They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and that’s certainly true of carver Sam Bowsher, son of eight-time Carve Carrbridge winner ‘Chainsaw Pete’, reports James Hendrie.

SAM Bowsher followed in his father Pete’s footsteps when he won the Carve Carrbridge competition in 2020 – albeit virtually. For Sam, carving is very much in his blood, having grown up watching his father while he carved or was taking part in competitions and events across the country. When he first competed at Carve Carrbridge in 2019, he told me that he has been attending the event since he was a young child.

“Carving, chainsaws and wood have been in my life since before I was born. My Dad organised the World Logging Championship in 2001; that year it was in Lockerbie. Then we went over to Italy in 2004 for the World Championships when I was six. I idolised some of the guys at the logging competitions. I think on every Christmas list, from when I was four, I had chainsaw trousers! I just wanted to do something with a chainsaw growing up, but like Dad always said, ‘At what age do you give your child a chainsaw?’”

Forestry Journal: Sam carving in Tennessee in early 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic was just starting to impact.Sam carving in Tennessee in early 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic was just starting to impact.

His father was true to his word, with Sam only able to help hold a saw a couple of times while Pete was cross-cutting big logs during his childhood. It seems Sam’s carving skills and ambitions were restricted to working with toy saws and imagining that he was taking part in competitions. “I would imagine I was doing the cross-cut competition where you have to make sure that you don’t hit the plywood at the end of your cut. Other than that, I was mostly cutting air and pretending to do the snedding competition.

“I only wanted to be a carver growing up, but as the years went on and I still hadn’t had a go, that got put further to the back of my mind. A lot of our family friends are from the carving world, a lot of my weekends were spent with my dad across the country while he carved at shows. I can still remember being six or seven and sitting in a restaurant with an American carver as we drew eagles and bears and he told me what cuts to make and where! But I was stuck with a pen and paper for most of my childhood, so a lot of time was spent drawing, which I still quite enjoy.”

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All this interest and ambition to perhaps become a chainsaw carver ended up on the backburner as Sam pursued an early career which had nothing to do with carving. Sam explained that while he was at school he really enjoyed technical drawing. His career path seemed destined to see him become an architect, but even that didn’t turn out to be what Sam did.

Forestry Journal: A selection of Sam’s wildlife carvings on sale at McLaren Nurseries in Barrhead.A selection of Sam’s wildlife carvings on sale at McLaren Nurseries in Barrhead.

“I became more and more interested in rallying, so towards the end of school I wanted to go into the world of fabricating and building rally cars. I actually started an apprenticeship at a local engineering firm as a welder and plate worker, where we also did a lot of plant and forestry work. Then I moved to another local firm halfway through my apprenticeship for much of the same style of work. Carving wasn’t really on my mind until around 2016.”

Sam started carving more as a hobby rather than a means of deriving an income from it. Like many carvers, he started by carving an owl. I wondered why this was the case and Sam was honest enough to tell me that he didn’t know why he did it and why other carvers do the same – other than that carving an owl isn’t too difficult, with only a few saw techniques required.

Forestry Journal: Ready to start at Carve Carrbridge 2019.Ready to start at Carve Carrbridge 2019.

“Over the next two years I probably only made about 20 carvings, of which I was proud as punch, even though looking back now I’m so embarrassed. Dad was never backwards in coming forwards to tell me all the things I’d done wrong either, which at the time drove me mad but now I realise it is the only way I could have got any better. In June 2019, I was made redundant from my welding job, just before going on holiday to America to stay with close carving friends.”

Sam’s carvings began attracting attention and he was getting a regular flow of orders from customers. On returning from his American holiday, Sam went to do four days of carving at the Royal Highland Show. This event also led to more orders, which was just what Sam needed to reinforce his decision to go into carving full-time and to set up his own business, which he called Chip Off the Old Block.

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Sam arrived at carving just before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. So, here he was dealing with operating a fledgling business in a year which caused many businesses to struggle and close down.

“To be honest, running a business wasn’t very daunting. It probably helped that I’d seen other people doing the same my whole life, so had a rough idea and I had plenty people around me to ask for advice. I’m an organised person anyway, so that helps too. As for COVID-19, I can’t believe how busy the last year or so has been! I have nothing to really gauge it off though, as COVID-19 hit while I was still in my first year of full-time carving.”

Forestry Journal: Two giraffes!Two giraffes!

Sam considers himself to be a chainsaw carver and tries to do as much as he can using chainsaws. However, he, like many other carvers, has added power tools to his chainsaw portfolio. “I can still remember Dad doing carvings with a 15” standard bar, then knocking some eyes in with a set of chisels and everyone was happy, nowadays we need to take the carvings a lot further with the help of specialist carving tools.”

Husqvarna is Sam’s brand of choice. “I use mostly Husqvarna, probably because that’s what my dad’s always used and our local dealer is a Husqvarna man. I use small Japanese Echo saws for the detail work, as they are nice and light, but one day I will need to get into the battery saws. After saws there are a couple tools I like to use for detail, such as die grinders and a tool called a power file, which is basically a 10-mm-wide sanding belt.”

Forestry Journal: COVID-19 message from Sam’s Facebook page during 2020.COVID-19 message from Sam’s Facebook page during 2020.

A carver cannot carve without a good supply of wood. Sam pointed out that having a dad and brother working in forestry is a great help to him as they are always keeping an eye out for good wood. Friends are also good at letting him know of any suitable timber in the local area where he carves in the south of Scotland. Most of Sam’s carvings are done out of Douglas fir or Sitka spruce, but his favourite wood is western red cedar. “It cuts really nicely, is super durable on its own, and is just a really nice looking wood, so if anyone reading this ever comes across some nice cedar, please message me!”

Sam has been concentrating on building up a customer base over the last couple of years and uses online platforms such as Facebook and Instagram to promote his carvings. “As much as everyone likes to moan about social media, I think we’d all be stuck without it nowadays. Pretty much all my work comes through my Facebook and Instagram pages, especially this past year when I have not been doing public carving shows.

“It has been the only way for people to see my work and find me. My dad’s probably done about 20-odd shows a year, every weekend through the summer, for the last 25 years, so for him word of mouth was his biggest seller, but nowadays I don’t know how well that would work for someone starting out.”

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I was intrigued to find out from Sam how he takes an idea for a carve from a customer and then converts it into one of his many magnificent end carves.

“Planning for commissions, if the customer has an elaborate plan, or they need to visualise what I’m thinking, I’ll knock out a couple basic sketches for them. But a lot of the time I just work straight from reference pictures of what I’m carving and kind of make it up as I go along, fitting what fits into the log best! Nowadays, I rarely carve without some sort of reference picture in front of me, as you always notice a small detail you didn’t last time, and that ultimately is what keeps me improving. After a chainsaw, a reference picture and a tape measure are my most important tools.”

Forestry Journal: The River Memorial Bench carve.The River Memorial Bench carve.

Carving wildlife is one of Sam’s favourite things to do, but when I pushed for him a reason as to why, he couldn’t tell me! Although, after thinking about it, he did offer the thought that it is because when a wildlife carving is done the right way, he feels it is more “impressive than most other subjects”. While he enjoys carving wildlife, he did admit that he doesn’t enjoy carving hedgehogs and squirrels – probably because, in his own words, he “hasn’t carved a good one yet”.

Sam, in his short time carving, has produced many great carvings. I asked him

to tell me what he considers to be his top five, and to explain a little bit about the work that went into producing them.

Sam’s first choice was a River Scene Memorial Bench, commissioned by a group of friends that raised money to have a memorial made for their friend. He made everything apart from the metal heron support, and in his words, “had so much fun and freedom on the job”.

Next is a carve that he called Border Reiver, which to date is his only full-size human commission. “This was a great challenge and it was nice to have to put a lot of research into a job to find out what clothes the Border Reivers wore. The whole right arm was an add-on, along with the sword and the spear. I really put everything into this and I can’t wait until the next human commission comes along.”

Forestry Journal: The Border Reiver carve.The Border Reiver carve.

If the Reiver was a challenge, I wondered how Sam’s next choice, a seven-foot-tall rearing horse compared to it. “This was commissioned by a returning customer, who said, ‘We want a horse Sam, the bigger the better’. Horses are one of my favourite animals to carve; I learn something new every time I do one and I’m learning little features that make so much difference overall. This was another piece where the front legs were add-ons, someone else commissioned one of these off the back of this one.”

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Sam will turn his hand to carve most things, including trucks, or in the case of one of his favourites, a Scania truck! “Of all the things to carve, vehicles are by far the biggest brain-fryer. It’s unreal how much work goes into them, but when done right they look impressive, even though you don’t take a second look at the real ones. The Scania truck I carved was commissioned as a firewood store.”

Forestry Journal:  A youthful Sam enters the carving arena at Carve Carrbridge 2019. A youthful Sam enters the carving arena at Carve Carrbridge 2019.

Despite these four challenging carves, it is a carving of giraffes that Sam really feels happy about. “I don’t know how to say this without sounding like an obnoxious arty type person, but this piece is one of the ones I’m most proud of because it isn’t very ‘me’. Not on purpose, my carvings tend to be very, ‘Boom, it is a fox, bear, deer or whatever’. I get the general shapes in, and then get just enough details that are needed to make the piece work. I do not tend to have elaborate designs, and I just carve what fits. I’m working on improving myself there. However, with these, I came up with a design, which I am actually happy with. It is a bit different, and a bit arty, and something that I think is original. I saw a picture of a mother and calf giraffe and thought, ‘I wonder how I could carve two giraffes without using two giraffe-sized logs’, and as the end result shows, I did!”

Having won last year’s Virtual Carve Carrbridge and having placed third in Garnock Valley Carves, I wondered how Sam viewed taking part in these competitions having been an onlooker for so many years.

Forestry Journal: 7 ft tall Rearing Horse carve.7 ft tall Rearing Horse carve.

“I love carving competitions. I guess it’s like anything, you can think you’re as good as you like when working away on your own, but until you put it side by side with others, you don’t really know. It’s not just the carving side either. Everyone’s there to help you out, everyone’s happy to teach, and everyone is good craic around the fire at night! I was accepted into the APF Show that should have run last year, which is frustrating as I’m pretty set on what I plan to carve there, so its looking like I’ll have to sit on that idea until 2022 now!”

Sam has ambitions to carve in competitions overseas, in particular some of those in the USA and Canada, and also in Germany. Carving at shows and various countryside events is also part of his future plans to continue to expose more people to his skills and to gain further commissions and sales. While the majority of his work comes from private commissions, he does have his carvings stocked in retail premises in Dumfries.

Forestry Journal: A spruce stump that had been left to around 9 ft – before.A spruce stump that had been left to around 9 ft – before.

The key to getting more prominence at shows across the country may be linked to his dad, as he joked when he told me: “I have a couple of my own shows, but I’m hoping Dad feels kind in his old age and passes the majority of his onto me. It is one of the perks of the job, carving in front of people, and let’s be honest, whoever gets sick of people being amazed and telling you you’re good at your job?! It also helps to get your name out there, especially when the shows are as widespread as the ones Dad’s done for years, from Fraserburgh to Wooler.”

With so much of Sam’s love and perhaps talent at chainsaw carving linked to his father, the obvious question to ask him was, had being Chainsaw Pete’s son helped him? “It definitely helps. It is like anyone doing what one of their parents did before them; as long as they made a good job of it, you get first-hand experience of what to do and not to do without even realising. Of course, a lot of the carving world knew who my dad is so that is really helpful. I’ve been on a few trips to the States to carve and stay with friends I only know because Dad knows them from years back.”

Interestingly, Sam recently changed his business name to Sam Bowsher Chainsaw Carving, with a simple rationale in his mind. He explained: “Chip Off the Old Block was quirky, it stuck in people’s minds, and was spot on for a 20-year-old following in his dad’s footsteps, but I came to the realisation one day of, ‘Do I want to be 40 and still telling folk I’m Chip Off the Old Block?’ I just figured using my name was the easiest way forward, and I have already had a few people that have been on my page for a while realise, ‘Oh, you’re Chainsaw Pete’s son!’”

Having made a good start to his carving business in a worldwide pandemic, Sam is quite pragmatic about the future. “As for the next year, I don’t think there’s much we can plan. I would be more than happy if I had a good year of commissions. By the time this edition is released I’ll have started selling carvings at a big garden centre in Barrhead near Glasgow, and a flower shop in Biggar, so I hope they go to plan and keep me ticking over if the commissions ever go quiet.”

Forestry Journal: Two days later the carved stump complete with a selection of animals that the clients see regularly in their garden – a roe deer, a red kite, a red squirrel, a rabbit, a chicken and a woodpecker.Two days later the carved stump complete with a selection of animals that the clients see regularly in their garden – a roe deer, a red kite, a red squirrel, a rabbit, a chicken and a woodpecker.

Sam, like many carvers, is hoping Carve Carrbridge will run this year for real and not as an online competition. As the reigning champion, and with a father who has won the event eight times, he would certainly hope to add more titles to his name, both there and at other contests.

He said: “I still do not class myself as a Carve Carrbridge winner as I’ve not won the proper one yet, but it’s still nice to have the Claymore in the living room. I hope that I’ll be the only Virtual Carve Carrbridge winner and the event goes back to normal after COVID-19 disappears. To win it as much as my Dad, while that would certainly be nice, it does put the pressure on a bit more. But if I did then at least he would stop using his ‘Come back when you’ve won it eight times’ line.”

It’s clear from talking to Sam that he loves carving. For him, the future looks bright and he knows it. “It is the best job in the world. I find it crazy how popular it is getting. It seems every other village has a chainsaw carver now. For me, it just combines a load of my interests into one: trees, wood, chainsaws, tools, art, making things, designing.

“For the long-term future, I hope to get into some overseas competitions, though I mostly just hope that the work keeps coming in. I’m 23 just now and I honestly can’t think of anything else I’d rather do. I really dread it ever going quiet and having to get a ‘proper’ job, even though I probably do twice as many hours a week now than I did in a proper job! I absolutely love it, to the point where carving seven days a week does not feel like a chore.”

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