After profiling carving brothers Tim and Andy Burgess in the January issue, Forestry Journal caught up with the next generation of Burgess carvers to hear their story.

MIKE Burgess and Jonathan Sherwood are part of the Burgess carving family, sons of Tim and nephews to Andy. Both have followed their father into becoming chainsaw carvers, building a reputation for producing high-quality sculpted pieces and enjoying success on the competition circuit. In 2022, Jonathan was the ‘Carver’s Choice’ at Carve Carrbridge, while a week later, Mike picked up first place at Garnock Valley Carves.

Both are relatively new to the circuit, as Mike explained: “I have only in the last few years started attending competitions, with Carve Carrbridge the first in 2017. In 2022 I attended Garnock Valley Carves for the first time and won, the first time I’ve won anything in carving. I then got a place at the APF 2022 show, which was a great experience. I have changed my way of thinking with competitions. Enjoying your time with people from around the world is what it is all about for me. If you win, great. But the things you learn and people you meet are where you really win.”

READ PART I OF OUR FEATURE: The Queen, Judi Dench, and Nando's: The Burgess brothers and carving

Similarly, while Jonathan has been carving for 14 years, he has only attended a handful of events. He said: “I am relatively new to the competition scene, but I got the ‘Best Newcomer’ at Carve Carrbridge 2016. I then picked up the ‘Carver’s Choice’ award there in 2022. I also came third, that year, in the ‘Best of British/English Open’. Garnock Valley Carves in 2022 was my first time carving there and only my sixth event in total.”

Forestry Journal:  Full-sized cow carved by Jonathan. Full-sized cow carved by Jonathan. (Image: FJ)

Jonathan, based in Harrogate, carves on a part-time basis as four days a week he works as a design, research, and development manager at Energyline, an engineering consultancy operating in the electricity transmission sector. He said: “I manage a team of around 10 people, undertaking design work for network operators like National Grid for all sorts of schemes such as connecting new wind farms or upgrading older assets. I joined Energyline in 2010, straight from school, and they funded my degree in materials engineering. At university I was also carving part time.”

He can still remember carving his first owl at the age of 16, with the guidance of his dad Tim. “This gave me a taster, but it is the drive to continually improve and enter your ‘flow state’ – when you feel completely focused on the task in hand – which has kept me doing it over the years.”

Meanwhile, Mike came to carving at 24, after a knee injury cut short a promising professional rugby career. He said: “From a young age rugby was all I wanted to do. I played for England at all the age group levels, attending and winning the Six Nations at Under 18 in Scotland and competing in an Under-19 rugby cup in France.

Forestry Journal: Jonathan with his 2022 carving of two foxes and a girl, carved at the English Open, gaining him the third-place award.Jonathan with his 2022 carving of two foxes and a girl, carved at the English Open, gaining him the third-place award. (Image: FJ)

“I then went onto Sale Sharks from school, for a professional contract. Unfortunately, surgery stopped my rugby career. I did try to get back but it was never the same. It was a very strange feeling having been so focused since a young age. Thankfully, chainsaw carving was there to ease the disappointment.”

Mike also dabbled with becoming a personal trainer and had a period selling houses in Cheshire. “I knew that I wanted to leave and focus on carving, but you don’t make money straight away,” he said. “You have to practice and attend a lot of markets and shows to make it work full time. Once I had enough work to leave my job, that was it. I started carving in 2011 part time, and set up my own business in 2012.”

While both Mike and Jonathan undertook appropriate external training on the operation and maintenance of chainsaws, they also picked up a lot from their father, though each has had to develop his own style and work hard to become established.

Jonathan remembers those early days well. “I did a lot of small village and country shows, even car boots, to get my name out there,” he said. “Since then, the majority of my work has come by word of mouth.”

Forestry Journal: Mike standing next to his 10 ft grizzly bear, carved from a piece of oak.Mike standing next to his 10 ft grizzly bear, carved from a piece of oak. (Image: FJ)

It has been a similar story for Mike, who said: “There was a lot of work attending markets, shows and charity events. Since then, social media promotion and developing a website to showcase my previous work has really helped me.”

Jonathan, unlike Mike and the rest of the Burgess family, carries out his work across the Pennines. “I’m in Harrogate and carve in small woodland for free-standing pieces,” he said. “I don’t have the luxury of a roof like the other softies. However, the majority of my work, maybe 90 per cent, is ‘stump jobs’. Which I think is almost the opposite of Mike’s split of work.”

Mike started carving at a farm base in Cheshire alongside Tim and Andy. He said: “I find no two jobs are ever the same, which is interesting. I find stump jobs come in flurries, whereas free-standing pieces are more frequent.”

Tim and Andy eventually moved to carving at their homes, while Mike built up his base at the farm. He said: “I felt it was time for me to have my own space, so I spoke to the farmer who very kindly gave me an area at a different location. I then kitted it out with all the things that I needed including containers, electricity, and a forklift. It was an expensive move for me to be on my own, but I haven’t looked back since.”

READ MORE: Murray Timber: Galway sawmill puts evolution at heart of everything

Continuing on the equipment theme, most of Mike’s saws are Husqvarna. “When I started, my local depot stocked them,” he said. “They helped me out with kit and chains so I have had no reason to change. I do have some Stihl and Echo saws as well. All my electrical equipment is from Makita. I’m still using the same tools I started with, which is amazing considering how they are treated. I use a number of different chainsaws and carving bars. Each saw I have has its own use. The power and size of the carving bar I use depends on the size of the tree I’m working with.

Forestry Journal: Jonathan carving his ‘Rooster’ at Carve Carrbridge 2022.Jonathan carving his ‘Rooster’ at Carve Carrbridge 2022. (Image: FJ)

“For most of the larger carvings, say 5 ft and above, I would start with the 20 in bar, then work with blocking out of the tree and work my way down the size of the carving bars, which assist with the more intricate detail I am looking to achieve. Power tools are used to finish my pieces, along with a blowtorch for burning. This helps create depth and can highlight the natural grain within the wood.”

Jonathan said: “I like Echo saws. They’re reasonably priced and deal with the punishment of being run for long hours very well. For big saws though, I feel that there is not really an alternative to a Stihl MS 660 or 880, in the UK market. I think with saws, a die grinder and some carving bits you can pretty much make whatever you want. An angle grinder and drill with flap sander helps in some cases for sanding, but they are less important.

“With power tools, I don’t have a particular brand preference. It used to be Makita, but the tools I have had from them recently aren’t as sturdy as they used to be.”

Forestry Journal: A wolf bench carved for the Cubs for their 100th anniversary.A wolf bench carved for the Cubs for their 100th anniversary. (Image: FJ)

Both Jonathan and Mike have websites to highlight their work, and make use of social media channels including Facebook and Instagram.

Mike said: “I normally try to post my new work each week. People then comment on posts and I find that helps me connect with potential customers who may have never seen me at a show. I guess it is a virtual showroom. You also get a feeling for what is popular. I get many comments on my posts and I always take the time to read every one.”

Jonathan still finds that most of his work comes from word of mouth. “A lot of tree surgeons recommend me to their customers when they have seen my work on a tree they have taken down,” he said. “I like to turn an old stump into something that is beautiful. Working part time suits me. I have a continual order book for around the next six months. I have been trying to limit how much I get up to on the weekends now that I have a young family.”

For Mike, his commissions come from promotion through social channels, word of mouth and – importantly – repeat customers. “You need to keep your fingers in a lot of pies,” he said. “I have always likened carving to surfing a wave. When you are on a wave it’s great, but you do not know when the next wave will be. Having surfed a lot down in Cornwall, I know the good wave you get might be the last one of the day, or even of that holiday.”

With this attitude in mind, Mike is happy to give any type of carving a go and has a simple policy that if it does not work out then the customer does not pay. This has allowed him to tackle a wide range of jobs.

He said: “I have attended large shows like BBC Countryfile, the Royal Cheshire and Royal Cornwall, plus many more. I also appeared on 8 out of 10 Cats does Countdown, where I was Jimmy Carr’s stand-in on a chainsaw-carving countdown conundrum. That was a lot of fun and I got to meet some celebrities in the green room.”

Forestry Journal: Mike and a selection of his bear carvings.Mike and a selection of his bear carvings. (Image: FJ)

Nowadays, Jonathan says all of his carving work is either commissions or carving at events. “I am fortunate enough to have a full order book for commissions at the moment, so there isn’t much drive for me to make lots of stock to sell at shows or to exhibit. If that changes, then I may well be back as a regular at the village shows.”
Like many carvers, Jonathan finds it hard to single out a favourite piece, but there are a few that stick in his mind. 

“I remember doing a full-size cow,” he said. “It was my first attempt at joining bits of timber together and Mike helped on it with his forklift. Then there was a green man or tree beard I carved that had its arms articulated so they could be put in different positions – something you don’t see every day.

“Back in 2012, I made a seat, free of charge, for a local park, which brings back fond memories. It was my first large public piece and was a bit of a publicity stunt. The log was huge and I was equipped only with a Stihl MS250 and a Stihl electric saw at the time. It sticks out as a bit of a gear-shift in my carving ability after driving myself so hard.

“Similarly, my latest carving, at the English Open, of two foxes and a girl, sticks out as my first human figure (although she was sitting, so a lot easier) and the time was very constrained. It is probably the hardest I have worked and I was exhausted afterwards. I also made a full set of Gruffalo characters, which turned out nicely. That was the first time I painted a carving. Sadly, I have not been able to share them on my social media platforms due to copyright.”

Mike has a similar mindset, having carved so many different things. However, he experiences a feeling of sadness when a particular carving leaves his possession. 

“There was a big 10 ft bear, which was a favourite of mine due to its sheer size,” he said.

“It was made in oak and was so heavy it was at the limit of my forklift. Then there was a 9.5 ft great white shark bench carving commissioned by a primary school as a memorial bench for a child who sadly passed away. I was asked to carve a shark as this was the boy’s favourite animal. I suggested making it into a bench, as it would be a place where his friends could sit and remember him.

Forestry Journal: Jonathan picking up the ‘Best Newcomer’ award at Carve Carrbridge 2017.Jonathan picking up the ‘Best Newcomer’ award at Carve Carrbridge 2017. (Image: FJ)

“There was a wolf bench, which was imposing and a piece I was very proud of as it had a lot of detail and I felt that I had created a menacing, realistic-looking wolf. It looked like it was watching you. I have also made many carvings for schools and parks. I really enjoy these as the children can watch them being made. These have included large, one-off pieces on sculpture trails tailored to the children’s ideas.”

Both Mike and Jonathan have followed their father into carving as a career. I wondered what each of them enjoyed about carving and if they could think of any downsides. 

Mike said: “I’m my own boss, I answer only to me, I’m outside – granted in all conditions, from snow to heat waves, but I prefer that any day to siting at a desk.

However, my work is pretty isolated. 90 per cent of the time I am in my own world with my ear defenders on – granted they have music, so there isn’t just silence. This is, however, a downside for me, as I’m alone most of the time in the yard, field, or up a tree.

“There are also no Christmas or office parties or camaraderie with colleagues. My friends and family do understand this, however, and I usually end up being invited to their work parties. One thing to note: there is no hierarchy to climb, other than against yourself – and this isn’t always easy.”

Jonathan sees the real plus point of his job as the ability to produce something. “It’s very rewarding to make a piece for someone and know they are going to enjoy something you have made for many years. On a personal side, I find that time passes when I am carving and so it has a therapeutic element to it. However, it is physically exhausting on the back and arms, particularly the vibration on your hands, which is not great for you.

There is also increasing awareness in the community about the hazards of sawdust to your lungs.”

Looking to the future, Jonathan’s view is quite simple. He said: “Hopefully, I’ll do a few more competitions and have some success. Otherwise, there is no big master plan on the carving front. I’m likely to be more stretched for time than ever as I’ve started a family!”

Mike said: “I hope my work will continue to get better. Every day is a learning day for me. I would also like to attend more competitions and shows.”

Two brothers, both pursuing carving careers, and from time to time competing against each other in competitions, made me ask the obvious question about whether there was any rivalry between them. 

Jonathan said: “Our styles have always been different and we’re both just doing our own thing.”  He did add, with a laugh, that it would be interesting to see what Mike’s view was.

His brother said: “As a family we are hugely competitive, be it carving, rugby, or even arm wrestling. I am not one to brag, but I do believe I’m the only one currently that has won a carving competition, after my success at Garnock Valley Carves. And I have the England caps!”

Jonathan’s links:
@sherwoodcarving on Instagram

Mike’s links:
@mikeburgesschainsawart on Instagram