The History and Evolution of Chainsaw Carving

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Chainsaw Carving by Ken Kaiser

Carving by Chainsaw Carving Pioneer Ken Kaiser

History of Chainsaw Carving

This redwood mural by Ken Kaiser-one of the earliest recognized pioneers-still stands at the Trees of Mystery in Northern California.

Chainsaw carving is an exciting development in the ancient tradition of woodcarving, an art form almost as old as man himself. Woodcarving began out of necessity, as early man fashioned primitive tools by shaping wood with sharp rocks and bones. As man’s technology improved and new carving tools developed, woodcarving for function and art began to appear.

Objects carved from wood were frequently used for religious purposes, especially by the Egyptians. Early statues of their gods and goddesses were carved in wood. However, woodcarving did not receive its real development until over 2,000 years ago, when tools and methods for carving became more refined.

Because of the perishable character of wood, it is easy to understand why only a small number of the woodcarvings from antiquity still exist today.

Throughout the ages, woodcarving continued to develop, as did its tools—saws, axes, knives, mallets, and awls. But a real advancement, as far as chainsaw carving goes, did not occur until 1830. At that time, a new type of instrument hit the scene, although it was originally intended for quite a different purpose.

Early chainsaws

The osteotome was an orthopedic surgical tool invented in 1830 by the German prosthetics maker, Bernard Heine. It was developed as an easier means of cutting through bone—an alternative to using a hammer or a chisel or a reciprocating saw. Turning the handle of a sprocket wheel moved a chain around a guiding blade, thus creating the first chain saw. The links of the chain carried small, angled cutting teeth. 

For woodcutting purposes, it is purported that a California inventor named R.L. Muir may have been the first to put blades on a chain. However, this machine weighed hundreds of pounds and was never a commercial success.

Other early chainsaw-type tools included the Hamilton saw of 1861 that was hand-cranked and looked like a spinning wheel, and the American Riding Machine, which appeared in the 1880s and looked like a rowing machine with blades on it.

Timberman Magazine reports that the first experiment with a gasoline chainsaw may have been during the summer of 1905 in Eureka, California. Powered by a two-cylinder, water-cooled motor set at 90 degrees from its normal position, it sawed through a ten-foot log in 4.5 minutes.

The first modern chainsaw

The accomplishments of the early chainsaw inventors paved the way for a German mechanical engineer named Andreas Stihl, who is believed to be the inventor of the modern chainsaw. In 1926, he designed the first bucking chainsaw with an electric motor. This was publicly accepted as the first “real” chainsaw. It was also the first mobile chainsaw. In 1929, he also patented the first petrol-driven chainsaw, which was operated by two men and known as “the tree-felling machine.” These patents were the first successful ones for hand-held mobile chainsaws designed for cutting wood. 

Vintage chainsaws can be appreciated as art themselves. In 1938, Stihl designed a two-man, petrol-driven chainsaw. This was followed in 1950 by what is claimed by the company to be the world’s first petrol-driven chainsaw for a single operator. Weighing just over 35 pounds, it was equipped with a manually adjusted swivel carburetor that allowed the saw to be used not only for bucking, but also for felling.

McCulloch, Pioneer, and other companies soon followed suit, and the race was on for lighter, faster, and more powerful chainsaws. With those early, relatively lightweight chainsaws came increased maneuverability—enough so that some people began to experiment and discover other creative uses for the chainsaw. 

Chainsaw Carving


In autumn of 1946, logger/inventor Joseph Buford Cox was chopping firewood when he noticed a timber beetle larva, about the size of a nickel, easily chomping its way through the wood, going both across and with the grain.

As an experienced operator of the gas-powered saws used in those days, Cox knew what a problem the cutting chain could be, requiring a lot of filing and maintenance. He suspected that if he could just duplicate that larva’s alternating C-shaped jaws in steel, he could make a better chain. 

Working in the basement shop of his home in Portland, Oregon, Cox devised a revolutionary new chain. The first Cox Chipper Chain was produced and sold in November 1947. Many chainsaw manufacturers still use a version of that original chain today.


Another revolutionary moment in chainsaw carving history was the invention of the carving bar. Designed specifically for carving, the tiny rip allows a person to bore into the wood with little or no kickback. Noted chainsaw carver Don CoIp claims to have had an idea about a narrower-tipped bar: he passed this information to Windsor Bar, and the quarter-tip carving bar was born. Mike McVay, another early chainsaw carver, claims to have coined the phrase for the different sizes—dime tip and quarter tip—by putting a coin on the end of these new bars, and this terminology is still used today. 

Pioneers—the first chainsaw artists

Unlike with the development of the chainsaw itself, there are no records of who actually may have created the very first chainsaw carving—only oral histories of what others may have seen and heard. There is really no way of knowing who in what part of the world might have picked up the chainsaw and carved a piece of art for the very first time.

However, in this book, you will read about the earliest recognized pioneers—chainsaw carvers, such as “Wild Mountain Man” Ray Murphy and Ken Kaiser, whose early chainsaw artwork dates back to the 1950s. 

In 1953, a young Ray Murphy used his dad’s chainsaw to spell out his brother’s name in a piece of wood. Later in life, he would travel and demonstrate this same type of work carving names on wooden belt buckles worn by his  customers. 

In 1961, Ken Kaiser created the Trail of Tall Tales, commissioned by the Trees of Mystery, a tourist attraction in Northern California. He carved 50 monumental pieces, which focused on Paul Bunyan, in gigantic redwood logs and panels.

The formative years

During the 1960s and 1970s, more and more people began to experiment with chainsaw carving. These years saw the work of a number of chainsaw carvers, including Lois Hollingsworth, Mike McVay, Susan Miller, Don Coip, Judy McVay, and Brenda Hubbard. Some had already discovered their artistic talent and viewed the chainsaw as another untapped resource; others picked up the chainsaw and for the first time discovered an artistic talent in themselves that they never knew they had. The cord that bound them all together was a deep love of wood and their ability to master a chainsaw.

By the dawn of the l98Os, the art of chainsaw carving became a bit more established with the book Fun and Profitable Chainsaw Carving by William Westenhaver and Ronald Hovde circulating.

Traveling chainsaw carvers loaded their carvings in the backs of their trucks, which served as traveling galleries. Chainsaw carving shops sprang up on the roadside, catching some of the local traffic. Chainsaw carving as performance art also became popular at county and state fairs and malls across America. And thanks to the competitive forces of chainsaw companies, chainsaw carving contests started cropping up as well.

In the 1990s, chainsaw carving evolved even further and was developed and promoted as an art form, receiving more acceptance and more public recognition. Carving contests became more prevalent across the country with the backing of saw companies, who started to support contests financially around the turn of the 2lst century.

The art form today

Today, chainsaw carving encompasses a wide variety of styles, skill levels, and themes. Some artists are strictly performance artists who draw large audiences and are interested in pieces that can be done quickly. Others work for months on one piece, perfecting the sculpture for display in an art gallery. Themes involve anything imaginable, from wildlife to figures to tree houses. Chainsaw carving shows, too, have increased in number to reflect the growing art form. And there are numerous classes available to teach the techniques of carving with a chainsaw.

Included in this book are some early and contemporary chainsaw artists from many of the different carving styles. There are also profiles of some of the top shows as well as the people responsible for bringing them to life. The power of a master woodcarver lies in the skills and techniques he or she has acquired—filing, sharpening, and understanding his or her tools and timber. The power of a good artist is in his or her imagination. As Einstein said, “Imagination is greater than knowledge.” A successful chain- saw carver must have them both. 


This article is excerpted from Art Of Chainsaw Carving by Jessie Groeschen. ©2005 by Fox Chapel Publishing Company Incorporated. 

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