Let the Chips Fly!

Chainsaw artists show off their skills at the McKenzie Chainsaw Festival

By Craig Reed

Photo of man carving wood into chainsaw art
Artist Chris Foltz is one of 13 featured artists at the McKenzie Chainsaw Festival, which raises money to support the local track.

A dozen chainsaws buzzed as their metal teeth cut into the wood.

But nobody yelled, “Timber!”

Instead, there were numerous “oohs” and “ahs” from visitors at the McKenzie Chainsaw Festival. They watched round chunks of wood gradually evolve into intricate designs such as bears, eagles, Indian chiefs, dragons, mountain men and sasquatch.

The chainsaws were operated by artists, not timber fallers.

This year’s McKenzie Chainsaw Festival, held July 20-22, features 13 artists. The fifth annual event is at the McKenzie Community Track and Field in Blue River, just off the McKenzie River Highway about 42 miles east of Eugene. The festival raises funds to maintain the track.

“It’s fascinating to watch a carving artist take a log and turn it into a beautiful heron or bear or whatever else they might see in that log,” says Peggy Pantel, a festival coordinator. “It’s amazing what they do see in that log. As you watch, you’re guessing what they might be designing and then when you see it come together, it is just fascinating.

The carvers are very talented, and it’s fun to see them in this environment.”

The carvers are all residents of Oregon or Washington.

“There are some outstanding carvers at the McKenzie festival,” says James Lukinich of Willamina.

James has been a chainsaw artist for 25 years and is making his fourth trip to McKenzie.

“Every time I go there, I learn something from another carver,” he says. “This is a more relaxed, fun, let-it-loose type of event that’s not so competitive.”

Carver Bob King of Edgewood, Washington, will make his third trip to the festival this year.

“The site is a beautiful setting,” he says. “It’s exciting to get to do what we do, and there’s a lot of excitement in that community for the festival. To take a raw piece of wood and carve some design from it while people are standing there watching is fun.”

Photo of Peggy Pantel leaning on a pile of logs
Festival Coordinator Peggy Pantel says it takes a lot volunteer effort to put on the festival. These are a few of the logs that will eventually be carved.

Chris Foltz of Coos Bay is making his fourth appearance. He says the event draws some great artists.

“The organizers have done a great job setting up the show to attract talented artists,” Chris says. “There is some really great work done there that raises money for the track and makes some money for us. It’s hard to say anything bad about that festival.”

A new carver to the festival this year is Linda Chavez of Klamath Falls. She is the festival’s first official female carver. Women in the chainsaw carving profession are rare.

In addition to the carvers who create artwork for several hours during each of the three days, about 25 vendor booths will offer food, beverages and crafts.

“I’m not an expert, but whether they’re doing a small carving or a large one, from animals to totems to cars, what those carvers do is pretty impressive,” says Ray Blair, executive director of the McKenzie River Chamber of Commerce.

Last year’s festival attracted about 1,600 visitors.

The festival was established because the McKenzie Community Track and Field needed maintenance funds after it was built on donated land. The site, about a quarter mile east of McKenzie High School, was previously a Seneca Lumber mill pond. Abandoned for many years, Seneca owners, Aaron and Marie Jones donated it for the track.

“The Joneses, along with other businesses and individuals, made this project happen with their financial donations, their labor and their equipment,” Peggy says.

The community took ownership and made the track a nonprofit facility. Then it was a matter of raising money for its upkeep.

Photo of avian themed chainsaw art
Detail from a carving by James Lukinich.

The chainsaw festival came about when Jeff Sherman, the McKenzie High School woodshop teacher and the president of the track’s board of directors at that time, was visiting with Kevin Strauslin, a chainsaw artist. Jeff mentioned the track was looking for ways to fundraise. Kevin suggested having a chainsaw festival.

Jeff brought the idea to the track’s board, for discussion. The first festival was in 2013.

Peggy says 10 volunteers are active in organizing the event each year. Different people in the area donate the logs. Most of the wood is cedar.

“It’s a good way to repurpose dead or diseased trees,” James says.

Local volunteers Brad McNutt, Zack Nastasiuk, Monty Wilson and Tod Lowry do the heavy lifting. They use their equipment to haul the wood to the track and move it around when the carvers need it.

“Without those guys we couldn’t have this festival,” Peggy says.

During the festival, the carvers do two quick carves—1½ to 2 hours each — a day. Those pieces are auctioned off at the end of each day. The proceeds are split between the track and the carvers. The carvers also work on a larger main project each day, which is auctioned off on the final day.

“There is some great work done there that helps the community track,” Chris says.

“Folks coming out to the festival should plan on spending a wonderful day, plan on being entertained and plan on visiting with the artists,” Bob says.

“I just love taking a piece of raw wood and creating something people would want,” James says. “I love people’s expression as they watch and when they look at my work. Their smiles are appreciated.”

Festival hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday, July 20, and Saturday, July 21, and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday, July 22. Admission is $5 per person. Children 12 and younger are free.