Scientist by day, chainsaw carver by night (or at least when he gets the time), Dave Roberts has a passion for turning wood into incredible artwork – and he’s carved out quite the reputation for himself in doing so. 

DAVE Roberts set out to turn people’s dreams for a carving into a reality. For him, carving started as a hobby. Dave, by his own admission, ‘showed no aptitude for art at school’, but a desire to ‘sculpt’. In fact, he pursued a career in scientific research and still works in that field today, but more than a decade ago he started chainsaw carving.

Carving has become a passion for him, fulfilling orders in his spare time for clients, while also taking part in competitions in the UK and the USA.

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Although Dave is based in Stonehaven, north-east Scotland, he is a Welshman. From an early age, he had a love of the outdoors and a fascination with questioning things; ‘why’ being a word he was known to use a lot. This inquisitive nature is perhaps why he ended up working in the scientific world. Having been dismissed at school as someone who would not do well academically, he left and headed to London to study for an HND in Applied Biology, having decided that he wanted to be a lab technician.

“Suddenly I was interested, I was moving away from the strict regime of school to a place where I could ask questions and study things that I was interested in. I went from a student who barely scraped by to getting distinctions. My father pushed me to go further and so I enrolled at King’s College London to do a BSc in Biotechnology. They offered a place directly into the second year based on my grades, which meant I could complete in just two years. I loved it; I started to focus on molecular biology, focusing even more on DNA. It just ‘worked’ for me and I went on to complete a PhD in molecular biology and DNA fingerprinting.”

Dave has been involved in working on human disease detection using DNA fingerprinting techniques, has studied the pathogenic E.coli O157 and its relatives, and has been involved in developing DNA-based diagnostics for plant-disease detection and for environmental monitoring. He now works at a research centre south of Dundee, focused on assessing and monitoring soil health with a big focus on agricultural soils but also some forestry work. Dave is a full-time research scientist and a part-time carver.

Forestry Journal:

Dave’s childhood lack of artistic aptitude has not stopped him becoming a talented chainsaw carver, even if he still cannot draw particularly well. However, unlike like many carvers, who sketch out designs before firing up the saw, Dave has to visualise the 3D image of what he wants to carve and hold it in his head, aided by walking around the log. He admits it is sometimes a problem when clients ask him to sketch out his plans, but he just has to ask them to trust him. 

Around 12 years ago, Dave got into carving, when after having taken down a holly tree, he took a section of it to the workshop of carver Simon O’Rourke to have it carved for his dad’s 70th birthday. Dave was dumbstruck by the quality of the art produced with a chainsaw. On questioning Simon about his work and about how hard it was to do, he got some simple advice – which was just to go and try it out.

“It took me a while, but a few months later I carved a mushroom, a twisted-stem fairy mushroom. It took me all day with a cheap electric chainsaw and angle grinder, but I loved it. 

“The process, planning the shape, working out how to remove the scrap but keep the piece, how to deal with the overcuts, all of it. I was hooked. The next weekend I carved another one, then another. Then I tried a few other simple shapes, a dolphin, a squirrel, a cat, that one I gave to my ever-patient wife and we still have it in the house.”

Dave is full of his praise for the impact that Simon has had on him, pointing out that he is an incredible artist and one of the nicest people that you could ever hope to meet and always generous with his time and advice. He had no idea of Simon’s standing in the carving world when he met him that day, but he is grateful that he took up his advice and got struck into carving. 

Even though Dave had discovered that he could carve, he was then, and still is now, a full-time scientist first. 

“Carving is much more physically tiring than the science work, but not as mentally tiring.

"It is much more creative than the science stuff, but my approach is definitely influenced by my analytical brain. When carving people or animals I always start at the root of things, in this case, I start considering the skeleton, and then I consider the muscle groups and then any fur or feathers or clothing and think about how the fur will lie or how the cloth will fold or stretch, due to joint flex or body twist.” 

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Dave has the luxury of a full-time job and steady income, which allows him to be selective about the commissions he takes on. While his science world and carving world may help each other, the biggest problem he faces trying to do both is time. He reckons he is only able to carve 70 or so days a year, mainly Saturdays and holidays along with flexitime that he builds up from his science job as a result of the long hours he works.

Even doing this it is hard for him to be able to work many consecutive days on his carving. 

“This will always hold back my development. I won’t improve as quickly, or maybe not as far as I could if I was a full-time carver, but I’m torn, stuck between two things I love, science, and sculpture. I can’t imagine leaving either.”

Dave trades his business as Dervish Carvings, both because of a childhood nickname but also because carving, in Dave’s mind, looks like a whirling dervish of woodchips, swirling chainsaws and spinning chisels. Dave has access to a small section on the edge of woodland, where he carries out his carving in relative peace and quiet. Most of his clients come from word of mouth, with some coming via Facebook and his website. 

Dave, unlike some other carvers, has not followed the route of shows and fairs to sell his work. He has attended competitions, but mostly to meet other carvers and to learn from them. As he has developed his own skills it has become less this and more for the camaraderie of the carvers who attend the events. 

Dave feels this is why he does better at events where the time is not limited, such as Woodfest Wales.

“This year I hope to be at Carrbridge, Garnock, Best of British, and Peebles at least. There is such a strong feeling of camaraderie amongst carvers, not just in the UK but worldwide. I have not been over to the States for a few years now, not since I carved at Ridgeway in 2017. Whenever I go over there, I stay with Tim Klock, a legend amongst carvers and a close friend. When he comes over here, he will stay with me. It is a big extended family in the carving world. A dysfunctional family at times, but a hugely supportive one.” 

It recent years Dave has had a bit of success with his competition carving, winning his class at the Best of British competition in 2021, getting his prize from Simon O’Rourke.

Dave describes this as being “possibly his proudest moment ever”. In 2022, he got third at Garnock Valley Carves, with his soaring Red Kite carving, much to his surprise.
On the saw side Dave’s go-to is the Stihl 500i, as it is lightweight and is great with both 21” and 36” bars. 

Forestry Journal: Dave using the MS181 and dime tip, detailing the face of a fairy sitting on a toadstool at Carrbridge 2018.Dave using the MS181 and dime tip, detailing the face of a fairy sitting on a toadstool at Carrbridge 2018. (Image: FJ)

“It’s a thirsty beast and the air filter needs clearing after every fill! More of an F1 car than a pick-up truck but nothing comes close to it in terms of power-to-weight ratio.” 

His all-rounder saw is the old model Husqvarna 550XP, with 14” or 16” bars. For detail, it’s a Stihl MS181 with a 10” dime-tip bar. 

“It’s the perfect balance for me. I wish the power head was a little thinner – it’s a bit chunky – but I’ve not found anything I prefer yet.”

Dave also uses a Stihl MS140 battery saw, describing it as “a lovely saw for fine details, being very light”. 

While Dave uses both main saw brands, for bars it’s either a Sugihara or a Tsumura.

Makita is the brand he uses for grinders and sanders; to him they are just “bomb proof and give great value for money”. On the die grinder, he uses Saburrtooth burr, but prefers his own home-made eye tools. He also has Manpa carving tools, using the larger cutter set on an angle grinder as it’s “perfect for removing mass as well as carving all sorts of effects like water and ripples”, and the smallest version on a Dremel. 

He alternates between using a sand-o-flex or a woodwhacker to knock down the sharp edges on a carving without sanding too deep and removing the definition, particularly after burning. Finally, a set of hand chisels are used sometimes to get clean edge on eyelids.

Dave, like most carvers, finds it hard to narrow down some of his favourite or most satisfying creations, but when pushed selected a few to highlight, but in no special order. 

• His Firefighter memorial bench carved at Ridgeway.

Forestry Journal: Fireman memorial bench carved at Ridgeway.Fireman memorial bench carved at Ridgeway. (Image: FJ) 

“It was a heartfelt piece. After the twin towers collapsed in NY, I saw a photograph of a firefighter sat on a curb, one of the few that got out alive after the collapse. In the photo, he was devastated, raw emotion. I wanted to carve a memorial to those fallen firefighters so I based it on that photo. Ridgeway was the perfect place to do this.”

• His WWI memorial bench, at Portlethen. This was a memorial to the young men of the area killed in World War I. Dave got pictures and help from the Gordon Highlanders Museum, the regiment most from the area would have served with. 

Forestry Journal: Close up of the face of the WWI soldier.Close up of the face of the WWI soldier. (Image: FJ)

“I carved a WW1 soldier sat at one end of the bench, so visitors could sit with him – a young man but with an old man’s face, worn down by his experiences, a single tear on his cheek, his hands clasped holding a single poppy, the poppy being the only bit of colour on the whole piece. He is wearing his uniform, including kilt and webbing, but he is wearing boots not shoes (shoes were worn for the first few years of WW1). It was a very emotional process carving that piece and it remains one of the pieces I am most proud of.”

• Then there is the Elf, part of a collection of pieces for Cove Community Woodland. 

“Tolkien was a man of his time and he didn’t have many female lead characters in his stories, so I decided to carve the Elf as a female warrior. Rather than the usual standing pose, I put her crouching on top of a tree stump, in a fighting pose. Flaming red hair and a quiver of arrows. She was the first female face I carved that I was happy with.”

• Sticking with the fantasy theme, he has carved several wizards over the years and Radagast is his favourite. 

“I try to add in as many small animals as I can, some hidden so you don’t find them immediately.” 

Carving is something that brings great pleasure to Dave and clearly something that he enjoys doing. For him it’s about taking a dream or an idea, thinking about how to plan and shape it in his head before making it become a reality when he carves the log to create it.

“Being able to do that is a great pleasure. Seeing the reactions of people when they see what I have carved is always a great part, especially kids. Carving for kids is great; they still see the magic in the world that most adults have rather forgotten about.”