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Chainsaw Carving Big Oley

Artist transforms white pine log into Paul Bunyon’s camp cook

It all began several years ago….The place: the Steam Engine Village at the UP State Fairgrounds in Escanaba Michigan. This village reproduces the look and feel of a turn-of-the-century settlement, with a blacksmith, cook shack, ice cream shop, general store, barbershop and many more “businesses.” The area of the fairgrounds that houses the village has a park-like setting, with grass and trees.

One of these trees, a large white pine, died. The tree was felled and cut into logs to be made into lumber–one of the main attractions of the village is its steam-powered lumber mill. But they rescued one special piece from the mill: the butt of the tree that had two large limbs branching out directly across from each other. Its not certain exactly who first saw something hidden in the log, but they decided to have the log carved.

A chainsaw carver from Pennsylvania happened to be in the area, and he was able to get a rough version of “Big Oley” blocked out before he had to head for home. But, that’s where it got left. The carving was placed onto a pallet and stored in a warehouse where it was protected from the elements. Several years passed and “Big Oley” just sat and collected dust in the dark, dreary depths of the pole building. As time passes and seasons come and go, so do woodcarvers. In 2010, the UP State Fair hired the carving team of Jon Mykkanen and Marie Serafin (known as Woodworks Chainsaw Carving) to “work” the fair as entertainers. They returned year after year, moving to a new spot on the fairgrounds each year. Finally, in 2013, they made it to the big-time, the Midway! Something special was in the works: Big Oley was going to be finished at last! Now, typically chainsaw carvers do “quick-carves” at fairs, keeping in mind that folks have a lot to see and do at a fair. A piece needs to come together before the crowd moves on to the next attraction. But Big Oley required many hours of work before he would be done. This conundrum was solved with an easy fix: Jon would do the quick-carves while Marie devoted her week’s work to Big Oley.

Big Oley was hauled with a loader to the edge of the Midway, a mesh screen was set up for spectators’ safety and an 8 tier set of bleachers was set up for viewing. Right away, a major hurdle presented itself: just who was ‘Big Oley’? And what is he doing with those strange, awkward arms? Marie hardly knew where to begin! The first version of the story she was told was that Oley was Paul Bunyan’s blacksmith. Would this require carving a big hammer and maybe an anvil? But the placement of the arms wasn’t right! And one could hardly reposition them, as they were the actual branches of the tree. For the first few days, Marie worked on Oley’s clothes and face, waiting for inspiration. The breakthrough came when a local photographer, came along and set the story straight: Oley wasn’t a blacksmith, he was the camp cook! That changed everything. This information was key in helping Marie to getting the plan and moving the project forward.

Following another carvers’ initial rough-out plan with its overall design, critical stopping cuts and proportions added to the challenge. One major re-design took place when it was decided that Big Oley’s right arm was simply way out of proportion. To remedy this, Jon “amputated “the arm at the elbow, then removed 12” from the upper arm. Using a mortise-and-tenon joint, the arm was reattached using Gorilla glue and allowed to dry over night. Marie carefully carved the edge of the rolled up sleeve to meet the glue joint which rendered the glue joint completely unnoticeable.

For the entire week of the fair, working first with her chainsaw, and then with grinders, sanders and other power tools, Marie and her crowd of onlookers from the bleachers watched as Big Oley came to life. Revisiting a carving, that one started sometime earlier in their carving career can be a rewarding experience. New skills that have been learned, along with increased expertise, can produce a carving that one can be proud of. Big Oley, remember, was started by someone else, which presented Marie with a completely different challenge but one that she was ready for. Carving on a large piece such as this, working on step ladders and planks was a completely different than the small quick-carved pieces Marie was planning to do and what the crowds were expecting to see. But as the week wore on, interest in the project grew, as many people would stop in to check on Oley’s progress.

As is typical with all of Marie’s carvings, when the saw work was complete, Big Oley was burnt with an acetylene torch, the surface was completely sanded and details were added, such as the rivets on his pockets and the bow on his apron. Various power tools, sanders, and hand tools were used to complete the details. At this point, a couple of add-ons were also needed. What “Camp Cookie’”would be complete without a frying-pan and spatula? Jon graciously agreed to produce these items, which proved a hit with the spectators. With carving, sanding and details completed, Marie was then able to move on to the finishing process. As Marie will tell you: “Sometimes the color and the finishing is nearly as important as the carving itself. You see the character of Big Oley come to life!”…..and come to life it did. Some folks questioned the authenticity of Oley’s pink shirt, but anyone who has owned a pair of red long johns knows they fade to pink!

The completed Big Oley carving is on display and continues to entertain visitors to the Steam Engine Village. During the winter, Oley spends his time back in the corner of his warehouse. In the end, when Marie was asked about her opinion of the project, she replied “But won’t Big Oley be needing a cookstove or a girlfriend?” (She’s always looking for the next big project!) For more of Marie’s work, visit www.woodworkschainsawcarving.com.

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