In the woodcarving world, chainsaw carving compares with other types of carving like Goliath compared to David. Chainsaw carving is bigger, bolder, and more dangerous.
History of chainsaw carving
Chainsaw carving began in the U.S. in the 1950s. Ben Murphy and Ken Kaiser pioneered the craft and began distributing their pieces. Interest in chainsaw carving grew slowly until the 1980s. Then the craft jumped in popularity thanks to the publication of a handful of books about chainsaw carving and the creation of several chainsaw carving festivals and competitions. Men and women from all walks of life entered the contests, and the number of chainsaw carvers multiplied.
The development of the Internet also aided the growth of the craft. Chainsaw carvers posted “how-to” articles, recorded videos while they carved a piece, and sold their items in online stores.
As chainsaw carving gained popularity, it spread from America to Japan and Europe. Now, chainsaw artists participate in dozens of annual chainsaw carving festivals and competitions around the world. According to the United Chainsaw Carving Guild (UCCG), there are now chainsaw sculptors in more than 80 countries worldwide.
(Chainsaw carving pioneer, Ken Kaiser and his carving of Jackie Kennedy, courtesy of Art of Chainsaw Carving)
How to start chainsaw carving
To start sculpting with a chainsaw, you will need equipment, a log or chunk of wood, education, and imagination.
Necessary equipmentA chainsaw or two (maybe more)
Like most chainsaw carvers, you will likely start with a single saw and add more as you learn the craft and increase the realism and detail of your projects. Standard chainsaw models from well-known tool manufacturers like Dewalt, Stihl, Husqvarna, Black+Decker, Worx, and Makita often make annual lists of “Best Chainsaws for Chainsaw Carvers”. Very popular models frequently feature guide bars (blades) with small noses that allow the artist to create realistic detail.
As you master the craft and increase the size, variety, and complexity of your pieces, you’ll probably add “specialty” saws with unusually long (or short) guide bars or custom noses that allow you to sculpt a piece exactly as you’d like it.
Obviously, chainsaw carving is dangerous. A careless mistake can result in serious injury or death. Therefore, the wise chainsaw carver “gears up” with at least goggles, ear protection, gloves, and steel-toed boots. Some carvers also wear a helmet with a face shield and Kevlar pants.
A log, stump, or large woodblock
One of the benefits of chainsaw carving is that you can use wood that isn’t pristine enough for other woodcarvers to use. For example, irregular grain or knots that derail a chip carving or relief carving add character to a chainsaw carving. Some sculptors utilize fallen logs; others get scrap logs or end pieces from sawmills. (If you’re planning to use fallen logs, but don’t have any on your own property, be sure to get permission from the landowner beforehand.)
Commissioned pieces or extensive works can be the exception to this rule. In these cases, the carver may have to scour several sources before locating a log with the correct dimensions and character.
Another factor you’ll need to consider is the variety of wood you want to carve. Softwoods are easier to carve, offer less kick-back when you carve them, and are, therefore, less dangerous to carve. These reasons make softwoods much more popular for chainsaw carving than hardwoods are. Favorite woods for carving include:
- Pine--It’s plentiful, inexpensive, and reliable to cut. White pine and ponderosa pine are particularly popular.
- Red cedar--It’s not quite as easy to carve or as inexpensive as pine is, but the color is marvelous.
- Basswood--which is a hardwood--is also popular because it’s relatively soft, fairly easy to use, and attractive. It’s also inexpensive and plentiful.
Basic education and training
Many chainsaw carvers are self-taught. They learn the craft by watching other carvers, viewing videos, reading books and articles, or doing all three. Others attend classes that teach chainsaw carving.
Whether you opt to educate yourself or learn in a formal setting, you need to understand:
- Your saw--how it works, how to handle it, and what all of its safety features are.
- The steps of the chainsaw carving process, including sketching your piece to scale, outlining the design, blocking it in, detailing the fine features, and finishing the piece to protect it.
- Cutting techniques such as side cuts, flat cuts, and straight cuts.
More than any other woodcarvers, chainsaw sculptors need to understand and account for the physical stress that chainsaw carving places on your body. You’ll need to start gradually and learn how long you can carve before the physical stress makes it unsafe for you to continue. You’ll also need to consider how long you’ll need to recover and what steps you can take to ease sore muscles quickly so that you can carve again.
A vivid imagination is a chainsaw carver’s best friend. If you can imagine a detailed piece well enough to visualize it and put it on paper, you’ve taken a huge step toward completing a project. As you create more pieces, you will become increasingly adept at seeing the possibilities lying dormant in a log or woodblock.
This article just skims the surface of all there is to know about chainsaw carving. Hopefully, it has whet your appetite to learn more about a big, bold, and potentially dangerous type of woodcarving. Chainsaw carving continues to attract artisans of all backgrounds who use their physical strength and imagination to create something unique and lovely from a rough log or imperfect block of wood.