South Ayrshire chainsaw carver and arborist Craig Steele has struck a successful balance between working for the local council, running his own business carrying out tree work and carving, and family life. No mean feat. Here, he tells James Hendrie how he’s managed it.

CRAIG ‘Steeley’ Steele, as well as being a well-known chainsaw carver, also works as a full-time arborist, leading South Ayrshire Council’s arb team, and runs his own arboriculture business, Steele Carvings.

Steeley is also a regular competitor at Carve Carrbridge, which is where I first met him. I also saw him in action late last year, doing some impromptu carving alongside Sylvia Itzen at Beith on the day that would have seen the 2020 Garnock Valley Carves competition take place.

I chatted with him that day and on a few occasions since to find out more about his career.

Steeley hails from Dundonald in South Ayrshire and, apart from a spell at Aberdeen in his university days and in Troon when he was first married, that is where he has stayed and worked. His father was a research scientist and part-time farmer and his mother a GP, and Steeley has always loved rural pursuits.

“I grew up in Dundonald, a historic village in Ayrshire, and my parents raised and showed a fold of Highland cattle. So, from a young age, I was used to dealing with animals and living and working in the village. I loved it. That said, as I got older, the constant having to avoid cattle kicking out at me, mostly unsuccessfully, and having to chase and round up escaped cattle became a bit tedious. Therefore, I decided on leaving school that I had better head off to university and seek an education away from cattle and farming! I loved being in the woods and was drawn to working in forestry as a future career.”

Being a keen sportsman with a love of rugby and swimming, a future career path might have been as a physiotherapist but Steeley stuck to his desire to work in forestry and decided to study for a BSc in forestry management at the University of Aberdeen. “It effectively taught me the practice of silviculture, including how to evaluate timber, tree measuring and data gathering, deciding which trees were for clearfell or thinning. After I graduated, the natural progression was a placement within the then Forestry Commission. This would more than likely have been desk-bound, rather than working in the outdoors, and I didn’t think it was for me.”

So, having graduated in 2003 and returning home to South Ayrshire, Steeley worked for a year as a general labourer to earn the money to do his various tickets to become a tree surgeon. In 2004, he gained employment with K Imrie Tree Care at Mossblown. After six months, he found himself carrying out subcontract work at the South Ayrshire Council; the start of a relationship that lasts to this day.

Forestry Journal: Steeley competing for the first time at Carve Carrbridge in 2013.Steeley competing for the first time at Carve Carrbridge in 2013.

“I effectively became the council’s arb squad’s tree climber and that is where I first met Alan Murnin who was the chargehand for the squad. I learned so much from Alan about all aspects of tree work. I cannot speak highly enough about Alan and the help he gave me in learning the skills of being an arborist. We hit it off right away and the fact that we both had a passion for whisky as well as a love for all things country gave us more than just trees in common.”

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During this period, Steeley learned a lot about the operation of machinery such as cranes, mobile elevated work platforms (MEWPs), tractors and loaders. Steeley worked for K Imrie Tree Care for around a year and a half before moving to work for South Ayrshire Council directly in October 2005. Steeley and Alan continued to work side by side for several years. When their boss moved on, Steeley, with Alan’s blessing, went for his job, and he became Alan’s boss.

He then found himself in charge and having to deal with not only the management of the team but also local councillors. He told me that with a father as a farmer and a mother as a GP, he does not suffer fools gladly.

Forestry Journal: A set of wedding table centrepieces based on Marvel characters.A set of wedding table centrepieces based on Marvel characters.

“I made it clear that I was the one with the knowledge about managing trees. I explained that I would be happy to take advice from those who were educated or had experience or expertise in the area of tree work but that I would not take advice from people who did not and just wanted to offer an opinion for the sake of it. I had a few good conversations and I dare say that I might have upset some people along the way, but it all worked out well in the end and I am still carrying out the role.”

This was not his only baptism of fire when he took over the boss’s role in 2013. That Christmas there was a series of winter storms that battered Ayrshire. This saw Steeley and his team having many sleepless nights with all the emergency callouts to clear and reopen most of the roads in the area.

Forestry Journal: Dropping a redwood at Belleisle Park in Ayr.Dropping a redwood at Belleisle Park in Ayr.

“South Ayrshire is quite a large geographical area from Troon in the north to Ballantrae in the south, with travel taking up to an hour to go north to south. It was a real test; I had to keep making ongoing risk assessments as to what trees we could tackle and what ones maybe needed to wait for better conditions or indeed daylight hours. I think the record during that time was us dealing with 33 separate incidents in a 10-hour period!

“We had help drafted in from other parts of the council workforce, such as the tractor squad from the parks and grounds department. However, it was my team that had to do the cutting and dealing with the windblown trees. There were a number of real ‘honey monster’ trees, which required a lot of attention to make them safe. As a council, we deal with many more veteran and large-scale trees than most domestic arboricultural companies do and we certainly did during this period. It was definitely a real steep learning curve but with Alan still in the team, there was a wealth of experience for me to call upon when I needed it.”

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When he became the boss, Steeley became less hands-on and handed over the climbing role to others. He had to learn more about managing and looking to others to deliver on the job, although he was and is always willing to step in and assist when he feels it necessary, or to offer guidance and advice to the team. However, he still has a real passion for climbing and having now been able to set up his own business, while retaining his role at South Ayrshire Council, it is something he can still do.

“I may be knocking on the door of 40 but I love climbing, never mind the actual thrill of getting up a tree to work on it. The views from the top of a tree are simply stunning. I am a local boy and almost every day I can be seeing the views of the various towns, places and landmarks where I grew up and stay.”

Forestry Journal: The machine gun carving at Rozelle Wood.The machine gun carving at Rozelle Wood.

When he started climbing, in his words, there were none of ‘the fancy gadgets and climbing gear’ that there are today. He used a split-tail with the Blake’s hitch climbing system for both his main and safety lines. In his mind, it is a process of climbing that has worked for him over the years, so why change it? He was taught by Alan but mostly from ground level, rather than in the tree, so, in many ways, he has learned climbing through teaching himself and some trial and error along the way.

“I was a big lad compared with the other climbers that I worked with initially. I had a reasonable level of fitness because I played rugby. I made more use of my upper body rather than my legs than other climbers did and I still do. I find it works for me, and while my body is still capable I intend continuing to climb this way; but I also know that my physical condition will determine how long I can keep doing this.”

Forestry Journal: One of Steeley’s favourite bench carvings because it was one of his first private commissions.One of Steeley’s favourite bench carvings because it was one of his first private commissions.

One of Steeley’s most exhilarating climbing jobs was a Corsican pine that he dealt with back when he was working for K Imrie Tree Care.

“I reckon it must have been 130–140 feet tall. I had to use two climbing lines to get to the top. The task was to deadwood the entire tree. Given the scale of the tree, it took five hours. It was intensive work but thoroughly rewarding. As the tree was not coming down, I could not use spikes. I had to walk out 30-odd feet on lateral limbs and make cuts. The long horizontal branch walks, with a clear fall below, certainly livened the tempo of my heartbeat.”

In 2012, he set up his own tree surgery business, Steele Carvings. Steeley was working for the council during the week and doing his own tree work at the weekends. Council work involves dealing with trees in five different settings: parks, housing, roads, education, and open spaces, including eight golf courses. The main aim is to ensure that any trees that are becoming a potential health and safety issue are dealt with, as well as making sure the others are secure.

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“I would say about 30 per cent of the trees are dealt with on an emergency basis. We get tree surveys carried out independently and these identify what works need carried out. My team concentrates on the high-risk and safety issue trees and for the other works we get external tree contractors to help deal with them. The work that we need to do in our five areas of responsibility and the sheer number of trees in South Ayrshire mean that contractor assistance is the only way to deal with the volume of work. I also have to make sure we reach the operational targets set for my single squad of foresters that now consists of Jack McCutcheon, my chargehand and lead climber, and Steven Milne, who is the second climber. My boss, Ian Gray, and I are also in the process of recruiting a third member to the team.

Forestry Journal: Steeley likes carving wildlife.Steeley likes carving wildlife.

“Since 2015, I have been able to drop a day from my council work to work four days per week, which has allowed me to free up some family time on a Sunday and still have two days working for my own business. I feel I am getting a better work–life balance now. Before, my council holidays tended to be busman’s ones, with me not going on holiday with my wife Cara and daughter Lilly but rather doing tree jobs for my own business instead.”

Steeley, like many arborists, got started with a few customers asking for tree work to be carried out and then the quality of his work and word of mouth led to future work. He focuses his work in South Ayrshire and told me that probably 95 per cent of it is centred in and around Ayr, Prestwick, Troon, and Dundonald. It is pretty much all domestic, although as he explained some of the houses in and around that area are like mini country estates in themselves with lots of trees.

During his time working for himself, Steeley has been able to forge good working relationships with other local contractors to help on jobs. One such contractor is John Baird from New Cumnock. “John is great on machines and I found his support and help invaluable when I started up for myself. He was good to me, always willing to offer guidance and advice.”

The amount of elm and oak wood that became available from tackling a number of dead trees while working as a tree surgeon led Steeley into carving. Initially, it was less about specific customer commissions, and more about the creation of furniture in the form of tables and chairs. He then started to dabble a bit with carving, producing owls, squirrels and the odd mushroom.

Forestry Journal: Sometimes after carrying our tree works Steeley is asked to carve something from the remaining stump, as was the case here.Sometimes after carrying our tree works Steeley is asked to carve something from the remaining stump, as was the case here.

Steeley attended Carve Carrbridge for three years as a spectator to see the carvers in action in a competition setting. Watching and indeed talking to those involved gave him more of an insight into the practice, as well as a desire to do more and compete himself.

That he did for the first time in 2013. He has no doubt that taking part and watching his fellow carvers at close quarters has inspired his own craft.

“There are some really great carvers that compete at Carrbridge and to some of them, what they carve appears to come naturally. Shortly after this first year, I decided that carving benches, with my limited carving experience, was the way forward at events. American carver Tim Klock gave me many pointers on bench carving when he and his wife Tracy stayed with us before Carve Carrbridge 2014. Over a few drams, Tim explained how to quickly carve bench joints, thus allowing more time to be spent on carving sculptures to enhance the overall bench. He also explained that a good bench is one that is more than just a seat; it needs to be something that is functional and, most importantly, is comfortable.”

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Steeley has also carved at the APF show, having long been a supporter of the event  because of his interest in all things wood and all aspects of forestry, greenwood and handcrafts as well as tree work. His first time carving was in 2014. Other events for Steeley have included the Tweed Valley Forest Festival at Peebles, and over the last three years the Garnock Valley Carve, which he and Pete Bowsher helped get started, as well as some local shows including the Ayrshire Vintage Tractor and Machinery Club Rally.

“There are shows across Scotland that I have also attended but I don’t like to do too many as it means me using up my holidays from the council or my weekends and that eats into what I have left for family time. I love carving wildlife because of my interest in the outdoors. I have carved a wide range of animals including quite a few of the ‘Scottish big five’ of golden eagle, otter, red squirrel, common seal, and red deer. At some of the events you can take carvings or stock to sell to the public but I tend to carve to order.”

Forestry Journal: Spitfire carving at Rozelle Wood, created by Steeley and Pete Bowsher.Spitfire carving at Rozelle Wood, created by Steeley and Pete Bowsher.

Internationally, Steeley has carved in the USA and Germany. “In 2017, when doing a tour of Washington State with Pete and Sam Bowsher and Tim and Mike Burgess and Dan Barry, Pete and I managed to squeeze in a little carving at the Sequim Log Show. We had to beg and borrow saws and PPE to allow us to do so. In addition, in 2019 Michael Tamoszus invited me and Garry Shand across to an event in Germany. It was there that I first met Sylvia Itzen, who came across in 2020 to attend the Garnock Valley Carve event which unfortunately was cancelled at the last minute due to COVID-19 restrictions, but she and I did manage to carve at Beith on the day the event was supposed to be held.”

There was an overlap of Steeley’s council work and his carving when he was approached by his bosses to help convert a number of the tree stumps that were left after a felling job at Rozelle Park in Ayr. The idea, which came from a discussion with Maclaurin Art Gallery, was to replicate carvings from World War I pictures at the park. This project developed on from the original carving work that was carried out by Steeley, Andy Maclachlan, Iain Chalmers and Peter Bowsher.

Forestry Journal: The nurse carving at Rozelle Wood.The nurse carving at Rozelle Wood.

“I think what this project has done is introduce chainsaw carving to this corner of Scotland, where, prior to this, it was not well known or represented in this local area. After people visited this Remembrance Woodland, as it was named, they gained a better understanding of what this type of work could produce. Personally, it was a great project to be involved in, carving alongside Pete, Iain, and Andy. It also gave me much more experience in carving human figures rather than animals. I did three, including a soldier, a gunner and a nurse.”

Being a carver and arborist, I was intrigued to find out what Steeley’s preference for saws was. In the main, it is the Husqvarna brand that he prefers. “I started using Husqvarna saws in my first days at university and I continued using them at K Imrie and then at the council. I got a 346XPG in 2003 and I am still using it. It is a brilliant saw. I use it for my carving work with a carving bar and chain.”

Despite feeling that Husqvarna are the saws for him, he did tell me that he has a Stihl MS200T in his portfolio, which he described as “the best climbing saw for arborists, with a great power-to-weight ratio”. He also uses a Husqvarna 339XP for carving with a 10” dime-tipped bar.

The range of Husqvarna saws also includes a 3120XP, which he uses with a 42” bar, both for felling bigger trees and also for doing the blocking out work when he is carving. It is, in his eyes, a big saw for breaking wood down.

Forestry Journal: The soldier carve at Rozelle Wood.The soldier carve at Rozelle Wood.

Steeley has also found Echo saws to be another brand that has served him well for carving, with 12” dime-tipped bars for doing the detail work of carves. “In the future, I will invest in battery saws as I know what they have to offer. They are quiet saws to operate and the lack of vibration makes them excellent for carving accurate detail.”

Steeley also has a 30-year-old Husqvarna 2101XP saw, which he uses with his Alaskan chainsaw mill. This has allowed him to mill timber into boards, mantelpieces and benches, as well as producing milled timber if required. Currently his go-to saws are the 550XP and 560XP for both forestry and blocking-out work.

For the carving side of things, Steeley told me that it is not just about saws, as other tools are required, including grinders, die grinders and drills with various attachments. These tools are used for the fine detail work, including shaping eyes, noses and mouths. “I use Milwaukee battery tools and I am supported by Hamilton Brothers from Tarbolton, who provide these tools for me to use. Sadly, Milwaukee does not have a battery-powered file in their range so I use a Makita one, which I find excellent.”

It was clear from talking to Steeley that these tools and saws help him to do his carving work. However, he explained to me that it is his own desire to improve and develop his techniques and skills that has helped him become a better carver over the years. Regular practice is the key to improving, in his eyes.

Now that Steeley has struck a balance in his working life – with his role at South Ayrshire Council and his own tree and carving business – he certainly has the forestry career he was seeking when he first started out.

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