From James Bond’s gun to Christmas bears, there aren’t many things Jonny Stableford can’t create with a chainsaw. Here he tells us all about his career and how he ‘fell’ into carving.

JONNY Stableford had been trading for 10 years, on a part-time basis up to 2020, when he decided to move to full-time working in Falkirk. On his Facebook page, @JonnyChainsaw, he details to potential clients how he can produce unique bespoke chainsaw carvings to suit their individual needs and wishes. Having first met Jonny back in 2015, I was well aware of his carving abilities and I knew that he was also a very experienced arboriculturist, so I was keen to catch up with him to find out how things were going.

Jonny explained his rationale to me: “In March 2020, I had made the decision to move on from full-time employment and work for myself. I had planned a three-month trip round Europe carving, climbing, and beer drinking, but, of course, COVID-19 put a stop to that. Having wound everything down for going away, I was without an income. I had a brief stint working a firewood processor and delivering plants for a garden centre but then started doing some hand cutting for a forestry company. It got me out of the house and, although only an hour from home, I stayed in my converted van.

“In the October, I managed to secure a workshop in a country park near Falkirk and was able to fill the rest of my time with carving. Being based in a country park through lockdown was actually a very lucky position to be in, as there was a lot of daily footfall and I had a busy run into Christmas. Things have been ticking over ever since.” 

Jonny originally wanted to be a countryside ranger on leaving school and attended Barony College in Dumfries. As part of this basic skills course there was a two-week block of training in the use of the chainsaw. While this did not lead to him gaining any chainsaw tickets, it did give him a real buzz and bug for operating them. Jonny then moved on to Fife’s Elmwood College to complete an HNC in Countryside Management; but after this the idea of being a ranger became less appealing to him.

So, it was back to Barony to do a course on Commercial Forestry Operations. 

“I essentially completed two courses over the academic year. The first as above, which covered all aspects of commercial forestry. This included ground preparation and controlled burning, tree planting, fencing, construction of surfaces and structures, weed control with hand tools, early stages of woodland management and silviculture, quite extensive chainsaw harvesting and machinery extraction. The college had a sawmill, so we even converted some logs into dimensional timbers.

Forestry Journal: Offerings for Christmas 2021 at the workshop.Offerings for Christmas 2021 at the workshop.

“It was the full circle. The second course, Commercial Forest Machinery, was a progression onto machinery and I think it was the first time the Barony had run it. The focus was on operating their six-wheeled Ponsse and eight-wheeled Valmet forwarders in order to gain NPTC FMO qualifications, but it also included mechanics, metalwork and fabrication skills. It was not long before I realised chucking a chainsaw round is not that good for your body or your bank balance, so I progressed onto Forestry Machinery Operations.

“Ironically, it was not long before I realised I would rather be sore and skint than sore and fat, so after finishing at the Barony I went to work for a utility arb company near Perth. I, unfortunately, crashed my car one morning – this was actually a miracle in disguise – and it made it difficult to do the 90-mile round commute. 

“Fortunately, the following week I was doing demonstrations for Stihl at the UK Loggers, which was hosting the world champions at the APF in Lockerbie. I happened to meet a former college instructor who suggested I speak to an arb company, which was also demonstrating at the show. A week later, I started with them and was there nearly 18 years. I was trained up through climbing and eventually became an instructor and assessor.”

Now, working for himself, Jonny has been able to bring all the experience he has developed over the years to allow him to work each week, when he chooses, using this forestry skillset that he has.

“Generally I look to subcontract myself out for three days a week. That could be for arb work, commercial harvesting, milling, or assessments. So, this gives me two or three days a week in the workshop. I am very conscious of repetitive strain and exposure to vibrations so I have to manage activities carefully. I am fortunate enough to work with some good small businesses who I consider my friends.

“I have just returned from working at Loch Fleet on a vegetation-control job and I am heading to Kintyre this week on arb work. Other recent jobs have included the dismantling of a twin-stemmed spruce next to a hydro pipeline. Another was a small clearfell in Biggar. I know everyone I work with quite well and they know me so everyone is happy, most of the time, with what we are trying to achieve. Being small businesses, you do not have to wait ages to be paid either. The client base I work for is broad.

Anyone from small domestic to national grounds management firms, the hand cutting is primarily on small estates in East Lothian.”

Chainsaw milling is something that Jonny has developed more as the benches that he was making on the carving side of his work became more popular. In essence, it was a way of making the production of these benches more efficient in the construction phase.

In the past Jonny had cut the slabs free hand. But with demand for benches rising, he found this to be too time consuming.

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“My first Alaskan mill was a bit of a game changer and I used it not just for bench planks but to level bases and salvage timber anywhere I could. I later invested in a 60-inch Panther mill because I wanted to start slabbing bigger trunks. They have become very popular, but on a commercial scale, I am not convinced they are a profitable tool. There is so much other equipment needed, space, and, of course, time to turn a log into valued and desired materials.”

Jonny does offer milling as a service to his clients but it is not something that forms a big part of his workload. 

Chainsaw carving is something Jonny, having done it himself for more than 16 years, feels has really come on in the UK. He believes there are a very great number of talented carvers in this sector. In the past, it is something that Jonny has advised people, who were not being given the opportunities to develop and progress in tree work, to consider moving into to have a career and to earn a living from.

“As with any craft activities you get better with practice. Practice makes product, which you can then sell, meaning you can buy more tools. Really, it is a never-ending circle of doom! Although I had been carving for years, I was adamant I was not ready to do it full time. 

Forestry Journal: A Walther PPK pistol carved in ice.A Walther PPK pistol carved in ice.

“I once heard carving described as ‘creation through destruction’, which I quite like. I was that kid that would get a new toy and play with the box so I suppose making things must be fairly deep-rooted in me. When I started, internet forums and books were the only way of learning new skills, but they are not ‘live’. ‘Step-by-step’ guides are good to get a sequence but it really helps when you see the movements coming together.”
Jonny has taken part in many different carving shows and competitions. 

“I must have carved at Carve Carrbridge 10 times, the European Open at the APF five or six times. Garnock Valley Carves is the newest event and I have attended all three. Best of British, at the Cheshire Game Fair, was substituted for the English Open last year, because of international travel restrictions, so I took part in that and I would like to go back this year.” 

With this wealth of carving competition experience, I was interested to hear his take on competition carving. 

“I remember the first event which I took part in was in Kirkcaldy, Fife. While I had watched other carvers working at the likes of the Highland Show, I was now trying to mimic their movements as I worked. I recall seeing a picture of me standing in front of my rudimentary carvings and realising I was still a long way off being any good at it. I still observe other carvers working and learn something every time.
“Competitions are a bit of a double-edged sword. I love them and hate them equally. It is a good opportunity to meet other carvers and get some publicity but they are both physically and mentally draining.” 
Another anecdote that Jonny shared was about his experience carving at the Lithuanian Open in 2018.

“When in Lithuania I was given the topic mystical creatures and woodlands as a theme. I thought I was being clever choosing to carve a bench around the popular book The Gruffalo. I did check to see if it had been published in the Lithuanian language but only found Polish as the closest. I did it anyway only to discover the only person at the event that knew what it was about was the organiser’s UK-born eight-year-old son!”

Jonny took part in the Garnock Valley Carve competition in 2021 and picked up third place with his carving ‘Come and get yer tea’. He also travelled south to participate in the Cheshire Game and Country Fair and produced ‘Hoot n about’. Both events gave him an opportunity to meet up with fellow carvers and take part in competitions again.

Jonny accepts carving commissions from clients, as long as they can collect the finished carve from his workshop. There are two reasons for this; the inability in his experience of couriers to find the location of his workshop, but also because he is not carving full time there. He is noticing a growing interest in his carvings from across the UK, so that is something that in the future he may have to address and reconsider. In 2021, Jonny completed one of his tallest carving projects, carving an osprey from a stump at Aberfoyle. The carving was completed last October and is five m tall and 4.5 m wide.

Other carvings last year included ‘Woody the Owl’ for Hopetoun’s Wondrous Woods display and a golf carving at Greenock Golf Club.

One aspect of Jonny’s business is ice carving, which he does for an ice producer in Edinburgh. Jonny thinks that he might be the only commercial ice carver in Scotland just now. Sadly, it is not something that he has done a lot since COVID-19 started. The last order was for two elephants and a Walther PPK ‘luge’ gun. A ‘luge’ is drilled so that alcohol can be poured through it. Both were cancelled due to the pandemic. 

He has had many queries coming in for weddings and events in 2023. Jonny explained the ice carving came about after he was approached and asked if it is something he would consider doing. 

Forestry Journal: Jonny carving ‘Some you win, some you don’t’ at Carve Carrbridge 2016.Jonny carving ‘Some you win, some you don’t’ at Carve Carrbridge 2016.

“I don’t have a freezer to work in so I’m always chasing time. The block has to come out the freezer and warm up or temper to stop it cracking. By the time I start, it is already beginning to melt. I have a battery saw, mainly because of the noise, which I can do all the blocking out with and then refine the shapes with power tools. Some of the blocks are going to parties and so luges need to be drilled out. It is not uncommon for them to break at the last minute and I need to start all over again. It does not seem to matter how cautious you are, if it ‘wants to’ pop, it will!

“The most complicated piece I have carved was for an expensive brandy launch. The base was a large ice block, shaped like the bottle that brandy comes in; it had a large bottle of the brandy frozen inside the block. Normally, they would use coloured water for display purposes but in this case, it would have frozen and shattered the glass so it was the real stuff inside. Several hundred pounds’ worth.

“On top of that was a basin and above that their logo, of an arm holding a pickaxe, which was hollow. The idea being it would be filled with the brandy. Their front man would strike the arm and axe allowing the brandy to flow into the basin along with ice chunks and this could then be decanted out to the guests. I had to carve all three pieces with minimal melt and then it had to be transported and put together on the Royal Yacht Britannia for the product launch. A very difficult task when you discover the floorboards are very loose and wobbly. “They had some very good filming taken of the ceremony but it took them so long that the pickaxe had almost melted away!” 

Like a few in the forestry sector Jonny is wary of discussing his tools having been broken into last year. Unlike many, he describes himself as brand neutral with no allegiances to a particular one.

“Equipment choices should be as personal as your underwear. I do not believe in following a brand just because of the name. However, I can appreciate it is easier keeping things the same for maintenance of tools and for spare parts. Tools and equipment do need to be fit for the purpose I use them for and if they no longer fit the bill then I will find something else that does. I think it is important to keep perspective of cost. I will consider a new purchase for quite a while before deciding to purchase it – usually after a beer on a Friday night.

Forestry Journal:  A complicated ice carve for an expensive brandy launch. A complicated ice carve for an expensive brandy launch.

“Pretty much everything I own has a purpose and will sit poised ready for action. I just imported a saw with heated handles because it is not available in the UK. It has cost me significantly more to get it but it is for the benefit of my hands. I am a big fan of small saws, and anyone who has worked with me will know I will push the limits of a 14-inch bar at every opportunity. I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to look after your body.

“When you are young you think you are indestructible but you do not realise until it is too late that you have actually been destroying yourself for years. Eat well, get out of your boots when you can, and stretch your joints; yoga has done wonders for me. Do not lift your maximum capacity every time and monitor your working hours. Most damage cannot be reversed, so try not to damage it to begin with.”

Jonny told me he has noticed a change in protective chainsaw trousers, which is all for the better in his eyes. “When I started they were literally like wearing sleeping bags, but now they’re considerably more lightweight, more ergonomically designed and often stretchy. I have been involved in their design in the past so I am aware of how complicated the process is, but I often think it is turned into a very expensive fashion show. I just want reasonably priced trousers that fit, are comfortable and do not burst between your legs.”

Having different components to his business helps to keep Jonny from being tied down to one specific area. 

“For carving, obviously, the Christmas run is busy. I tend to find that spring has a push, too. I usually get a quieter spell after these, which I quite like. Gives me a chance to work on projects I would like to do. I hope that this year the summer will be filled with shows and events again. Contracting is always busy between Christmas and April. If only the big businesses knew the end of the financial year was coming at the same time every year, they would not need to rush round trying to spend their budgets last minute!

"Wildlife restrictions have some effect throughout the year too, but in general I have always managed to shift from one activity to another without any unwanted downtime.”

Jonny is pragmatic about the COVID-19 impact on him. “COVID really scuppered my plans as lockdown came in on the Friday and I should have left for my European trip on the following Monday. On the plus side, because I had planned for relatively low income while I was away all my running costs were very low so I could still exist without regular work. As it happened once I got the workshop, the COVID restrictions played into my favour and I got a lot of sales through footfall. Now that events have picked up the public seem keen to get out and about again.”

With the recent storms I wondered if that had opened up more work opportunities but Jonny was quite forthright about working on the domestic side dealing with storm-damaged trees.

Forestry Journal:  The osprey carve at Aberfolye. The osprey carve at Aberfolye.

“To be frank I cannot be bothered dealing with domestic clients after a storm has dropped a tree on their house. We responded to one homeowner where two woodland trees had struck his bungalow. There we were trying to remove the trees without causing further damage to his property but all he was concerned about was us trampling on his vegetable patch. I think it really shows how underappreciated skilled chainsaw operators are.

“On the commercial side, I have seen very little. The grounds maintenance firm we sub for has an unusual system for risk assessment. While the forestry contractor has a harvester, which is the ideal tool for windblown, I have been offered a lot of timber but it is usually of no use and in a difficult place to collect from.”

But despite the challenges of the last two years, Jonny is seeing the positives.

“It’s true what they say; if you love your job you won’t work a day in your life. I regret not doing my own thing sooner but the experiences I had, good and bad, have made me stronger. You cannot get experience overnight, so grin and bear it for a while. Learn from good people who are willing to teach and from the idiots, but remember which is which.

Try to maintain your blood sugars particularly with that difficult customer, have a laugh and keep an open mind. It is okay to disagree but justify why. You cannot possibly compare the last two years to anything in our lifetime and I think there might be new challenges on the horizon. With any luck, I will still get a Euro trip before diesel is as expensive as pure gold. To quote my friend: ‘If you’re not moving forward, you’re standing still’.”