Sculpting With Chainsaws

Sculpting With Chainsaws

By: 
Lee Allen
2/3/11

Once Joan Eerkes fires up her chainsaw, wood chips begin to fly as the saw's teeth dig into the log of the day—juniper, ponderosa pine, scrub oak—and a form begins to take shape, anything from the traditional cigar store wooden Indian to smiling bears, howling coyotes, or soaring eagles.

“The wood tells you what direction you should be taking,” she says. “I usually gather up a dozen or more pieces of tree and look for individual characteristics. I look at the wood itself, where it’s gnarled, which way it curves, the direction the limbs head in. Then I wait for the design inspiration, the creative muse, to strike before the saw roars into action.”

Eerkes, who is of Choctaw-Chickasaw descent, comes close to being a one-of-a-kind in the world of wood carving. After retiring from three decades of coaching and teaching at the high school level (physical education, dance, adventure sports), she and husband Dave took up hand-whittling smaller works, the desk-top and mantle piece items.

Splitting time between their Tucson homestead and 10 acres in the mountains above Alamagordo, they had plenty of wood to practice on. “We had to do a lot of thinning of ponderosa pine, oak, and juniper and we realized we couldn’t burn it all in our fireplace. Then one day I spotted a guy doing chainsaw carvings at a roadside stand. I was fascinated by the artistry involved and wondered how I might get started. We traded in our whittling knife for a chainsaw, a little 12” blade saw, and started practicing on the wood we had already cut.”

Like any other craft, perfection didn’t come overnight and Eerkes says: “Until I gained some proficiency in the art, the early days generated a lot of what I call ‘designer firewood’. But because we collect the raw materials ourselves, if a piece doesn’t turn out, the only thing we’ve lost is our time and labor.”

She is now more comfortable in her capability to create, and fully armed with an arsenal of cutting tools—half a dozen Stihl and Poulan chainsaws in varying sizes; rotary tools like angle grinders, Foredoms and Dremels; and hand chisels, a torch, or a woodburner for detailed work. Eerkes carves as the mood strikes, or as clients commission an original art piece.

“This certainly isn’t a get-rich-quick-scheme,” she says. “You never get compensated enough for all the hours you’ve put into a work, so you’re not in it to make money. Just to do something you love to do. I did a horse carving once that took me two summers because I wanted it exactly like the client's horse, and I spent hours in the corral just watching the animal and making notes. I’ve got another project in mind that I’ve been pondering for four years. It just isn’t time yet, but someday it’ll get done.”

The length of time needed to finish one of these pieces of art depends on the piece of art itself. “One reason I love chainsaw carving is that I can get more done quickly because you’re moving a lot of wood really fast. I tend to be anal with details which slows things down a bit, but depending on what you’re carving—from start to finish—if I worked on one piece only, it would be a full week of full work days before I’d turn the saw off for good and consider it a finished piece.”

Eerkes does some projects for her own satisfaction, like the traditional cigar store Indian. “I don’t know why really, just because I’ve always wanted to do one I guess,” she says. Bears, like the one on her front porch that holds a ‘Welcome’ sign, seem to be the most-requested subject. “I’ve done all kinds, dancing bears, waving bears, growling bears, sitting bears, but my signature bear is a happy one with a smile on its face.”

After Joan and Dave cleaned up an old Tucson horse barn and retrofitted it for their desert studio, they went to work building another studio in the New Mexico mountains, a homemade log cabin where they can store their carving equipment and work sheltered from both rain and sun. “This also gives us an excuse to spend time in the outdoors looking for wood and we love going aspen hunting at 8,000 feet,” she says.

Much of the collected aspen goes to the Tucson studio, where it becomes walking sticks with various handles carved as eagles, horned lizards, skinks, geckos—again, whatever direction the wood tells her to take. “It’s relaxing to debark the wood and sand it smooth, using antique two-handled draw knives to do the finishing touches," she says. "I usually have 15 or more at a time that I’m working on because aspen and juniper walking sticks are my best sellers.”

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