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People often ask, “How did you start carving the chainsaw?” And I’m looking forward to sharing some of my carving experience so far.
About a year and a half ago, I picked up a chainsaw for the first time and decided to try and carve the chainsaw. Since then, I haven’t looked back.
But it didn’t just start with a chainsaw. Interest in wood carving started about a year earlier, looking for ideas on homemade Christmas gifts. After seeing some YouTube videos and power-carving groups on Facebook, I decided to start small with a rotary tool.
I started drawing basic designs of wood scraps, made a couple of wooden signs, Christmas ornaments and drawings engraved on walking sticks.
Chainsaw Carving is a unique art form that tends to fascinate both viewers and carvers.
I quickly became impatient to work with the small scale and wanted to work on larger projects but lacked the tools needed for the larger scale. It was then that I started looking at my husband’s chainsaw. Don’t lie, it scared the shit out of me. The risk of injury was intimidating, so I absorbed as much information to start getting comfortable with the idea. Prepared, which provided a reassuring sense of protection, and turned on the saw. I embarked on a determined mission of female power to cut down a dead tree, dragged it into the yard, picked it up and attempted my first log carving.
The learning curve was steep. Just to get the feel of the saw, the angles, the pressure and the control it took about 3 full incisions of “not great” results before the improvements began.
Being “self-taught” has provided truly intuitive learning through trial and error. I got over the knots, found my pace and the techniques that work for me. But the learning doesn’t end: Chainsaw carving is an ongoing journey of experimentation, creative problem solving, and personal development as an artist.
I would encourage anyone intrigued by the art form to at least try it out. Here are some tips I learned from clumsy until the beginning of the chainsaw carving.
1) Safety first of all
Chainsaw carving is inherently dangerous and it is in the interest of a carver to recognize the risk and respect the tools. Before I even turned on the chainsaw for the first time, I read the manual (yes, the whole thing), disassembled the chainsaw, reassembled, and became familiar with the ins and outs of how it works. A little online research and watching videos on safe chainsaw operation were part of my self-imposed pre-use safety training.
Once I became aware of the saw, I gathered personal protective equipment, which I believe is a constant requirement. This includes safety glasses, chainsaw chaps, gloves and hearing protection. If I’m doing extra dusty work, I’ll add a mask / respirator to keep the sawdust out of my lungs.
While the chainsaw may seem like the most dangerous tool in a carver’s collection, precautions are also needed with other power tools a carver may use. I have yet to have a chainsaw accident (thankfully), but it’s the angle grinder I’ve had a few hits and nearly misses with.
So sculpt safely! And treat every tool as if it could hurt you.
2) Start with the basic shapes
Prepare for success and accomplishment by starting with basic shapes like a tree or a welcome sign. It offers the opportunity to learn on a delicate learning curve, rather than jumping straight into a complex 3D animal to get started. Just getting comfortable with the chainsaw and learning control is challenging enough at first. Once controlling the chainsaw becomes second nature, you can start challenging your sculptor’s mind with more complex topics.
3) Start small, but not too small
Starting with small incisions has its advantages, and you don’t feel so defeated and wasted when the first ones don’t turn out as expected.
But speaking from my initial experience, a smaller sculpture doesn’t necessarily mean an easier sculpture. My first carving attempt was on a small 2 foot log and I found it so difficult to maneuver the saw around the small notch and couldn’t get the detail I was hoping for. Even using a 16-inch chainsaw bar, I felt that the saw size was too large in relation to the log, and I often inadvertently cut areas.
On the other end of the spectrum, the phrase “go big or go home” could also lead you down an intimidating path of more work than you are ready for.
A happy medium, in my opinion, is a 3-4 foot piece of wood for an initial size.
4) Anchor your work
To avoid tipping or shifting of smaller incisions when carving, you can anchor the log to something to hold it in place. The anchoring methods I have used include attaching a large piece of plywood screwed into the center bottom of the log to provide a wider base, or attaching it in a wooden bench vise.
When working with larger, heavier pieces, they are unlikely to move with the pressure of the saw, so anchoring may not be necessary during the carving process. If it’s a large cut log, I make sure it’s straight and level before working on it.
5) Physical assistance
The most vital tool for a carver to keep is their body. If the body is broken, there are no incisions.
Without a doubt, chainsaw carving is a full body workout that takes me to the limits of what I can do.
Think of carving as an intense workout at the gym. It will likely take some time to get used to the muscles used, building strength and endurance. For safety reasons, maintaining a level of fitness, stretching, rehydration and breaks are key to avoiding injury and ensuring long-term sustainability. And in any case, stop when you are tired or injured.
Self-care after sculpting may require additional measures at times. If needed, this may include an Epsom salt bath to relieve muscle pain, frosting on overused joints, anti-inflammatory medications, and a decision to take several days off to allow for recovery.
While some carvers may have the stamina to do an entire carving in a single session or carve for full 8-hour days, I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect top-notch performance from any carver, especially beginners.
In my personal experience, I can usually maintain stamina for about 2-3 hours of work before having to take a break to recover (for both body and mind). It takes several sessions to complete a carving. The hard work and time it takes to create a piece makes it even more rewarding in the end.
6) Basic carving steps
While each carver has their own unique process and preferences, these are the basic steps I like to follow:
- Choose what to carve and look for reference images. Print a couple of photos to look at during the carving process.
- Create a scale drawing. I like to draw on graph paper to trace the carving plane. My scale drawings usually include 1 foot marks on the height of the notch and a center line in the center. The grid makes it easier to copy to wood later. If you can draw 2 outlines (1 from the front perspective and 1 from the side perspective) it makes carving much easier later on.
- Draw / spray paint the grid marks on the intended piece of wood, then the general outline from the front, referring to the scale drawing.
- Cut out the front outline with a chainsaw.
- Redraw the grid at the cut point, draw the side outline and cut out the side profile.
- Complete the locking process with the chainsaw by rounding the corners and removing as much clutter as possible with the chainsaw. As the outlines are cut, pause to redraw the layout often.
- Details: Some details / textures are done well with a chainsaw, but finer details are often enhanced with other tools such as a smaller chainsaw carving bar, grinder, or burr-tipped rotary tool.
- Finish: sanding, carving cleaning with compressed air, optional torch burn for paint / stain / propane, and of course a topcoat sealer that is ideally UV and water resistant.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of what a novice chainsaw carver might encounter on his two-stroke sawdust and exhaust journey. The best way to learn is to go in and try. Give yourself the grace to make mistakes and learn from them. Have fun trying something new and feel proud to challenge yourself!
No matter what it looks like in the end, there will be someone out there who thinks what you’re doing is damn SAWsome.
Michelle Thevenot is a chainsaw artist and carver from Osler, Saskatchewan, Canada. Find more of her works on Facebook, Instagram and Youtube.
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