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Class teaches the craft of chain saw carving

SNOQUALMIE - Sawdust flying, wood chips falling, chain saw revving - ahh, I felt like singing, "I am woman hear me roar."

I recently participated in the introductory class at George Kenny School of Chainsaw Carving in Snoqualmie. After just one class, with chain saw in hand, I hacked out a rustic mushroom. By the end of the four-day course, you're supposed to be able to carve one of those cute bears that you see on people's lawns or an eagle with its majestic wings spread wide.

I consider myself quite a crafty person, but when it comes to sculpting and molding, I'm still in preschool. I can clearly remember back in elementary school when we were given a piece of clay that we could create into any masterpiece our mind could envision.

As I rolled that piece of earth in my hands I kept thinking of all the great sculptors and knew I could make an equally beautiful piece. I carefully kneaded and shaped the clay into a long, bumpy figure, painted it green and yellow and declared it a pickle. My brother Gary, however, called it something else. I knew then that my sculpting career would be a short one.

"I'm not going to make you an artist or creative," said carving instructor George Kenny. "This class is to show what the equipment can do and how to do it safely."

The classes condense the decade of trial-and-error learning that Kenny did to master the art of chain saw carving. There are two courses you can pursue. The first is an introductory class where you will learn the basics of carving, safety and wood selection. The second is a four-day class that teaches in-depth carving techniques and gives plenty of chain saw action time. A brand new chain saw is included in the four-day tuition price and by the end, students will become certified chain saw carvers.

Enough about the details, I was ready to rev up the engine and transform my cedar log into a glorious mushroom. As soon as I picked up the machine I knew there was a problem. Which hand should lead the way? Being a self-proclaimed ambidextrous phenom, both hands were vying for control. So, I let the right do the hacking and the left did the finesse work.

In the classroom, Kenny described the carving sensation as "cutting through butter." My classmate Andrea Huddleston and I agreed that it felt more like frozen butter. The first cut is what determines the rest of your sculpture and I was quite pleased with how my mushroom cap was taking form. But by the fifteenth cut, the 7-pound chain saw felt more like 70 pounds.

During the exercise I demonstrated what not to do with the chain saw, like slicing through the mushroom cap or making the saw kickback toward you. In the end I stepped back and surveyed with pride my butchered creation. But hey, you could sort of, kind of tell it was a mushroom. I'd like to say that it was a rare, exotic form not usually seen in the Northwest. And every artist needs to get their start somewhere.

Kenny first came across the art form in 1992 at his shop called the Coffee Readery in Allyn, Wash. About a month after the grand opening, carver Charlie Hubbard asked if he could set up outside the store. A crowd soon gathered around the artist and business at the Coffee Readery swelled through the summer.

Then Hubbard announced that he would be participating in a competition in California and wouldn't be back until spring. This put Kenny in a difficult situation because several customers had already paid $100 for carvings on order.

"I asked one customer how good does the bear gotta be," Kenny recalled.

It was a present for the person's mother-in-law who was visiting in just two weeks. So, Kenny called his brother and business partner, Frank Kenny, and told him that they couldn't afford to keep giving back money for each unfilled order. George Kenny saw that this was another opportunity to expand his business and decided that he would wield a chain saw and finish the jobs. After all, he had an entire day to copy a bear that Hubbard had left behind.

With his electric chain saw in hand, Kenny began to chip away at the wood. Soon people with camcorders and cameras began filming the novice carver and he had to answer questions such as, "What will you do when the cord runs out?"

Someone offered to pay $20 for the carving he was working on. When Kenny showed his brother the money, Frank Kenny said, "What are you doing in here? Get back out there."

That was the start of the carving business for the brothers, who just last year sold almost $1 million worth of wooden sculptures.

But the entrepreneurial duo wanted to add another dimension to their business - a carving school. While researching the market they discovered that there was possibly only one other chain saw school in the nation. They recruited several "guinea pigs" to help them develop a curriculum that would take the beginning carver from the basics to a bear in less than a week.

"I'm going to shortcut you through the things that took me a long time to learn," Kenny said.

Alumni of the course have the option of selling their items through the Kenny's Northwest Experience stores in Snoqualmie and Allyn. This arrangement makes it profitable for the student and teacher.

"We always need new carvers. To me, it's like Christmas because I don't know what they will bring," Kenny said.

The school has been around for only a couple of months and already there have been about 20 graduates, including North Bend resident Dan Martinez. Before taking the class Martinez only used his chain saw to cut logs and firewood. But in the days following the lessons he made seven mushrooms, two bears and several fish - which all sold within the week.

So now I'm thinking if Dan Martinez can do it, so can I. Maybe I'll put my sculpting phobias behind me and walk toward the land of sawdust and grit.

Anyone interested in buying a tailless, three-legged bear?

* For information about the George Kenny School of Chainsaw Carving, call (360) 710-5250 or e-mail George Kenny at george@coffeereadery.com.

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