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Have You Heard The Buzz? Chainsaw Carving is Taking Off!
By Christa Marshall

Brian Ruth, known as "The Master of Chainsaw," prepares a log for sculpting. Ruth began chainsaw carving 27 years ago, before the Internet helped spawn a movement. He now participates in live shows with a select group of talented newcomers. (Courtesy of Melissa Collins)
  chainsaw carving  
****Please note small file size: 1200 x 1600 pixels****An eagle begins to emerge from a log as artist Brian Ruth carves during a photo shoot for Zenoah-Komatsu, a Japanese power tool company. (Courtesy of KG Kidokoro)

A mermaid sculpted with a chainsaw by Mark Watson, from Ithaca, N.Y., who books performances and sells his art via his Web site, www.speedsawcarver.com. Watson sculpted a chainsaw eagle in one minute for "The David Letterman Show" in 2005. (Mark Watson)

Brian Ruth took a chainsaw into a New York City church last fall to transform a log into a 4-foot dove.

After putting on a pair of specialized headphones to protect his ears and walking into a netted cage in front of about 300 members of the Glad Tidings Tabernacle, he revved up the noisy machine and began hacking away, spraying sawdust 5 feet into the air.

“I use a chainsaw instead of a paintbrush to create a masterpiece,” said Ruth, who lives in Lehighton, Pa., and is known among his carving peers as “The Master of the Chainsaw.” “It also happens to be the most extreme art form you’ll ever see.”

Ruth is one of a growing number of chainsaw carvers creating art with a power tool once reserved for loggers. With the genesis of the Internet, chainsaw carving has spread rapidly from rural areas to suburban backyards, attracting serious artists and casual hobbyists.

“When I started out a few years ago, there were few other carvers in the country,” said Jessie Groeschen, author of the book “Art of Chainsaw Carving.” Groeschen, who used to sculpt animals in her Seattle backyard, said, “It’s not about the big burly logger shaping out a mushroom in the woods on the way to cut down a tree.”

But chainsaw carving largely started that way.

It’s been around as long as there have been chainsaws, but on a small scale. As early as the 1950s, there were examples of chainsaw art created by loggers who decided to start sculpting on their lunch breaks. A few of them became skilled enough to create totem poles and ice sculptures.

It remained largely the domain of rustic artisans until the early 2000s, when the growth of the Internet allowed purists to spread their techniques and advertise events, including chainsaw carving competitions where carvers divide themselves into categories like “Master” or “Old Fart” and try to sculpt a wooden masterpiece in the shortest amount of time.

“Without the Internet, chainsaw carving would have been practiced by a few adventurous souls and left at that,” said Jerry Schieffer, president of the United Chain Saw Carvers Guild, which was founded in 2003 to provide an organizational hub to the growing number of carvers.

The Internet has helped draw attention to a growing number of chainsaw carving schools, including the George Kenny School of Chainsaw Carving in Allyn, Wash., which does most of its business through its Web site. The school attracts mainly city dwellers, who take a three-day carving vacation in the Olympic Mountains and choose from single-sex classes or sessions for couples.

Chainsaw carving is sought out by many who simply find it cool, but it’s also become a full-time job for some artists. A quality sculpture can sell for as much as $30,000. The dollar signs are an attraction for people who say they couldn’t make similar money with any other type of artwork.

“A woodworker with a chisel might spend 200 hours to make a duck carving,” said Duane Bender, 59, a full-time chainsaw carver from Pennsylvania. “I can make a chainsaw duck in two hours. Without that option, I would have remained an electronics technician.”

Every artist has a different method to transform a piece of raw wood. Bender says he gets an image in his head and just starts to hack away at a log. Other artists draw their sculptures on paper before taking out the chainsaw. Some add finishing touches to a piece of artwork with the help of a chisel or hammer.

The growing popularity of the art form has spawned a new industry of chainsaw gear, since traditional machines only allow for awkward movements and imprecise cuts. Today, artists can purchase entire chainsaw carving kits, replete with specialized miniature saw attachments that allow carvers to create intricate detail and produce smaller collectables for office desks or bookshelves. The specialized equipment also helps prevent injury.

“I know a guy who cut himself in the face, injuring his jawbone and losing some teeth,” Bender said. “Better equipment will cut down on that type of thing, and novices should be aware of the dangers.”

The potential dangers have not held back women, who have increasingly joined the chainsaw carving movement.

“I’m 4 feet 11 inches tall, 105 pounds, and use one of the biggest saws out there,” said Ana Henry, from Saratoga, N.Y.

Henry, like most chainsaw artists, lives in a town where wood is plentiful and there’s little risk of offending neighbors with noisy sculpting. She says most artists have a large customer base of locals who don’t have to pay shipping costs on the art, which can be as large as 10 feet.

Still, the proliferation of artists has brought chainsaw art increasingly to the attention of city dwellers who pass through small towns and spread the word via word-of-mouth. Henry, for example, says she sells most of her art to fans in downtown Atlanta.

And, of course, there is the Internet.

Ruth, who carved the dove at Glad Tidings Tabernacle in less than an hour before the minister referred to it in a sermon on World Peace, makes his living by putting on live performances and organizing competitions booked through his Web site, mastersofthechainsaw.com.

He also sells chainsaw artwork to galleries, museums and private residences. He says he’s planning to go on an international tour, and he and his wife recently started a chainsaw carving franchise in Japan.

“This is everywhere,” Ruth said. “It’s not just folk art.”