Chainsaw Artist Carves ‘Designer’ Firewood
Where a camper sees wood for a bonfire, Brian Willis sees potential “designer firewood.”
Seven years ago, the chainsaw artist learned the craft of turning a tree-cutting tool into a gas-powered paintbrush. Now he transforms tree stumps, logs and firewood into artwork for homes and yards.
“I basically carve anything from little eagle heads and bears the size of a cigarette lighter all the way up to 14-foot tree stumps in people’s yards,” says Willis, who hails from Granite City, about a five-minute drive from St. Louis. “The subject matter is just about anything. The bears, raccoons and eagles seem to be the biggest sellers.”
In 2004, just three years after losing his job when a local steel factory closed, Willis made a career for himself. For years, he had hand-carved wood into flowers and duck and goose decoys. A friend introduced him to the art of chainsaw carving, and he applied his hand-carving skills to the chainsaw, developing a craft that started as a hobby.
“Now it’s a love affair, and it’s what I do for a living,” says Willis, who calls his business Willis Wooden Creations.
Two years ago, he and his wife, Tracy, opened a year-round shop in nearby Pontoon Beach where he works and sells his artwork, which varies from benches, tables and three-dimensional wildlife carvings to plaques and signs. Prices range from $50 for small signs and critters up to more than $1,000 for large carved tree stumps. Most pieces sell for around $150 to $300. In addition, he gives demonstrations and sells products at up to 15 festivals and events annually within a four-hour driving distance of his home.
He owns six chainsaws ranging from 12 to 24 inches in length and with different tip sizes for everything from block cuts to fine detail work. On a typical piece, he uses two chainsaws to completion. Larger pieces might require three or four chainsaws. Some artwork can be produced in less than an hour. Large, detailed pieces can take days.
His favorite wood for chainsaw art is catalpa, which holds detail well, has minimal cracking, is rugged in the elements and is beautiful finished naturally. However, he most often uses red oak, walnut, cedar and sycamore because they are more readily available from the tree trimmers who provide most of his wood.
To finish his products, he torches and wire brushes the wood to remove splinters and sharp edges. He then will paint or stain and finish with a coat of polyurethane at a customer’s request. Otherwise, he recommends his customers protect the artwork with outdoor deck oil.
The long-time chainsaw owner and firewood cutter gains inspiration from everyday life and almost daily writes or sketches an idea.
“I always tell people I like to create smiles,” Willis says. “That’s why most of my bears have little grins or tongues hanging out.”
Willis Wooden Creations
Owners: Brian Willis of Granite City, Illinois
Products: Chainsaw-carved wildlife figures, benches, plaques and signs
Contact: email@example.com; 618-876-2371