Ian Williams' career switch from fire fighter to chainsaw carver has resulted in a successful business - and an awful lot of imaginative carves. James Hendrie spoke to Ian to learn more.

IN 2016, after 30 years in the fire service, Ian Williams swapped one job role, which had been dedicated to preserving human lives for one bringing life back to trees that had been felled or died naturally, through the art of chainsaw carving. He has since been practicing this art and building a portfolio of clients for his chainsaw sculptures, which vary from small owls to giant wizards.

Ian, of Flint Mountains in North Wales, is definitely happy in his new career. His interest in chainsaws goes back to being shown how to use one on his grandfather's farm. The way he was taught then was not in keeping with training nowadays nor that that he received when he joined the fire service, following in his father’s footsteps.

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Ian’s father, John Lloyd Williams, also served in the Flintshire and then Clwyd Fire Service for 27 years. Ian himself served for 30 years, initially with Clwyd Fire Service in North Wales, joining at the age of 24. His first job after leaving school was as a farm worker. He then had a spell as a lifeguard, before being accepted into the Fire Service in 1986. During his career, he served as an operational fire fighter before becoming an instructor, then head of response for North Wales Fire and Rescue Service, responsible for 44 stations across the region, with 12 managers under his command. This meant Ian had the task of ensuring fire appliances were crewed and available when required.

Ian said: “For the last 10 years I was in the fire service I was chainsaw carving as a hobby. It was at the first Woodfest show in St Asaph, in Denbighshire, that I really picked up the bug for using a chainsaw to make things. I caught a glimpse of some guys making little stools from single logs and was fascinated. I grabbed a chair and promptly sat down and watched them for a long while, trying to see how they worked. One of the carvers invited me to try to make one myself – and that was me started.”

Ian went home with some logs to keep experimenting. He made some chairs but added some finishing to them by sanding and painting them. He gave one to his mother and another to a family member. Word of mouth led to orders for a dozen more and he realised he might be onto something.

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While continuing to work with the fire service, he looked to develop his carving skills, studying others online and at events. He also approached Phil Dunford Chainsaw Training for some formal, accredited instruction, initially on maintenance and crosscutting.

Carvings of owls and mushrooms followed, as well as commissions from clients. Over the years that followed, however, Ian found it difficult to balance his hobby and something he so enjoyed doing – chainsaw carving – alongside working for the fire service which he had devoted a lifetime’s service to. Changes to the pension scheme allowed him to leave at this time, so, on 7 May 2016, he took the plunge and set up his own business.

Ian Williams Chainsaw Carving was but a fledgling project when Ian was accepted into the European Chainsaw Carving Championship, held in Warwickshire, four short months after he set it up. This event attracts carvers from all over the world, with 25 carvers competing over two-and-a-half days carve and 30-min speed carves twice a day. Each carver has the same sized timber – 2m x 1m – with the finished carve judged on the final day before a public auction is held to allow members of the public to buy a one-off sculpture. 

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“When I was carving in the arena, I couldn’t believe I was there," said Ian. "I had only watched video clips of the event. Now, here I was carving in front of hundreds of people. It was amazing. Over the two days, I ended up carving a five-foot meerkat family. My confidence grew following the APF event, with regards to carving in front of an audience, especially the thirty-minute speed carves. These are always a pressure carve, a finished piece in thirty minutes is not easy. Another show, which I was delighted to be accepted to, was Woodfest in North Wales – something I had only dreamed of.” 

Ian took part in Carve Carrbridge for the first time in 2016. “There is not another carving competition like it," he said. "Using only a chainsaw, such big timber and only having four hours to carve makes this competition very special. In my mind it attracts a certain type of individual who is not fazed by these challenges and can look at a log, imagine an end carve and deliver it. I also like the use of washers in the tin on the fence next to each carver as a way to determine the people’s choice.”

Ian likes to engage with people while he is carving, especially at Carve Carrbridge. He did not need the washers in his tin to scoop the People’s Choice Award in 2020, but online votes, with the event going virtual due to COVID-19. Ian went head to head with another 13 carvers, albeit in the isolation of his own yard in Wales. Ian’s end carve was entitled a ‘Parliament of Owls seat’ and came first in the online poll.

While carving at competitions and shows allows Ian to demonstrate his skills to a wider audience, commissions and regular client orders are his bread and butter. Ian uses both a website and Facebook to promote his business. Social media works well, but simple word of mouth from customers is a huge boon when it comes to new commissions. 

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Being a full-time carver has its highs and lows, with income hard to come by in some months. “My wife still works and I am lucky I don’t have a mortgage to pay so I can live through these darker times of low income," Ian said. "I still love the fact that where I work is out in the open in the countryside and I'm doing something I really enjoy, with birds chirping away and farm animals in the nearby fields.”

While many of his commissions are for owls and rabbits, Ian will tackle anything and tries to resist carving too much of the same thing. “I remember one time I had a commission to carve a meerkat, which I set about doing in a lay-by at the side of a road," he said. "I wanted to demonstrate my carving to a passing audience. By the time I had stopped I could have had commissions for twelve other meerkats, but my heart wouldn’t have been in carving that many at the one time.”

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Having said that, Ian is not averse to carving some stock pieces for future shows in what he describes as flat months. There has to be a balance to allow income to keep coming in. For Ian there is no one thing that is his favourite subject to carve. “A favourite carving is what you want to do for yourself and not necessarily for anyone else. It is a carving that you put heart and soul into.”

Practice and consistency allows him to improve. “The owls I carve today are much better than the ones when I first started, because I have done so many of them now and I have perfected my style. Something like this I can carve from my mind's eye but if I have a specific commission for, say, a family pet I would use a picture to ensure I capture the likeness of the animal for the client.”

One of the most interesting projects Ian has completed is the carving of a 25-ft horse chestnut tree at Holywell Leisure Centre in Flintshire. Local schools were invited to come up with a design based on the theme of the town of Holywell and its history. There were over 250 drawing submissions and the judging resulted in eight winners, with each design carved into the tree. These included a dragon, woodpecker, squirrel, owls, a windmill, St Winifred’s Well, a fairy door, a wood spirit face and leaves. The word ‘Home’ had to be part of the final carving, both in English and Welsh. Scaffolding was erected and had to be moved on two occasions to reach different parts of the tree stump. The carving took eight days in total to produce. 

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The local council employed Ian to carve this tree, which had been reduced in size for safety reasons. Sadly, while it was being worked on, vandals struck and some of Ian’s work was damaged. Undeterred, he carried on, completing the project, and it has become much loved by the community.

“I was so angry when I arrived one morning seeing the deliberate damage," Ian said. "I immediately posted on a local media site which had been following the carve about the damage. Within half an hour, some of the local community members came to explain this would have been a small minority of youths. They assured me it would not happen again and hoped I would not be put off continuing. I continued by adapting the design slightly.”

Ian has also completed carvings for the National Trust at Erdigg Hall near Wrexham in North Wales. These have included a series of wooden characters on a trail around the walled gardens, apples carved for the annual apple festival and Christmas trees. The trail around the gardens involved carving 12 faces each of which had to represent a particular type of tree. Each face was then winched and secured into the respective trees at a height of 20 ft in order that they could be removed after the theme of the trail had ended. There was also a 15-ft face carved at the entrance to the gardens as a starting point for the trail. Children visiting the hall were given a map to follow in order to find the faces. 

On another occasion, Ian carved a spade along with a pair of wellies and some vegetables for a woman who had recently lost her husband, a keen gardener. On completion, Ian was invited to look inside the deceased man’s workshop and told he could take any wood away with him. Ian was astounded to find 12 organ pipes, which had been in a cathedral, and he reckons are probably 200 years old. To date he has not used them, but, when he does, he feels it will be for a special job.

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Ian started out using Stihl saws, both MS 150 and the MS 170, for his work. Growing up on his grandfather’s farm he had used a Stihl Farm Boss. Stihl was also the selected brand for this type of cutting tool during his fire service career. While undergoing training with Phil Dunford, Ian had the opportunity of using a Husquvarna 550 XP.

“I found it to be a very fast and powerful mid-range saw," he said. "I eventually bought one and still have it, but its not my ‘go-to saw’ for blocking out and I don’t know why. I have built up a range of saws over the years, but tend now to be using an Echo CS-2511WES, a CS-281WES, and CS-361WES with Cannon bars for the carving and detail work and Stihl 441 for the blocking out.” 

Ian decided to try out Echo in 2018, after having watched carvers using them on YouTube and reading much about them on the carving forums. He said: “What I have found good about Echo saws is the weight-to-power ratio. I can use the CS- 361 all day for a range of carving techniques and do not feel any adverse effects from it. They also start first pull every time once warm, which is obviously something every chainsaw user relies on.”

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These models were joined by an Echo CS-4510ES the following year, which Ian uses with an 18-in bar, which he sees as a replacement for the Stihl 441.

“I run Aspen 2 pre-mixed fuel and have been using this for two years now. Aspen 2 is virtually free from harmful substances such as benzene, aromatic hydrocarbons or olefins; substances that can cause serious health problems. It also keeps the spark plugs and combustion chamber of the saw cleaner.”

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Like many carvers, Ian has been considering trying to use battery saws and was given the opportunity to try a 50v Echo battery-powered chainsaw, the DCS-1600, in 2019. Ian wanted to spend more time with them in order to learn about battery duration and charging, but the COVID-19 pandemic put an end to those plans for the time being. 

Other tools Ian uses for his carvings include a Honda generator, as he has no mains electricity in his yard, supplying power to tools he uses for finer detailing and sanding.

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These include Makita Die grinders and finger files, sanding wheels and conventional drills, which have many uses. Another valuable tool is a small plumber’s blowtorch, which he finds ideal for shading and highlighting, combined with sanding to achieve the desired finish. 

The outlook for Ian is extremely positive. While 2020 was a bad year for so many people, Ian was able to continue working, continuing to carve commissions, albeit small, and using courier services for delivery. 

He said: “I pay rent on my carving area each month. I had to keep working in order to keep up the payments as I wasn’t eligible for any government support. I think as a self-employed lone worker, acting responsibly and following government guidelines, I have managed to do okay.”

2021 has gone well. Ian intends to carve at a few smaller shows later in the year, but as with last year, most of the larger carving events are not going ahead until 2022. 

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Ian said: “I am 60 next year and have every intention of carrying on with what I am doing while I am still able. I have another project for the National Trust later in the summer and a school project to be undertaken during the summer holidays.”

Ian is certainly glad he made the decision to take up carving later in life and has this advice for others considering make such a leap of faith to purse their dream: “Think about your outgoings each month, do the sums and put your heart and soul into your carving. It will show through on your finished pieces and in turn will attract higher prices. Always take the time to speak to people who are interested in what you do. It worked for me.”