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Artist Uses Chainsaw To Create Wood Carvings

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Photo by Alexandra Beier/Getty Images

Photo by Alexandra Beier/Getty Images

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By KAREN GARDNER
The Frederick News-Post

THURMONT, Md. (AP) — Joe Stebbing started out carving wood the old-fashioned way. With chisels and a mallet.

Trouble was, it took about three months to make a single carving. Stebbing, a plumber by day and an artist in the evening, wanted to increase his output.

John Wyvell, of Stone Fence Gardens, asked Stebbing if he’d ever thought of carving with a chainsaw. Stebbing said he had seen examples of rough-cut sculptures, with little detail. “I wasn’t interested,” he said.

Then he saw some chainsaw carvings by Dean Fox. Those changed his mind.

“I was impressed with the detail he gets,” Stebbing said.

He tried it and found that he could carve smooth details by incorporating an angle grinder for sanding and a dye grinder. Most of his work, however, is done with a chain saw. Blades that a chain saw carver uses are typically smaller than those used to cut logs.

Stebbing’s carvings go way beyond the bears typical of chain-saw carving. He carves bears, but he also carves eagles, turtles, horses, fish and even people. His carvings include flowers, butterflies and angel wings. Often his work is limited only by his imagination or the imaginations of his clients. One client had him carve an outdoor seating area that seemed to grow out of the ground.

Wyvell carries some of his pieces at Stone Fence Gardens in Thurmont.

“He’s doing great,” Wyvell said. “He might even be able to quit plumbing someday and carve full time.”

The Process

Stebbing, 30, has been carving for six years. He’s been working in plumbing for most of the last 12 years, but had a short stint making handmade furniture and enjoyed the challenges of working with wood.

Stebbing never felt called to work in the traditional art forms of drawing and painting, but wood sculpture seemed a natural fit.

He starts each carving with a log. In the early days, he carved mostly in oak and cherry. Those are hard, dense woods, and they are heavy. They’re also harder to carve. That wood came from fallen trees, mostly along roadsides. After storms, he would trek into nearby Catoctin Mountain and retrieve fallen trees.

His neighbor, who works in tree service, now gives him pieces of hemlock, pine and spruce.

“The woods I use now are easy to carve and weigh half as much,” he said.

A life-size oak or cherry carving may weigh 800 pounds, while a similar carving in pine or spruce will weigh 200 to 400 pounds.

Many of his carvings are custom orders. Some clients want Stebbing to come to their home and carve a tree stump. A dead or dying tree, or a tree that has been damaged by lightning, can form the basis for the carving. He suggests that if a homeowner is having a tree taken down, the tree company leave the last 10 to 15 feet.

Then Stebbing gets to work, carving bears, wizards, or whatever design the homeowner wants.

“They’ll give you a theme, and you go from there,” he said.

The wizard stump has a wizard, his three dogs, a staff with a crystal ball, and smoke curling out of the staff.

The Details

Chain-saw carving, whether from a cut piece of wood or a tree trunk, requires skills that take time to develop.

“If it’s something you’ve never carved, you’re a little more timid with your cuts, because you can’t put it back,” Stebbing said.

The skill a chain-saw carver needs is to know what kind of cut is needed when. A still hand is a necessity.

“If you have a big, tall straight log, you can carve anything you want,” he said. An odd-shaped log can be more challenging, but also more creative. “A lot of times you can do things with oddly shaped logs you can’t do with a straight log.”

A gnarled shape can be used to portray a bird in flight, a fish jumping or other odd-shaped design. These unusually shaped pieces of wood provide a stronger structure for delicate designs.

Sometimes, designs just come to him.

“You might have a piece of wood, and not know what to do with it, and then you’ll just see something, like the mouth of a crocodile, and go from there,” he said.

Usually, however, he has a design in mind before he gets to work.

He studies the anatomy of animals by taking pictures of them, by watching wildlife and even by studying roadkill.

“If I see a dead fox, I may take a look at it,” he said. “Anything you can do to study the animal, you do. You learn what he likes to eat.”

Chainsaw carving is loud. Stebbing wears hearing protection with a radio built in. Stebbing has worn out quite a few saws. In six years, he estimates he’s used 18 saws. He uses a gas-powered machine that weighs about 12 pounds. There are specially made blades that allow chainsaw carvers to get more detail in their work. Stebbing is careful with the saws, and has only had one injury, a minor cut to his hand.

He usually stains the wood to allow the natural grain to show. Wood naturally expands and contracts. Stebbing applies a sealer to finished carvings that allows for movement.

He’s usually working on five to 10 pieces at a time, in various stages of completion.

Carving is a hobby for Stebbing, but it’s a time-consuming one. He works all day as a plumber. In the evenings he eats dinner with his wife, Mandy, and their three daughters, ages 1 to 7. Then he heads to the garage next to his home near Thurmont, and gets to work. He’ll work for several hours. Weekends often find him in his studio.

In addition to caring for their three children, Mandy manages his career and maintains his website.

Most of his pieces sell through word-of-mouth, and at the Catoctin Colorfest in Thurmont and the Maryland Christmas Show in Frederick. Later this month, he will attend the annual Chainsaw Carvers Rendezvous in Ridgway, Pa., where he’ll trade tips with other carvers and pick up fresh ideas.

His work has made it into two local high schools. He carved Chief Linganore, the Iroquois chief, for Linganore High School, and a totem pole for Oakdale High School.

Information from: The Frederick (Md.) News-Post, http://www.fredericknewspost.com

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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