Turning 40 may seem like the gateway to middle age, but for chainsaw carver and artist Dee Grahl, it was an aspiration. “I always knew there was something magical about turning 40,” she says. “Even as a kid, I couldn’t wait until that birthday.”
Dee had no idea that the magic of turning 40 would come in the form of a chainsaw. In fact, when her husband, Ace, placed one in her hands for the very first time, she was petrified. “I was scared out of my mind,” Dee laughs. “But I was determined to learn how to use it.”
Operating a chainsaw had never been a skill this fun-loving and bubbly artist had contemplated, until, that is, she moved in with Ace, who had carved a homestead out of a piece of land near Lac du Flambeau. It’s very private but situated in the middle of deep woods at the end of a mile-long, tree-lined driveway. “I got to thinking, what if we had a storm and a tree fell over the driveway, then I wouldn’t be able to get out,” she says. “I wanted to learn how to run a chainsaw so I could take care of myself.”
At first, Dee decided she would be satisfied with a small unit, maybe battery operated, but Ace stepped in and told her if she was going to learn how to cut down a tree, she should have a “real” saw. Ace accompanied Dee when she went shopping for her first chainsaw and helped her choose a small gas powered model. Then the training began. First Ace showed her how to make a curved slice through a piece of wood. “When I tried it, I couldn’t make it work,” says Dee. “No way could I make a curved cut. I was too stiff-armed trying to keep the buzzing thing as far away from me as possible.”
But Dee persevered and one day decided to carve a mushroom from a stump that was in her yard. It took almost three weeks and she was amazed when her vision of a mushroom finally emerged. That success inspired her to try her hand at carving a chunk of wood. Lo and behold, a squat and cheery frog came forth. “That’s when I got over my fear and really started to have fun,” says Dee. “I started looking for different pieces of wood to carve and I started to feel the connection between myself, the saw and the wood.”
Dee started carving almost on a daily basis and soon had an entire menagerie of frogs, bears, mushrooms, owls, badgers and other woodland creatures. Then in the summer of 2004, she decided to haul them to a local artist show to see if anyone was interested in purchasing one. She almost sold out. “Oh boy, that was a wow moment,” she says. “I was so excited and decided in 2005 to carve full-time.”
Dee is a big animal lover and when she decided to carve full-time, she was working as an animal tech at a local veterinary hospital. She also has operated her own coffee cart and met many friends that way when she was a familiar face at the Trig’s mall in the mid-1990s. But Dee considers all those vocations just a lead in to her chainsaw carving. “I really feel like I was meant to do this,” she says.
And there’s no doubt that she’s suited to it. One look at her work and it’s obvious she was a bud just waiting to bloom. “My carving is a spiritual thing for me,” she says. “I don’t romanticize the wood or anything like that, but I am very grateful that I have this talent. It gives me a lot of joy.”
Dee’s creatures have a unique quality about them. Her woodland spirit figures gaze out with a placid peace and quietness. Her frogs wear mischievous grins and some of her bears sport smirking smiles, while others roar at the world with open-mouth ferociousness. She can suspend a mushroom while a frog hangs playfully over it and her current project is of a man climbing a pole, complete with tool belt and sturdy boots.
Over the years, Dee has perfected many of her techniques. For instance, she only uses white pine to carve because it is a “soft” wood. She purchases the pine from logging companies and usually can tell right away what a chunk of wood will become. “I’m not one of those carvers that can see a frog in a piece of wood,” she says. “I just know that certain shapes and sizes of wood will make a good frog or a woodland spirit.”
Dee carves in a structure covered with a plastic tarp and it’s large enough to hold all her chunks of wood. She can’t carve in an enclosed space because of the fumes from the saw, but that doesn’t stop her from carving all year long. However, sometimes cold temperatures will freeze the moisture in the wood and she has to wait for a warmer day.
In fact, a peek inside her carving area reveals several projects in progress. Nowadays, she even gets commissioned to do carvings. For instance, this winter she is working on a lineman because that was the occupation of the man who brought her a particular piece of wood to carve. “I get all kinds of requests,” she says. “But I really don’t mind because that keeps it interesting.”
After she has finished her carving, she “burns” each piece with a propane torch. This removes a lot of the chainsaw tailings left behind on the wood from the saw and it also gives her pieces not only a bit of color but depth as well. After this step, it’s time for staining. Dee uses a high quality product, so her creations will last for many years. “Then the eyes go in,” she says. “That’s when the piece really gets its personality.” After gluing in the eyes, which are glass, Dee sees her creations in a whole new light. “I always name them,” she says with a chuckle. “I find my customers really like that and it gives them a sense of adopting a unique addition to their decor.”
As Dee looks over her current projects and some of her own personal creations peeping up through the snow, she’s grateful she has found a niche that not only brings a lot of happiness and joy to her customers but to herself as well. “You know, I always knew turning 40 would hold many blessings for me,” she says. “But my chainsaw carving is really a gift of grace.”
To learn more about Dee Grahl’s chainsaw carving talent and many of her creations, visit campcritters.us.
Mary Ann Doyle is the associate editor of the Star Journal.
This article first appeared in the March 14, 2012 edition of Northwoods ‘boomers and Beyond.