Pumpkin carving in Oregon roars with the trusty chainsaw

Dave Masko's picture

The tradition of logging in Oregon, and the use of chain saws to fell trees goes back to the 1920’s when the power chainsaw was first introduced to woodsmen. Now, in 2010, a small group of so-called Halloween chainsaw artists – that usually carve bears and other popular Pacific Northwest creatures – have turned to carving pumpkins for Halloween’s magical night. However, ax men around here call it a “bloody mess.”

Specialist chain saw artists create Jack O’Lanterns

“I’ve used this baby for felling trees, pruning, cutting firewood and creating bear art out of Western Red Cedar that’s plentiful along Oregon’s coast. Now, crazy as it sounds, I’m cutting these giant pumpkins. What’s different is the saw blade goes into the pumpkin like a knife into butter. You need to cut quick and even more precise when carving the kids these jack o’lanterns,” explains Steven “Megs” Cleaves at his farm house outside Eugene.

Cleaves said he uses a “specialist chainsaw” that he got from a buddy over on the central Oregon coast where chainsaw art carving is a major cottage industry.

“Look, I wouldn’t recommend carving up a pumpkin if you don’t know how to handle a common two-stroke. You can get hurt real quick because the blade goes in much quicker than into wood. And, it’s a heck of a mess afterward with all the pumpkin innards flying about. But, the kids love the spectacle of it,” adds Cheaves who recommends pumpkins weighing about 20 pounds or more for the chain saw to slice.

At the same time, Cleaves points to one of his recent creations that rests on a front porch table. He even burns a lump of coal inside as the pumpkins source of light on these dark Oregon nights.

“I could use a candle, but my daddy used lumps of coal our of our furnace when I was a kid to light pumpkins. The chain saw and then the burning lump of coal all sort of makes it a western Oregon creation,” adds the retired logger who’s career spanned four years cutting down trees in and around Eugene.

Pumpkin chainsaw carving tips from the master

The first step to carve a “big pumpkin” with a chainsaw is to convert one’s standard woodcutting chainsaw over to a detailed carving chainsaw. “What I use is a small ¼” pitch carving chain on a dime tip carving bar. You can go to your local hardware store to get various chainsaw carvings kits that will give you the basic tools,” Cleaves says.

“I’m a pro at this, and I don’t recommend it if you’re not comfortable with your chainsaw,” he adds with a sly grin. “You betcha, someone’s going to get hurt if they mess with sticking a chainsaw into that soft pumpkin flesh.”

At the same time, this chainsaw expert says a standard keyhole saw also helps “with those fine details such as the pumpkins eyes, nose and mouth.”

When pressed for more details on how to carve a successful pumpkin, the woodsman notes using “a grease pencil to mark the shapes to be cut.”

But, in general, he says carving this huge orange orb is “a blast. I mean you got to see it to believe it. My grandkids say it’s ‘awesome.’ They just keeping saying it’s ‘awesome’ and they don’t want us to go back to the days of carving with a knife. I agree,” says Cleaves with a big belly laugh.

Chainsaw carving part of the culture in Oregon

A visit to the Oregon coast would not be complete without a somewhat clear understanding of how all these tall trees -- and all the woods that surround us here – somehow become a unique art form that’s been dubbed “chain saw art.”

Case in point is the “carved bears and other coastal animals” that appear in carved log forms at various selling points along the central Oregon coast. Chain saw artists such as Karl Kowalski “re-creates” these local creatures in wood form for various reasons.

“It’s art. Some think of it as something more, but I’d say its art and it’s unique for Oregon,” said Kowalski who’s honed his craft to the point that he can now carve a four-foot bear on a tree in just three hours.

“Kowalski is a legend in both Oregon and internationally. He’s the guy who put chainsaw art on the map and turned this Oregon folk art into a worldwide phenomenon,” said Cleaves of his friend on the coast.

Kowalski started public expositions of his work during the 1980’s and 1990 are when chain saw “art” carving reached a zenith. Many experts acknowledge his award-winning carvings as helping to “lead the way” for what has become a most lucrative local Oregon cottage industry business, and a tourist attraction as well.

“People stop there to see the Kowalski bears, or that ‘image’ of the coastal black bear he’s created. It’s a classic,” explained Stan Ferguson who likes to photograph chain saw art along the Oregon coast.

It’s also no secret that Kowlaski is the man behind what has become a multi-million dollar art form, seen by thousands, if not millions of people every day as they drive along Highway 101 or at any of the major national parks out West.

“I have friends who market my work and you see it sold at the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Crater Lake, and any of the gift shops at the major parks. They (the parks) buy my carved bears and sell them. It’s become a great way of making of living for me and my family,” he added.

The rest, as they say, is history with chain saw carving originating in Oregon in the 1970’s. The art form has since caught on “big time” with chain saw art competitions taking place in all parts of the United States, in Canada, Great Britain, Australia and Japan.

“I’d like to think my Dad helped start it all, but who’s to say who or what created these carvings first? All I know is that it’s a big part of our life here in Oregon,” Kowalski said.

I’m not sure if they will take it on after I’m gone or not? It’s our legacy and something I think about,” he said.

For wood, Kowalski prefers to carve Western Red Cedar or pine, cedar and elm wood at his shop or wood carving fairs because “it carves easier and faster.”

Also, he explains that Western Red Cedar is preferred for his larger, more pricey wood creations (*that cost from $400 to $800 for a large bear) “because its stable wood, and it doesn’t rot-out and remains beautiful.”

And, with this poor economy and slowed housing starts, top Oregon timber suppliers report a rise in orders for Western Red Cedar because of the popularity of chain saw art carvings.

When carving, Kowalski wears hearing and eye protection, jeans and a T-shirt. It takes him about four hours on average to complete one of his popular “big bear” carvings, but the smaller bears take about an hour or less for this carving master who’s produced “thousands” of carvings over the past 30 plus years.

When asked about carving pumpkins like they “do in the valley” (Eugene) the master chainsaw artists just says “are you kidding.”

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Submitted by hoang thi kim (not verified) on
The Pumpkin chainsaw is such a chainsaw that can carve in Oregon roaring with the trusty chainsaw. That's nice to me.

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