For most of us, the electric or petrol chainsaw is our trusty appliance for cutting and felling trees. It has its place firmly in the shed with all the other electric garden equipment. But this powerful little machine has created artists and entertainers out of ordinary lumberjacks. Now recognised as a true art form, chainsaw carving continues to get more popular by the day.
A brief history of chainsaw carving art
Chainsaw carving has become a recognized art in the 21st century, but its origins go way back to 1940’s America. Among the first recorded artists was Ken Kaiser who, in 1946, created the 50 carvings for the “Trees of Mystery”. This has become a popular roadside attraction for tourists in Klamath, California. Its most well known chainsaw sculpture is the huge 49 foot tall stature of Paul Bunyan (a giant lumberjack in US latter-day mythology).
Trees of Mystery inspired artists in the fifties and sixties such as Brenda Hubbard, Judy McVay, Don Colp, Cherie Currie, Susan Miller, Mike McVay, and Lois Hollingsworth. But it was not until the 1980’s when Art Moe came along, that this art form really began to take off. He displayed this innovative art form at the Lumberjack Championships in Wisconsin. This was closely followed by the first world chainsaw carving championships in 1987. The 1990’s saw the mass production of books help budding students learn this new carving craft, but it was not until the advent of the internet that the craze finally took off and spread globally.
A performance chainsaw carving art
It is accepted that there are two sides to the chainsaw carving craft. There is the finished sculpture itself and the actual creation of the sculpture. The latter has very much made it a “performance art”. Watching the carver with this powerful and sometimes frightening machine, create a fine sculpture in breakneck speeds, amongst the flying sawdust and searing noise, is an entertainment in itself. Performance chainsaw artists do “quick carves”, which can draw a large audience, focusing their attention on the tool and speed.
Special chainsaws blades for carving
To enables the artist to create detail in the carving that would be impossible with a standard guide bar ( this holds the chain), carving chainsaws have specially designed guide bars which have very small noses of around 25 mm in diameter. The length of the teeth on the chains is also reduced in size, so they are more efficient in cutting at the tip of the bar. The most important part of these modifications is the safety aspect. With a normal guide bar, if you were to use the tip to cut the wood you would be in danger of kickback.
The best wood for chainsaw carving
As with any art creation, it is not only about the tools you use in your project but also the fundamental base materials that will decide whether the project is a success or not.
For instance, if the piece of wood has too many cracks in it, then your project will fall apart as you progress. In the same way, if there is any rot it is likely to interfere with the detail. Finding a piece of wood which is completely devoid of cracks is not easy to do, so it is always a good idea to sketch a picture of the item to maximise the size, and place any cracks that may occur in the correct position so that the project is not affected by the wood defects. The fact is, most all finished chainsaw carvings have cracks or rots somewhere; a major part of the skill is to ensure the defects are in the least prominent places.
Don’t forget you are going to be cutting a huge amount of wood away to create your chainsaw sculpture so give yourself lots of extra raw material. For mobility purposes, you should also consider the weight of the wood. How are you going to move it afterwards? There are no hard and fast rules which state which wood you should use, but popular artists tend to favour pine, fir and cedar.
The correct tools for chainsaw carving job
For more flexibility, it is better to use two chainsaws – one for major cuts and one for detail cutting. If you live in an area where your neighbours may complain about noise, consider choosing electric chainsaws. These saws have a few advantages over their petrol-powered cousins. The major advantage is service and repair: an electric saw needs much less maintenance and care, and will always perform at their peak, however, they are not as powerful as petrol powered saws and do not cut as fast or as smooth.
If you are using hardwood as your main material to work on, it is recommended that you use a smaller saw, but a smaller saw is not always a good idea. You need to find a nice balance. When choosing the model based on the length of the bar and chain, take into consideration that the model is likely to be more powerful and so it is more likely to lead to dangerous kickbacks for the beginner.
Rarely can a masterpiece be carved with your chainsaw alone. You will need back up tools to hone and refine your work. The most useful tools you will find yourself using are a grinder, sandpaper, chisels and a wood rasp. But a must-have for the ambitious artist is the Dremel. This is used for the very fine details of your chainsaw carving project. It comes with a variety of features for sanding, cutting, shaping and sharpening.
Ice Ice Baby
Before completing this quick tour of chainsaw art, we cannot ignore ice sculpture, because chain saws 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.