Making the Most of Your Timber as a Chainsaw Carver

I think most artists and craftspeople agree that it’s important to avoid waste when it comes to the materials we use. I’m very conscious that as a chainsaw carver, timber is a precious commodity. Whilst there will always be trees that need felling because of death, disease or danger (you can read more about my three Ds here), it’s important to me to get the most sculpture I can from the timber I have. I’ve learned a lot over the years about how to do this. Sometimes because of what worked, but sometimes because of what didn’t! In this blog I share some of those lessons and some strategies for making the most of your timber.

piece of wood on the floor with red markings over it. CHainsaw on top of the wood.
Planning and forethought are key to making the most of your timber

CHOOSE YOUR TIMBER WISELY!

On one hand, making the most of a piece of timber is simply about choosing appropriately. That is, you consider the size and things like durability and colour, and choose a piece of timber that meets your requirements. That works great when I have a design in mind and then need to source timber to fit. However, not all commissions work that way! Clients often come to me with their own timber, whether a felled trunk or a stump that remains after a tree is cut down. This changes my approach, and making the most of the timber in these cases is about designing a sculpture that utilises the wood in the most economical and efficient way.

This eagle sculpture is a great example of designing a sculpture
that utilises wood in the most efficient and economical way

EFFICIENT & ECONOMIC SCULPTURE DESIGN

I’m going to use a recent eagle sculpture as an example of efficient and economic design.
Initially, my client had two ideas: a standing bear or an eagle (pose unspecified).

When I first looked at the stump, I figured I could carve a 7′ bear from it (photo below). I went to my client’s house with that bear in mind. There’s a saying though about the best laid plans though…

I arrived on site thinking ‘bear’. On closer inspection of the stump though, I realised there were large bark inclusions in the tree. Unfortunately, it had multiple stems that had fused together to look like one large piece. If you’ve read my blog on commissioning an on-site sculpture, you know I ask for lots of photos. This helps me establish if a sculpture is possible. However, what happened with this sculpture is just one of those things that isn’t always visible from the outside of the tree. It can be completely hidden giving a nasty surprise when you make those first few big cuts!

Cross section of a tree stump showing bark inclusions
This image from the Simply Trees blog perfectly demonstrates
what bark inclusion looks like once you get inside the stump

TIP ONE: INCORPORATE IMPERFECTIONS

My first tip for making the most of your timber as a chainsaw carver is to incorporate imperfections like bark inclusions. I love that wood isn’t uniform and perfect and where I can, I incorporate its features. On occasion I’ve been able to tweak my sculpture design to incorporate bark inclusions. This may mean altering a pose or placing the sculpture differently (eg rotating it) . A great example of this is my elephant mother and calf sculpture. However, in this case if I’d stuck to the bear, the sculpture wouldn’t have been structurally sound.

a sculpture of an elephant and calf carved into a tree trunk. It shows a bark inclusion on one side. incorporating imperfections like this is one way of making the most of your timber for a chainsaw carving sculpture.
Sometimes making the most of your timber means incorporating imperfections

TIP TWO: STRIKE A (DIFFERENT) POSE!

As I couldn’t incorporate the bark inclusion without compromising the sturcture of the bear, I had to go to plan B: change the pose. Or, in this case, the animal too!

In some cases the client is fixed on a specific subject. In that case I have to talk to them about rescaling the sculpture or changing the pose. With this sculpture though, I had the luxury of having two animals that the client would be happy with. And so I went to plan B: Eagle.

After assessing the shape of the main stems from looking at the top of the log, I determined that I could use the largest front stem to form a large wingspan. I could then use one of the large offcuts from behind the wing to create the head. I attached this using an angled cut and a large dowel that ran through the head in line with the beak. This enabled me to use the dowel to form the main bit of the beak so it was strong.

In the ideal scenario, I like to plan a sculpture to use as much of the log as possible, but sometimes the shape of the subject means there is a lot of waste. Of course, this is always useful as firewood or smaller sculptures!

I positioned the eagle length-ways to make the most
of the timber I had whilst staying structurally sound

TIP THREE: CUT & PASTE!

You will have noticed in my explanation of the eagle that I did a bit of cutting and sticking. This can actually be a great way of making the most of your timber. An example of getting a larger presence from a straight log is the Spirit of Ecstasy sculpture.

In the time lapse you can see where I carved the arms in an upright position. I then partially severed them, and pinned them at the shoulder. Once I did this I could finish the cut, lever them back to the right position and bolt them into place! I then took the chunk I cut out from the belly area to make the head. Now, the overall size of the sculpture extends beyond the confines of the original tree – definitely making the most of the timber!

TIP FOUR: WATCH OTHERS!

Of course, when it comes to making the most of timber, I haven’t only learned from my own experimentation and planning. The most valuable lesson I learnt about taking parts of the log and adding them in a different place was from watching Chris Foltz from Oregon working at competitions.

Chris is also a champion ice sculptor, and the techniques of carving ice are easily transferred to wood. Ice is an expensive commodity and comes in very evenly sized blocks. Any large sculpture needs to be planned meticulously to make the most of the blocks. When Chris started carving in wood, he brought this style in and created huge pieces from comparatively small logs! I think his Praying Mantis and Fiddler Crab sculptures are especially great examples of this.

If you want to grow in this particular skill, the two inspirational carvers I recommend you watch are Mick Burns and Duncan Kitson. Both have an engineering background which shows through in their work. I’ve learned a LOT by watching them.

If you’re a fellow chainsaw carver, I hope this blog has been helpful. And if you’re not, I hope it’s been interesting! I also hope it’s helped any of you who are potential clients to understand some of the process and why changes may be necessary to a design even after I’ve started the job. Why not drop a comment with something you’ve learned?

And as always, if you’re considering a chainsaw carving sculpture, please get in touch!
Fill out the form and www.treecarving/co.uk/contact and someone from the team will contact you. Looking forward to chatting!