Feature on Chainsaw Carvers

Posted 16/03/2023 in Tips for Crafters

The chainsaw represents a huge leap in our ability to manage and fell trees, shortening the process considerably and thanks to modifications such as guide bars, it’s much safer these days for those using them. Nevertheless, extreme care is required with this equipment because of it’s sheer speed – or it could result in severe damage to yourself and those around you. (I thought I’d better add that just in case anyone feels inspired by this blog and rushes out to buy a chainsaw).  

Not everyone knows that the chainsaw can be used to create exquisite pieces of art. Whilst it might seem like a purely aggressive, and singular use work tool, a series of artists down through the years have taken the chainsaw and turned it into the paintbrush of carving and sculpture. As we have mentioned before, using a chainsaw is still dangerous without proper care and attention  and for anyone trying to show off their products and work at an event, they’ll need insurance for craft fairs as a given!

The earliest recorded examples of the art of chainsaw sculpture began in the 1950s. The tool was established as part of general forestry care but it soon became clear to artists that its potential as an artistic carving tool was limitless. The precision it could give, and the speed at which it could be delivered, was too hard to resist using. Ray Murphy was the first artist to pioneer using the chainsaw. He started out by simply carving his name into the wood  with his father’s chainsaw. Nine years later, the artist Ken Kaiser really began to explore with the instrument. He proved that the chainsaw could be a tool of great artistic productiveness by carving fifty pieces for a show called the Trees of Mystery.

Inspired by these workers, other carvers began to put aside the more traditional tools of the wood worker and turner. A great slew of artists saw the potential of using the chainsaw to create art works and, due to the speed and ease of their creation they were able to hire or buy trucks and load up their wares. This enabled them to drive around the USA, moving from show to show, exhibiting with ease. Setting up their stall with a simple block of wood, they would set about creating something marvellous. Given the nature of the work I’m guessing that these early chainsaw carvers were prudent enough to have had some kind insurance for craft fairs in place to deal with any kind of accident or incident that could have happened!

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the movement became really serious and quite competitive. The long established Lumberjack World Contest was the place that really embraced the art of chainsaw carving. Along with all the other competitions of tree felling and climbing it seemed only natural that chainsaw carving should be a part of the championship. Due to the fact that the Lumberjack contest was widely televised throughout the USA, chainsaw carving was suddenly brought into the world’s focus. Soon carvers were popping up all over the States and not just in the Northeast and West. Carving proved so popular it broke away from the lumberjacks events and formed its own world championship in 1987.

Carvers would pick up ideas and techniques from each other and adapt them into their own set of skills. This resulted in a surge of creativity, perfect for pushing the work of this growing artistic community to new heights. The most important part of this movement was the creation of the Cascade Chainsaw Sculptors guild. Their newsletter became legendary in how it was able to unite and draw together the new and upcoming chainsaw carvers with the established ones.

Britain was not to be outdone. With an already strong, tightly knit community of wood carvers in place the introduction of the chainsaw was greeted with enthusiasm. Nowadays, the English Open Chainsaw championships brings in huge crowds, and you can bet your bottom dollar that the organisers and competitors have insurance for craft fairs in place!

The UK started to send competitors to the world championships and Duncan Kitson had the honour of the being the first. British artists also hold a few records over their North American counterparts. For example, Matthew Crabb’s statue of the Virgin Mary is the worlds largest chainsaw sculpted wood work, standing at nine metres tall. Other noted British chainsaw wielding artists are the father and son team, Harry and Danny Thomas. Harry is particularly well known and renowned for his work creating bears and Danny is now following in his footsteps. Perhaps the most impressive feat by Harry was his creation of a chainsaw sculpture of the late Queen Elizabeth the Second.

The art of the chainsaw carver has been made considerably easier by the work of the Finns. Finland is known for its vast forests so felling and forestry management is of paramount importance to them. The Finns have developed different blades or “guide bars”  that have smaller ends which enable the artist to create cleaner lines and more details. They are also a lot safer to use than a regular blade guide bar. Such detail with a regular chainsaw would be completely impossible.

This makes the pioneering work of Murphy and Kaiser back in the 1950s, working with a regular chainsaw, even more incredible in the context of what we have today to work with. With major manufacturers like Stihl, Canon to name but a few, its plain to see that this is an art form that only has more and more potential to grow and provide us all with truly inspirational and awe inspiring works of wood and wonder. The future looks to be assured and very bright and creative indeed!