Chain Saw Carving School

“It’s not really about art at all,” said Brian Johnson about his detailed and intricate chain saw carving techniques. “In fact I’m very big on that idea.” Johnson is tall and burly, a sawdust-covered guy who is as animated as his sculptures are static. “At best I’m a craftsman, not an artist. Isn’t that right, Fred?”

“Yes, sir!” said Fred Vangeison, a semi-retired farmer and businessman from central Illinois. Vangeison is one of four students who have just completed a five-day, $1,500 course at the state-accredited Wisconsin School of Chain Saw Carving that Johnson and his wife Doris run. Their “campus” is just outside Hayward.

The “A” word is clearly met with some skepticism by Johnson. “A friend of mine got his art degree at UW Madison. He wanted to carve a duck decoy for a sculpture class. His art professor said, ‘That’s not art.’ So he carved a woman’s head on the duck, and that made it art!”

During this particular week, Johnson’s students include a project manager for General Motors, a heavy-machinery mechanic, and a dentist. They all are enthusiastic about Johnson’s pedagogy, and proudly show off their main projects from the week: an eagle in profile cut from a half log and a bear standing on its hind legs. Each is quite a respectable piece. “This guy here’s got it down to a science,” said Vangeison, admiring the handsome results of the Johnson Method.

In fact, Johnson’s secrets are rooted in the mundane science of proportions. Many of his students, who arrive itching to rev up the chain saws, are disappointed when most of the first day of class is spent talking about math and working out proportions on calculators. Jim Bohanon, who runs Stump Busters, a tree service in the western suburb of Waconia, took Johnson’s course last spring and he remembers calling his wife after the first day of class, wondering what he had gotten himself into. “‘I thought we were in chain saw school!’ I told her, ‘I’m not good at math—that’s why I do what I do!’” he said.

Unlike most of Johnson’s students, who take the course for personal enjoyment or to develop a hobby for retirement, Bohanon plans to make carving a winter supplement to his stump-removal and firewood business. He’s an enthusiastic convert to Johnson’s detail-oriented method, which also eschews cutesy, cartoonish animals with glued-on eyes in favor of more realistic renderings with carefully hollowed-out pupils. Bohanon laughed when he recounted how he asked Johnson where to buy black marbles, which a chain-saw-carving video had recommended using for bears’ eyes. “He said, “Marbles? You’ve gotta be kidding me!’”

Johnson’s entrée into what is arguably the manliest arena of arts and crafts (some techniques call for two or three different chain saws, a side grinder, a Dremel tool, an air compressor, and a propane torch) came by way of his previous work as a taxidermist and sculptor of taxidermy models, where the proportions and anatomy of animals are also important. Still, when it came to chain saw carving, Johnson says he and Doris, who now teaches sealing and finishing techniques, started from “zero,” developing their methods through thousands of hours of trial and error. “I was so bad that I hired somebody to teach me how to use a chain saw to cut firewood!” he claimed. Today he’s tight-lipped around other professional carvers, saving his insights for tuition-paying students, who leave the school with detailed plans and plastic models of eagles and bears. (The Cold War lives on, apparently, as these two figures far outsell any other kind of carvings.)

Johnson’s own gallery is filled with expensive, elaborately detailed carvings of bears climbing trees, rampant cougars, herons in flight, and more. It’s clear that he enjoys the process as much as the result. “It was something that appealed to me,” he said. “I can go outdoors and be physical, because I’m hyper, and a chain saw wears me out in about four or five hours.”—Dan Gilchrist