'Chainsaw Girl' carves out a business niche

'Chainsaw Girl' Carol Donnelly kicks up the sawdust at her new Bethel Ave. location.
— image credit: Charlie Bermant

Carol Donnelly quit her job at the bank this week.

“They were really great people,” she said. “But it was hard for me to sit there, at a desk serving customers, when all I wanted to do was be out here.”

“Out here” is Donnelly’s makeshift studio in the open field next to Cruise’N Car Wash in Port Orchard, where she has set up a chainsaw-carving business. Now that she is no longer working at the bank, or as a realtor, she plans to be outside carving six hours a day, or as long as the weather allows.

“This is a gift,” said the Southworth resident. “I am happy to do something that I really like. It’s an incredible way to express yourself.”

She could continue working at a bank or selling real estate, and admits that quitting a job in today’s economy may not be the wisest move.

“I wanted to take this opportunity now,” she said. “The economy has actually created a lot of opportunities for people, giving them the chance to be creative and do something they really like. Because they may not get another chance.”

Donnelly, 39, has two children and shares child care responsibilities with her ex-husband. “I contribute to my children’s upbringing and will continue doing that,” she said.

She made her first chainsaw sculpture about 15 years ago, after watching someone use a chainsaw to carve an animal from a piece of wood. She was able to make simple carvings immediately, and gradually worked up to a skill level that allowed her to sell her work.

Donnelly’s inventory contains a healthy amount of bears, which is the most common subject in the world of chainsaw sculpture. She said the bear shape is a natural fit, and many customers seek the familiar. Bears are also easy to shape, while creating a convincing human being provides the biggest challenge.

She could conceivably sculpt a likeness of a specific person, but that would run far more than the standard $100 per foot that sculptures usually cost.

She likes to add her own flourishes, such as a bear holding a salmon. She has also branched out to rabbits, birds, sea-turtles and other animals.

While many of the sculptures have considerable detail, some shapes are more abstract than realistic.

Cedar and redwood provide the best platform for these sculptures, while fir “really chews the chainsaw up.”

She does not work from careful plans, but rather brings out the shape that is already in the wood. Sometimes this appears during the process. In this sense she gives weight to the facetious advice that the way to sculpt an object is to start with a block and chop away everything that does not look like that object.

Donnelly grew up with “hippie parents” where burning wood was the only heat source, so this occupation isn’t that much of a stretch. Still, female chainsaw sculptors are rare, and she has faced some obstacles.

“There are still ignorant people who come up to me when I am selling my stuff and ask to speak to the guy that did the sculptures,” she said. “They don’t believe that I did this, or that any woman can do this, that we are too frail.”

Fifteen years has also given her a level of skill and confidence.

“A lot of times guys give me a lecture about safety gear,” she said. “But I’ve been doing this for so long that I know exactly how the saw behaves and I know how to control it. A lot of this work is very detailed, which is hard to do if you are wearing protective clothing.”

Of course, she recommends full safety regalia for someone who is starting out. She just knows her own abilities.

She is primarily self-taught, and does not have the inclination to give lessons, though there are some exceptions. She has given presentations to students not for the technique “but to show them they can accomplish anything they set out to do.”

The sight of Donnelly liberating animals from inside their wooden constraints should become common for local motorists, as she expects to be working every day from here on in. Gradually, a menagerie of animals of all shapes and sizes will appear around the small tent.

“I never know how they’re going to look until I’m finished,” she said. “I have found that if I carve an animal when I’m happy, they end up smiling.”

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