Carving competition attracts chainsaw artists
By Ryan Cornell
WOODSTOCK — The steady buzz of chainsaws could be heard from the parking lot of the Shenandoah County Fair. Producing the noise were five carvers, who had three days starting on Thursday to create cut, polish and paint pieces.
Three judges will decide the winners of the fair’s first chainsaw carving competition on Saturday and who will take home prizes, including a chainsaw and a case, bar oil, fuel additive, a carving bar and extra chains.
The chainsaw competition is Glenn Richardson’s baby. He’s been organizing it for the past five months, from getting the sponsors to attracting the carvers, even if he had to teach a couple of those carvers some beginner lessons.
But that doesn’t mean he’s not going to compete himself. On Friday afternoon, bones from a rib cage were starting to protrude from his 6-foot block of white pine. He said he was carving a skeleton riding a skeleton horse. Instead of back legs, the horse sports a set of tires. A pair of handlebars run through the horse’s skull.
“It’s not something that’s going to be completely comfortable, but something that’s going to stay in your mind,” he said. “Something that’s going to stick with you.”
Richardson said that it’s all about taking an image and putting his own twist on it.
“I grew up in Richmond and they have all these famous equestrian statues,” he said. “I wanted to make an equestrian statue, but do my own kind of much more modern version.”
He said all of the sections of white pine being used in the competition were taken from a tree service in Northern Virginia. He said white pine doesn’t crack or shrink, smells nice and carves cleanly.
“The old wooden heads on sailing ships were all white pine,” he said. “This is the traditional wood for wood carvers in the United States.”
Richardson, who now spends most of his time in Woodstock, said he started carving about four years ago, but this is the first competition he’s ever entered. He said the closest fair with a chainsaw carving competition is in Dinwiddie County.
“Chainsaw carving has a little schizophrenic vibe to it because you can’t really decide if it’s an object or if it’s a performance or if it’s a sport,” he said.
Whichever the case, he’s hopeful about making this an annual event.
“It’s been a learning experience for me, and if it happens again, that would be great,” he said. “I’d love to have more carvers here and take over more of the fair.”
Strasburg resident Paul Zdepski puts down his chainsaw. Stray bits of sawdust cling to his graying moustache, its sides curled up, and his goatee. He’s only had the chainsaw for three months now and the hours of carving have given him the cramps.
“It’s like carrying around a turkey,” he said. “Slinging that around, it gets to you at the end of the day.”
As a cartoonist who’s a part of the D.C. Conspiracy Collective, he’s more familiar with holding a pencil. He said he was skeptical about competing in next year’s competition.
“It’s a young buck sport,” he said about chainsaw carving. “I mean, I’m 50 years old and I’m just starting. You’re not going to get me to run a marathon. This is a three-day marathon.”
Zdepski said the “goofy garden gnome on vacation” is only his second carving. It was difficult for him to practice with the busy schedule he has.
He teaches college for the University of Maryland system, works at a full-time design position and has two kids, a wife and a dog.
“They’re very supportive,” he said. “They know I’m going to do something stupid once a year, and here it is.”
Kary Haun, the only woman wielding a chainsaw at the competition, takes out her headphones playing Ben Folds and uses a hose blowing compressed air to shake the sawdust off her.
“The sawdust gets stuck in my lip gloss,” she said.
She said she wasn’t as far along as the others, but part of that can be blamed on the three different errands that kept her away from the fair: meeting with her son’s teachers, taking her daughter to a friend’s house and taking both of her children to her mother’s.
“So now that they’re there for the weekend, I’m free,” she said. “I’m no longer chainsaw mommy.”
Her chainsaw is smaller than the others, weighing about seven pounds. She’s using it to carefully carve out one of Aesop’s fables, the fox and the grapes.
“The fox is working very hard to get these grapes and they’re hanging just a little too high for him and he thinks they must be very tasty, but once he realizes he can’t reach them, he says they must be sour,” she said. “The one little twist is that I’ll have a little bird up top taunting him.”
Haun said she and her family have been discussing ideas about what she was going to carve at the competition for about the past two weeks. Flipping through a book of sketches, one of Big Bird from “Sesame Street” and another of a giraffe craning its neck, she said it wasn’t until the morning of the competition that she finally decided on carving the fable.
An artist from Woodstock, she sells a handful of her pottery at galleries such as 7 East Gallery in Woodstock and Shenandoah Valley Artworks in Strasburg.
“3D is my thing,” she said. “So it’s easy for me to go from modeling and clay to this more subtractive carving.”
Haun taught high school sculpture in Alabama for 11 years and said she’s focusing on the mantra she often used to tell her students.
“It’s in there and it’s in my job to free it,” she said about her piece being carved. “It sounds really big and fantastical, but if you can envision it that way, that it lives within the boundaries of those dimensions, you have to figure out how you’re going to get it out of there.”
Joe Stebbing said it happened a few months ago at a private school in Washington, D.C.
“I had to find out a way to cut that piece off and then tip it over without it hitting my scaffolding,” he said. “I thought I had it pretty decent, but when the piece fell over, it hit my scaffolding.”
Suddenly, everything under him fell away. The boards that were holding him 15 feet in the air were no longer there.
“I’m left bearhugging the top of this tree so I don’t fall and the saw I was using at the time was my bigger saw, it’s like a $1,200 saw, and it starts falling,” he said. “So I kicked it with my foot and pinned it between my foot and the tree.”
He said he hung onto the tree until someone came by and helped him back down.
Stebbing is from Thurmont, Md., a town located near Camp David, and now carves as a full-time job. He said he started carving after attending a Maryland craft show when he was 24 and working as a plumber. He quickly taught himself the craft.
“I saw these faces carved in these little pieces of wood and I couldn’t afford them, and I wanted them, so I went home and bought a cheap set of chisels and started trying to make them myself,” he said. “And from that point, I found out how fun it was, so I wanted to do bigger and bigger things. And it slowly went from chisels to a chainsaw.”
Unlike chisels, which have different contours, a chainsaw only has one straight blade.
“So it’s a lot like whittling, really, where you just have a pocketknife and a straight edge and you’re trying to get the curves and everything out of it,” he said. “Both have their challenges, but a chainsaw is much more fun because it’s quicker.”
A small piece carved with a chisel might take two weeks to do, he said, but a large bench might only take a day with a chainsaw.
In fact, Stebbing was carving a bench for the competition. The bench is crawling with animals, including a black bear, opossum, raccoons, owls and a fox.
He said the bench could easily support 1,500 pounds — the thickness of the board is thicker than beams in most houses, he said — and weighs about 350 pounds, but can be broken down into four pieces.
Reattaching pieces accidentally cut off might not be against the rules of the competition, he said, but it’s often a better idea to leave it off.
“You make a mistake and cut into it too deep or cut it off, the shape that it makes just gives you a brand new idea better than what you thought of before,” he said. “So you kind of just go with the flow.”
He said chainsaw carving requires a lot of quick thinking and is all about problem solving.
“You run into problems every single day,” he said. “You might have an idea for a design and you start carving that design and there’s a rotten spot somewhere important or there’s a knot in the wrong spot or a crack somewhere, you have to think quick and have your wits about you and change design and all that.”
Stebbing, who has won all six chainsaw carving competitions he’s entered this year — some of which he’s competed in with his friend Jason Stoner — is hoping to hold onto that victory streak.
Jason Stoner, who lives about 20 minutes north of Stebbing in Pennsylvania, is another full-time carver. A sign promoting his company, Chain Effect Chainsaw Art & Creative Signs, sat in front of the station where he was carving.
“Joe and I, we’re always in competitions trying to beat each other,” he said.
Tardy to the competition, he didn’t make his first cut into the wood until 7 p.m. on Friday, but he said it hasn’t affected his idea of what he was going to carve.
“This is nothing,” he said about his late start. “I’ll knock this out quick. I’ll probably have this done by the end of the day. Maybe even a little bit of [polishing and painting] tonight, too.”
Like Stebbing, Stoner was creating a bench with some farm animals.
“It’s the fair, man,” he said. “You gotta have some chickens and pigs and stuff like that.”
Stoner studied graphic design in school and carved as a hobby. Eight years ago, he said he decided to turn that hobby into a job.
“It’s a great way to make a living,” he said. “I never mind getting up in the morning, that’s for sure.”
Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or firstname.lastname@example.org