By Guy Meilleur

Chainsaws Carve Out a New Niche
By Guy Meilleur
The tree is down. You’re faced with all that material that took decades, maybe centuries, to be assembled by sunshine. Trees
deliver great value while they stand, tall and grand, but when they lay in pieces on the ground they may bring nothing
more than headaches, backaches, and the expense of disposal. The whole was definitely worth more than the sum of the
parts, but there are profitable alternatives to the landfill. What is the best use for this biomass?
Let’s start from the outside in. With branches, the decision is usually to chip them into mulch, but other options are
sometimes worthwhile to consider. If the site has a large natural area on a slope, branches can be laid in low spots, for
erosion control, building the soil, and habitat for birds and other tree associates that are smaller but still valuable to the
remaining trees in the landscape. Some leaves have value that is worth the cost of processing—dried ginkgo leaves sell
for about seven dollars a pound, and the ground crew might enjoy a sit-down job while they wait for the climbers to set
their ropes in the next tree. Ginkgo flavonoids dilate the small capillaries, increasing energy flow to the body and the brain.
Maybe ginkgo tea served during drink breaks would improve productivity!
Smaller branch wood can be used as walking sticks, trellises, and fenceposts. Larger branches usually become firewood
or mulch, depending on available machinery and the market. Bark has many traditional uses, but processing costs make
them seem impractical for most arborists.
On trees such as birch, Betula sp., and tuliptree, Liriodendron tulipifera, harvested early in the growing season, bark can
be “slipped” off down to the wood in sheets and used for canoes, basketry and objects of art. We’re often tired when we confront the stem, so our thoughts are usually focused on the best machines to pick them up and chip them or haul them
away. Many cities have set up programs to process urban logs as timber, but this is still not always practical. Art is seldom on our minds after removing a tree, but through creative chainsaw carving, “scrap” wood logs can be converted into
valuable and functional works of art.
The History of Chainsaws and Carving
An early experiment with a gasoline chainsaw took place in
1905 at Eureka, California. The saw was driven by a twocylinder, water cooled, marine type motor and sawed
through a 10-foot log in 4-1/2 minutes. The March 16, 1918 edition of the Scientific American featured a picture of a chainsaw
on the front cover. It was said to be of German design and featured a gasoline engine separate from the saw unit. In 1929,
German mechanical engineer Andreas Stihl patented the first gasoline-powered chainsaw, called the tree-felling machine.
Logger Joseph Buford Cox operated one of these saws in 1946, spending a lot of time filing the problematic chains of
that time.
He had only a third-grade education, but like Leonardo DaVinci he knew how to apply his keen observations of nature
to solve a problem. Joe was chopping firewood on a cold autumn day when he noticed a timber-beetle larva easily chewing its way through sound
timber, going both across
An oaken lounge chair and a Celtic knot, inspired by 6th
and with the wood grain at
Century Irish monk Clonmacnois, whose teacher said:
“You are the tree and all Ireland shall be sheltered by the
will. Joe knew if he could
grace within you.”
duplicate the larva’s alternating C-shaped jaws in
steel, it just might catch
on. He went to work in
the basement shop of his
Portland, Oregon home
and came up with a revolutionary new chain. Four
years later, his Oregon chain
company’s sales exceeded
$1 million.
In the early 1960s, chainsaw dealers competed to
promote their products at
forestry expos and state fairs.
As a gimmick to attract
customers to their booth,
the most creative guy in
the company would
demonstrate their brand’s
ease of handling and
power by carving simple objects. The art of chainsaw sculpting was brought to the public. Many new
artists began to experiment with chainsaw carving, and transformed their pickup trucks into traveling art galleries. In 1982, the first book on chainsaw carving, Fun and Profitable Chainsaw Carving,
by William Westenhaver and Ron Hovde, was published.
Later in the 1980s, the craft got national television exposure at the Lumberjack World Championships, held in Hayward, Wisconsin. The addition of carving contests in 1987 brought carvers together
to test their skills and learn from each other. The 1990s saw the development of the Cascade Chainsaw
Sculptors Guild and their newsletter, The Cutting Edge. The growth of the internet has since helped
the craft become an international phenomenon. Japan, Germany, Australia and other cultures are
expressed through stunning works of artwork in the medium of trees. These works can also demonstrate cross-cultural understanding: U.S. carver Karen Tiede, inspired by Celtic imagery, carves
intricate knots that echo its prehistoric symbolism.
Performance, Art, and Charity
The noise, sawdust, and fast results—
as well as the athletic flair displayed by
experienced carvers—create a “performance art” appeal epitomized by “The Chainsaw Chix.” There is a growing number of women
all over the world, creating their art, many to great acclaim.
One of these women is Angela Polglaze from Australia. In July of 2007, Angie placed first in a
Masters Extreme Power Chainsaw Masterpiece Competition, but she was the only female competitor in the arena. Having placed first in competitive events around the globe, Polglaze wanted to
do more to promote and encourage female practitioners of this art form. “The Chainsaw Chix” is
now the Women’s division of the Masters group, and includes a hardcore crew of female performance carvers from around the world.
Stephanie Huber studied woodcarving in Bavaria and together with Uschi Elias represents Germany.
Elias “listens to what the wood tells her, sees many different things in the wood, and has learned
to bring them out. I love to carve abstract women.” Lisa Temmanson started carving when her
son’s illness forced her out of her regular job. She performed at the 2007 Armed Services Day,
donating a carving to benefit veterans. Karen Tiede of the U.S. started when lightning struck, literally, on Labor Day, 2000. When the smoke cleared and the fire department left, it was clear that
her big sycamore tree had to come down. The arborist removed the branches, left the trunk, and
appraised the tree’s value. Karen bought a chainsaw with the insurance money and started carving.
“Most of the creations that come off my saw have asked to be released from the log,” she says. “My
only purpose is to clear away the wood that’s not the art, and add the finish that will preserve the
sculpture.” From north of the U.S. border comes another of the Chainsaw Chix, Alicia “Lee” Charlton
from Canada, whose art has supported a humanitarian cause in the deep south.
Amy Canada started The KatRita Wood Project after Hurricane Katrina forced her to move. On
a return visit to her former house, she was disturbed by the number of downed trees being destroyed
because the timber was twisted. She figured devastation didn’t have to lead to waste. “We just wanted
to do something to help,” she says, “and when we saw that a lot of the wood was being chipped
and burned, we tried to think of a way to do something useful with it to try to help rebuild.” One
posting on the internet, and within minutes Charlton and other chainsaw artists were volunteering
to come to Louisiana to turn the felled trees into saleable sculpture. The money goes toward restoring storm-damaged sites. This project is a model for salvaging tree value after any sized storm.
Keeping Tree Value for the Owner
Tree owners often have sentimental
attachments to their trees, so they are
open to suggestions on how to preserve
what they have lost, in some form or other. Portable sawmills can convert logs into boards, which
can be used for everything from building materials to plaques. However, the need to store the
boards for proper drying makes this alternative difficult for many clients. Wood turners can put
wood with interesting color or grain patterns, such as burls, onto a lathe and create lasting memories through bowls and other sculpture. Keeping these reminders of trees gone by alive in their
homes might also motivate clients to invest more in the remaining trees outside. Connecting with
local wood turners and sawmill operators can develop future markets for wood as future relationships with clients are built. Arborists can also do some of this on their own without spending a
dime, by carving with the same chainsaws and personal protective equipment (PPE) they used to
cut the trees down.
Even the least artistic arborist can create basic, functional furniture and hardscape items. A standing stump becomes a comfortable
chair with just two cuts. First, measure the height of the seat by
measuring the user’s leg from heel to knee. Then cut the standing
log section deep enough for the user to sit comfortably. Finally, angle
the next cut downward to meet the end of the first cut and provide
a backrest. An entire family can be seated on one tree this way—the
larger sections for the parents, the smaller ones for the kids. Unwanted
logs become lasting benches when they are elevated above the ground.
Unsplittable stump sections can become “stepping stones” when
they are cut into thin sections and laid down on a path. Aesthetic
standards can be more accepting when it comes to preserving what
is left of a favorite tree. Functional rustic creations, low- or high-profile,
can find new niches in modern landscapes.
Front and center in some landscapes is “critter art,” created by
chainsaw carver Clyde Jones. For over a quarter-century, Clyde has
been creating rough-hewn creatures—many of them big-eared animals like dogs, giraffes, elephants, and some hybrids. Rough aggregations of four or five pieces of wood cut quickly and nailed together
with or without a coat of paint come alive when children attach
found objects like plastic flowers for eyes and noses. Clyde and his
chainsaw are fixtures at elementary schools, fund raisers and auctions, and any summertime festival with string bands and facepainting. The critters also bring winter alive when wooden reindeer are adorned with colored lights. All this may sound like it
would only fit in more rural areas, but Clyde’s critters have been
exhibited all over the world, from The Great Wall of China to the
Smithstonian Institute in Washington, D.C.
Lasting Work
Over time, wood that is
customized wood for special reincarnations can fall
at our feet, as in one ancient oak tree that grew on a hilltop and
was toppled by a tornado. Because the tree had grown in the open,
the forces of nature had spread, and curved, and twisted each branch
as they reached for all the light they could harvest. Normally carvers
prefer straight logs, but there wasn’t much straight on this tree. Oak’s
toughness and weight make it less popular for carving, but veteran
oak branches can be carved into amazing things. Tiede sliced slabs
from one branch that had just the right curve and screwed on braces
and legs, creating a chaise lounge with gorgeous patterns to its grain.
Function follows form when the back of the lounge springs in
response to pressure—the same qualities that held the limb aloft
and kept it alive bring comfort to people after the tree is gone. The
piece won a Judge’s Special Mention award at the North Carolina
Botanical Garden’s annual autumn Sculpture Show.
Dead trees can also be sculpted while they are standing. A canopy
consisting of hundreds of live oaks, Quercus virginiana, shelters the
95-acre Sylvan Abbey memorial park, the oldest cemetery in Clearwater,
Florida. When a tree succumbs to lightning or any other damage,
the trunk may be reborn as a heron or a dolphin, an owl or an eagle.
Sometimes branches are left attached, to serve as condominiums for
woodland creatures such as bears, raccoons and opossums. These
chainsaw sculptures helped Sylvan Abbey get recognized as one of
the “Top 20 Grounds Organizations in the United States and Canada”
and win the Green Star Professional Grounds Management Honor
Award. Carver Keith Carroll is fortunate to work with wood as
durable as live oak, but working in a cemetery begun in 1853 he
knows that longevity is expected.
Chainsaw carvers apply some of the same principles that arborists
follow when pruning living trees, and for the same reasons. For
example, horizontal wounds facing upward are notorious for cracking and collecting spores and organic matter. This increases the
same risk of limb failure that the pruning was intended to mitigate.
“Any time I can remove decayed wood and prevent moisture from
settling and causing decay,” Carroll says, “I do it. I try to make my
cuts so water runs off, wherever I can.” Still, wood that is exposed
the drying sun and wind will crack, exposing inner wood to decay
unless it is sealed. Torching the wood can alter the tone and harden the finish. The type of sealant chosen depends on exposure to
sun and the type of finish desired. Oil-based sealants last longer,
and copper-containing products last longer yet, but some states
ban their use out of environmental concerns. Less toxic sealants
can provide good protection, if they are regularly reapplied.
Gear and Safety
A regular chainsaw
bar and chain are
adequate for rough
carving, but narrow-tipped carving bars and thinner chains are needed
for finer detailing. Carroll uses a bar and chain from a gas-powered
pole saw for his detail work, but smaller bars are popular among many
carvers. “They are called ‘dime tips’ because the diameter of the tip
is equal to a dime... this allows for the fine detail work that is done
in carving and other applications” reports Rion Casey of Bailey’s
arborist supply house. “The 1/4-inch pitch chain and sprocket are
necessary because any other chain doesn’t want to bend fast enough
around such a small point.” The smaller chain and tip needed for finely
detailed carving also can be used in arboriculture, making deeper cuts
on codominants. The chisels and gouges used in carving can do
even finer pruning on buried branch origins and stem-girdling roots.
Kickback, defined in the ISA Glossary of Arboricultural Terms as
“sudden, sometimes violent and uncontrolled backward or upward
movement of a chainsaw,” has been the subject of a great deal of
research over the years. In 1959, guard links were developed to reduce
the hooking and grabbing of small brush. There was an unexpected
benefit—fewer chain saw accidents. Intensive, cooperative work
toward a kickback-performance standard was begun in the late 1970’s
by many chainsaw-industry manufacturers and the U.S. Consumer
Product Safety Commission. By 1985 the work resulted in the
kickback-performance requirements found in the voluntary chainsaw
safety standard known as ANSI B175.1. As with any ANSI standard,
it relies on participation by practitioners to remain useful and current.
A firm grip, proper positioning and full PPE are essential in any
chainsaw use. Ear and eye protection and chaps are the fashion at
all chainsaw carving events. Respirators may not be mandated by
ANSI, but fine dust that finds its way into lungs keeps oxygen out,
and can cause serious health problems. Both the carving and the
carver can last a long time if they are properly cared for. Chainsaw
carving is a source of enjoyment for thousands of people around
the world, so why not give it a try?
Guy Meilleur ([email protected]) is an ISA Board-Certified Master
Arborist and an international tree consultant. His work involves training
endocormic growth, walling off decay, and climbing trees as an antidote to aging.