Chainsaw Carving as an art form

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This is a relatively young art form. It was probably inevitable that eventually the wood-cutting speed, power, and control of the chainsaw would be harnessed to sculptural ends. As the machines developed and improved after World War Two, the increasingly nimble saws lent themselves to finer work.

Here is a timeline of the main developments in chainsaw carving as an art form:

1952 Ray Murphy carves his name, using his parent’s chainsaw

1950s Ken Kaiser creates 50 carvings for Trees of Mystery, an attraction in the forested Redwood National & State Parks

1960s/70s Many other artists take up the idea

1982 First book on the subject, Fun and Profitable Chainsaw Carving

1980s Carving is featured in Lumberjack World Championships, Hayward, Wisconsin

1986 Cascade Chainsaw Sculptors Guild founded

1987 First World Championships, won by Barre Pinske (24)

1992 Chainsaw Art pioneer Brian Ruth sets up Masters of the Chainsaw, a booking agency for packaged performance art shows

1993 Cascade start a newsletter, The Cutting Edge

1995 Chainsaw carving introduced to Japan by Brian Ruth. A school and an annual competition follow as the activity grows

2002 United Chainsaw Carvers Guild is formed: they publish The Chainsaw Letter newsletter

2007 Chainsaw Chix, a group of female artists, formed by Jean Ruth

What is Chainsaw Art?

This refers mostly to works made in wood, using chainsaws for fast, noisy, action that means it is often referred to as Performance Art. However many of the sculptures thus produced are genuinely fine work. Many go on the show, often in the open air, such as the statues erected in the town of Hope, British Columbia by Canadian artist Pete Ryan. Of course, there is a proud tradition of totem pole carving in North America and it is fitting that this should be the cradle of the development of the new wooden sculpture form.

It remains a niche activity but it has spread to Europe, Australia, Asia, and Africa.

Many sculptors use the chainsaw for the main carving work and then finish off fine details with traditional woodworking tools.

Are regular chainsaws used?

They are, and they tend to be the petrol-engine varieties for putting on outdoor performances, but for good results, they require modifications to their bars and chains. No serious chainsaw carver now uses a standard device except for initial blocking out of the shape.

If you want to try your hand, your chainsaw should be off under 40cc capacity because very powerful models are too strong for the lighter chain that you will be using. Ensure (by checking on specialist websites or consulting your dealer) that it can be converted to use a pitch chain sprocket: many smaller models can, but not all.

How do I convert my chainsaw?

This is a process only to be undergone once you have built up training and experience on regular chainsaw use.

You need:

  1. A 0.050 gauge special bar made of one-piece steel with a sharper radius, satellite hardened tip welded in and hardened rails. The most popular lengths are 12 and 14 inches: shorter bars are easier to work with when doing fine detail.
  2. A sprocket for converting your saw to the new chain pitch.
  3. A new chain of either recommended or 3/8 pitch. Note that this will not have the usual guard links that are built into normal chains to protect against kickback: they impede the carving process. The good news is that you should not suffer this anyway because you are using a finer cut.
  4. Very good-quality high-temperature chain oil.

Replace the sprocket (taking care when replacing the bearing) and fit the new bar and chain. You may need to grind off part of the top of each heel to allow the profile to go around the tip while ensuring the tooth bites properly when making the all-important plunge (boring) cut. This is especially likely if you are using the narrower Dime tip (see below).

Your newly-converted chainsaw will now cut tighter curves and rout out deeper holes than its conventional cousins. You have two choices of bar shape: firstly, a Dime Tip with a small roughly dime-sized radius of 8.5mm allows very fine work. It can only be used with pitch chain because anything bigger just will not get round the tip.

Secondly, there is the 12.5 mm radius Quarter Tip, less radical and capable of taking or 3/8 pitch chains but still a lot niftier at carving and boring than any regular bar.

Whichever you select for, run in the chain well, with it fitted slackly: you never run these chains tight, and they need time to bed in and run efficiently on their steel bars. There will be some black oil discoloration until this running-in is accomplished.

The specialist parts mentioned come from American Carving Bar, GB Australian Carving Bar, and from Canada, the Cannon range, imported into the UK by Ed Robinson

Ice Ice Baby

Before completing this quick tour of chainsaw art, we cannot ignore ice sculpture, because chainsaws are commonly used to start the process of creation that turns blocks of ice into things of beauty.

For this purpose you want a clean-running device that will not stain the ice, so although petrol models are used on outdoor work, you will find electric and even battery-powered chainsaws in use indoors or close to a power source: their lighter weight, shorter length, clean running and greater delicacy suit this application very well. Typically the very fine detail will be done using smaller machines and hand tools, so it is less likely that a special bar and chain will be required.

The use of chainsaws in such work disproves the idea that the machines and even their users are only about brute strength and force: they can produce work of great subtlety and beauty.

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