to have a healthy respectful fear of the tool. Don’t carve if you’ve had a beer, don’t carve if you’re tired … Carvers make it look easy, but it’s physical labour.”
Chainsaw carving instructions may also seem pointless to those who think the art form relies entirely on steady hands and intricate cuts. But the craft is more interpretive than you may initially think. Anyone with a chainsaw and a stump can create a wood carving, and just as Mark Rothco sold an untitled painting of two brick-red rectangles for $28 million in 1961, there’s value in your art’s simplicity.
Before starting you should consider purchasing a pair of chainsaw chaps. If you’re going to take chainsaw crafting even relatively seriously, these blade proof pants will form a protective layer that a chainsaw blade just can’t penetrate. Due to the high volume of wood chips being displaced, it would also be a bright idea to invest in some eye goggles. Ear plugs will help too. You’ll probably want a chainsaw as well, they can help. If you haven’t already got one there are hundreds available at Machines4u—the more compact the better but any chainsaw will do for beginners.
Now with the safety considerations out of the way, you can get to cutting. It’s important that you don’t expect too much from your first project. Take your time when carving and if you can, go into the carving process with a drawn plan of what your project will look like. The type of wood you use will also have an impact on the quality of your sculpture. So look for soft woods that won’t crack when being carved. Often sculptures will be made from White Pine, Cedar, Redwood or Silver Maple tree butts. These are the best woods for chainsaw carving and will make your first project a hell of a lot easier to get into.
Australian wood is a different story however, having a completely different native fauna than America and Europe. Angela Polglaze recommends Macrocarpa for carving bigger pieces;
“It’s all a matter of taste, people get hooked on the sentimentality of it all. Native woods are often hard and beat my body up a lot. I personally like Macrocarpa because it doesn’t crack, there’s a lot of big stuff, it is solid all the way through, it also doesn’t bleed sap, it takes finish really well, and its not too heavy or too soft … It’s non-native but it’s all over the coastal areas of Victoria.”
Lessons will help and if you’re living in a city in Australia, they shouldn’t be too hard to locate. If you are determined to go at it alone, try an easy shape first. Something that will help you practice straight carves as well as curved surfaces will be best. A mushroom or a cube can be good beginner projects. And the shape can be further decorated by marking the carving with notches and patterns.
When you are finishing your project you can touch up rough surfaces with a grinder. You may also want to burn darker shades into your piece with a propane torch. Just don’t forget to apply an oil or lacquer to give your project a sweet gloss finish. Or if it’s the kind of project that warrants it, a couple coats of paint.
Chainsaw Carving Techniques
When you’re feeling like you’ve figured out the basics of carving shapes, you might start looking for some insight on how the professionals make their projects look so damn good. Thankfully some of these techniques have been shared. So when you’re done with mushrooms and squares, you can try an intermediate project like a human head. (Remember, if it ends up looking horrible just tell people it’s post-modern abstract).
- When shaping a head keep scale in mind. A carving of a head will usually be longer than it is wide, with the hairline covering what should be the top tenth;
- From the beginning of the hairline, position the nose around two thirds towards the chin;
- At the bridge of the nose position two eyes on either side, about one eye-length apart;
- Align the corners of the lips with the pupils of the eyes;
- The nose should branch out to become around one eye wide at the nostrils;
- Place the ears so they start parallel to the lips and finish at eye brow height.
These instructions are all scale related and better-detailed instructions can be found at Chainsawsculptors.com. Or if you’re a visual learner, take some time with the video below. Just keep in mind, it probably won’t take six minutes for you, at least on your first try.
Other Ways To Get Involved
If you are like me and love the art but just can’t seem to get a grip it, there are plenty of other ways to appreciate the craft. Chainsaw carving competitions and exhibitions regularly take place around Australia. Events like the STIHL Australian Chainsaw Carving Competition has just completed it’s fourth year. Visit the Machines4u events page to find out if there are any shows coming soon to an area near you.
Angela Polglaze herself will be carving with 10 of the world’s best carvers this weekend at the Seymour Alternative Farming Expo in Victoria.
“It’s not going to be a competitive environment so we can just hang out at the event, there will be a lot of camaraderie and less stress than in competition … I’m just gonna carve whatever comes to mind, I saw something on the computer that interested me earlier this week, but it’s all experimentation to me. I’m one of the quirkier carvers ” Angela said about the upcoming event.
If you can’t find anything on near you, there are still hundreds of amazing chainsaw carving videos uploaded to YouTube that showcase the work of some of the best chainsaw artists, and make you feel just that little bit worse about your own ability.