Dan Cordell is one of the world’s most talented artists with a chainsaw. Here he discusses his life, career, and the secret to his carving success. 

IT was at the 2021 Garnock Valley Carve that I first met Dan Cordell. I was impressed by his carving and his sculpture of a huge bear, which on the day achieved the highest auction price. When I caught up with him to find out more about his carving career, he explained that his first memories were of carving lumps of chalk in his family garden, with his preferred tools being a dart and a screwdriver. 

He developed a passion for art and at school realised he had a real talent for it. During his teenage years, he found himself starting to carve in wood with hand tools, including chisels, and making requests for wood as Christmas presents. 

But it wasn’t until he went to university that he decided to turn his passion into something more. 

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“A tutor called Jennifer Ulrich encouraged me to use the chainsaw for carving purposes and I loved it. It took a lot of persuading to get the university authorities to agree to me using a chainsaw on the course because of health and safety concerns.”

His degree course at Loughborough University School of Art and Design allowed him to work with other mediums, such as bronze and clay, and he explored other art forms. For a while, chainsaw carving took a back seat. During this time, he also learned how to ‘life draw’ models. This, in his mind, has helped him to be able to closely observe and study the subjects for his carvings, whether human form or animal. 

“I have always been able to accurately recall things in my mind, whether it be the shape or form of an animal or a plant or the physical layout of a building. With my chainsaw carving this has been an invaluable skill to have as I can have the visualisation of what it is I am going to carve in my mind before I set about carving it.” 

On graduating from university, Dan, interestingly, did not go right into chainsaw carving. Instead, he spent six months working as a stone carver. Carving limestone and sandstone commissioned pieces for Graeme Mitcheson Stone Carving. 

“It was a great experience to carve in stone albeit the end sculptures were a bit chunkier than I would expect from carving in wood. The winter was especially challenging, the stone being cold and having to polish the sculpture with icy water. I also found it is not as tactile as wood.” 

In 2003, Dan started his own business, aiming to use timber as his main raw material, relying on trees that are dead or damaged. He started working on some commissions and producing sculptures as stock to take to shows as he attempted to get his business off the ground.

The business has grown since these early days of carving gifts for relatives and friends, to a customer base that has been drawn to his work, and to carrying out a range of public art commissions, including many for the Royal Parks, such as Richmond and Hyde Park. In 2020, Dan was commissioned to provide two carvings for a woodland trail at Richmond Park that was being designed to allow local schoolchildren to learn more about trees and nature.

Over the years the number of shows that Dan has attended has dropped, as his business gained momentum and he has gained more commissions and public arts work. 

“The shows were great when I first started for getting my carvings out in the public eye as well as for meeting up with other carvers.

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“Nowadays, they offer less appeal, as I get older, sleeping in tents and criss-crossing the country to get to the shows is less appealing, never mind the expense of doing it. However, they are still a great way to meet up with friends.”

During the last 15 years, Dan has produced a series of sculptures he calls ‘dwellings’, some of which have been for public exhibitions. His carving All in the Same Boat was completed for an outdoor exhibition at the RHS Rosemoor gardens in Devon. 

Taking part in shows went hand in hand with setting up his business. At the same time, Dan also started to take part in chainsaw carving competitions across the country and indeed the world. The first carving event that he took part in was Sculptree at Westonbirt Arboretum in August 2002. 

“This was a big carving event spread over nine days and was a chainsaw marathon. There were a lot of good carvers taking part, but I was young, inspired and maybe a touch arrogant enough to feel I could carve just as well as the rest. My first carving at Sculptree was an abstract pieced titled ‘Feeding frenzy’, depicting vertical bird skulls and spheres.”

For Dan this was a great first experience. It was an inspiring environment, allowing him to meet with and see other carvers close up in action and to measure his ability against theirs. This meant, as he had found at university, that there was the opportunity to get feedback on his work from fellow carvers, many of whom were more experienced in both chainsaw carving and participating in events. It built his confidence to be able to enter and compete at further events.

He attended the first English Open Chainsaw Competition on the Sandringham Estate in 2004 and then took part again in 2005.

“My carving at this first event, in 2004, was called ‘Castle in the Clouds’ and was around eight foot tall and carved from a single piece of cedar. This was a massive event with a lot of carvers from the United States and I was blown away by what these carvers could do. They inspired me. When I compared their carvings to my own, I realised theirs were more elaborate than mine.

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“I understood that I would need to put more planning and thought into future sculptures if I wanted to be serious about winning these events. 

“However, I did not feel comfortable taking part in so-called speed carves [carvings that need to be finished in a very limited amount of time, usually half an hour] as I felt this was more about entertainment and somewhat ‘devaluing’ the art form of chainsaw carving. However, I eventually accepted that speed carves were part of the carving competition scene.”

In 2012, Dan had success by carving a mermaid in the Sandringham Cup. The ability to carve figurative sculptures Dan attributes to the countless number of ‘life drawings’ he made of models at Loughborough. 

“These helped me to develop knowledge of human anatomy. In terms of carving, it allowed me to achieve correct proportions when I am carving a figure. I work methodically, using the head lengths to map out the proportions on the log. Ideally, I make figures life-size, so I can use my own body to measure body parts and mark these on the wood.”

Forestry Journal: Dan carving the ‘Oak in the wood’ sculpture in his workshop using the weight-compensating device.Dan carving the ‘Oak in the wood’ sculpture in his workshop using the weight-compensating device.

He continued to attend carving events across the globe and his first success came in a carving competition in New Zealand, when he was placed first with a striding wizard inspired by Gandalf. 

It was carved from pine in just six hours at the Kawerau Woodfest near Rotorua. Dan had landed in Auckland a few days before and was looking to move around in an old van and find some work.

He heard about the Woodfest at Kawerau and asked if he could enter the competition. 

“I had no tools with me, so I just walked into the Stihl NZ head office with portfolio and asked to borrow some saws and PPE. They kindly agreed to loan whatever I needed. I was so happy to win but felt a little bad having just entered late, out of the blue and driving off a few hours later with the prize money.”

Other international carving competitions Dan has carved at include Chetwynd International Chainsaw Carving Championship in British Columbia, Canada in 2018. 

“It was special to be invited to this prestigious carving competition. The organisers supply the carvers with tools, accommodation, and great local hospitality. 

“My carving, which won the Carver’s Choice, was called ‘Dependence’. The sculpture depicted a tortoise walking uphill balancing a series of buildings on its back. To me this sculpture shows the interdependence between man and nature.” 

In 2016, Dan was also invited to carve at the Husky Cup event at Blockhausen in Germany. “The theme that year was ‘Viking Raid’. This meant that all those taking part had to carve something on this theme. My carving was that of a torch-carrying Viking warrior standing over a kneeling monk, who was clutching a holy cross. I carved these two sculptures over the course of the five-day event. The organisers set up a tripod for me to use my weight compensator. I was particularly proud of these two carvings.”

Forestry Journal: Dan’s huge bear carving which topped the auction prices at the 2021 Garnock Valley Carve.Dan’s huge bear carving which topped the auction prices at the 2021 Garnock Valley Carve.

Dan also topped the field of 24 international carvers at the APF in 2010 with his stunning sculpture of an eagle holding a fish in its claws. “This carving was around 10 feet in height. I cut a side off the log to carve a wing and attached it to the body of the eagle using mortise and tenon. This carving was bought at the auction by AW Jenkinson for their head office in Cumbria. I first took part in the APF in 2006 and have over the years been placed third on three occasions, won it once and been the Carver’s Choice winner as well in 2016.

“It is a brilliant event, with great sequoia wood for you to carve. Sequoia allows you to work very quickly and the saw goes through the wood like butter. Because you know you are going to get a big piece of good wood to carve, it allows you to plan ahead and think about what your end carve will be. The buyers at the auction also know they are going to get a very durable and long-lasting carving.”

Dan has also carved at Carve Carrbridge in the past, achieving second place in 2011. “I first carved there in 2010 and it was my first time in Scotland. This event is so different from the rest. You only have four hours, you are carving big logs, and you can only use a chainsaw; no other tools are allowed. Again, though, I feel you can plan for this knowing all these things ahead of the event, but on the day it can be a real emotional rollercoaster of an event. You are treated well and the event ends with the Saturday Ceilidh which is terrific.”

Forestry Journal: ‘All in the Same Boat’, which was completed for an outdoor exhibition at RHS Rosemoor gardens in Devon.‘All in the Same Boat’, which was completed for an outdoor exhibition at RHS Rosemoor gardens in Devon.

While he does like carving events and competitions, he has increasingly found that he has less of a desire to do as many. As he has become older, he likes to cherry-pick one or two a year. However, he did enjoy taking part in the Garnock Valley Carve in 2021. “It was great to catch up with fellow carvers before, during, and after the event, as COVID-19 caused most of the events in the last couple of years to be cancelled. Garnock Valley Carve does not have a competitive feel to it: it’s more about carving for the public, for them to appreciate the skills and talents of the carvers taking part.”

Like many carvers, Dan continued to carve throughout the pandemic. He admits he was initially shocked by the first lockdown and struggled with it. However, already being used to carving on his own and in isolation throughout his career, he was soon able to put things into perspective and focus on delivering his commissions.

However, as 2020 progressed, he found more and more of the garden sculpture exhibitions cancelled, thus losing opportunities for potential sales. As the first lockdown ended and the country started to get back to the ‘new normal’, he found that enquires and demands for his carvings from the general public increased. Dan puts this down to people spending money on their gardens and themselves, which would otherwise be spent on foreign holidays.

Over the years that Dan has been carving, he has been keen to support charities.

“For example, I carved a Red Kite to give to the Hospice of St Francis to put in their gardens. This was personal for me, as they had given end-of-life care to a family member.”

Forestry Journal: Viking and Monk carving from Husky Cup in Germany in 2016 with the wooden tripod in place, which allowed Dan to use his weight-compensating device to carve.Viking and Monk carving from Husky Cup in Germany in 2016 with the wooden tripod in place, which allowed Dan to use his weight-compensating device to carve.

Public art installations are something that Dan has done many of and something he enjoys doing. “Finger and rain traps as well as fire risk and stability are things I consider. You cannot stop older children climbing but you can discourage younger ones by eliminating footholds below 18 in. I prefer to use Oak whenever I can, as it is strong, durable, and fire retardant. While carving, I aim to not leave parts of the sculpture where fingers can get trapped or where water can pool after raining.”

Dan was contacted by Northampton Borough Council (NBC) about carving sculptures for a ‘Knights trail’. Due to the size of the commission, Dan proposed to NBC to involve his fellow carvers Simon O’Rourke and Harry Thomas. 

“This was a great project to work on with Simon and Harry. We carved the knight figures from across all ages of history, at Harry’s studio in Wales. There were nine in total and we carved them over two one-week sessions working side by side. It was great to stop and chat about each other’s sculptures over a cup of tea and help each other out with advice and feedback.”

On saws, Dan is not attached to particular brands and he believes that spending money on saws does not make you a better carver. He is a supporter of electric saw technology, having used the Makita brand in the past few years. 

“The lack of vibration makes electric saws good for detailed work. I use an assortment of power files, Dremels, and angle grinders, but I am now doing less sanding work on my carvings. Keeping the textures the saw leaves on the wood allows clients to appreciate the work that has been carried out to make the sculpture.”

An interesting innovation that Dan has used for the last 15 years is to ‘hang’ his saws from the roof of his workshop or a tripod, using a weight-compensating device via a steel cable, with the saw spring balanced.

Forestry Journal: Dan with ‘Dependence’, which won the Carver’s Choice award at the Chetwynd International Chainsaw Carving Championships in British Columbia in 2018.Dan with ‘Dependence’, which won the Carver’s Choice award at the Chetwynd International Chainsaw Carving Championships in British Columbia in 2018.

“I attach the front handle of the saw to the cable of the weight compensator, which allows me to move it up and down with the weight of the saw being taken up via the device. This allows me to be less fatigued after a day carving. All in all it cost about £100 to set up and has been one of my best investments.”

Looking to the future, Dan sees himself going back to doing more shows when things open up again. He is hopeful that some of the bigger public installation projects will start to return as well. Having also recently bought a smallholding in Devon with his partner and his mother, he also has some other ideas in mind.

“While I am likely to keep carving, I have been doing it since my early 20s and I will probably be more selective about the carving commissions that I will work on. I see the future moving towards some form of micro farming, using regenerative practices, which will include a mix of livestock being kept on silvopasture [trees integrated on pasture]. I am lucky that I have built a good business with my sculptures and I am in a position where I can start to move into a different direction.”