Known as the chainsaw carving capital of the world, Ridgway is the place to be if you love turning wood into fine creations, as Sam and Pete Bowsher can attest to. 

THE 2023 Chainsaw Carvers’ Rendezvous took place at the Ridgway Mills Campground, Ridgway, Pennsylvania, in April. This year’s Rendezvous, or ’Vous as it is affectionately known by the carvers, saw more than 80 competitors from across the US (coming from 21 states) and four other countries take part. This year was the 22nd edition of the event, the brainchild of brothers Rick and Randy Boni.

Their original idea was to get friends and family together to do chainsaw carvings. From this small beginning it has grown over the years to become a major event of the Appalachian Arts Studio. The competition attracts all manner of chainsaw carvers, from the professional to the amateur and novice.

Given they come from across the globe, some people believe Ridgway is the chainsaw carving capital of the world. The event is held at the Ridgway Mills Campground, which is appropriately the site of an old lumber mill on the banks of the River Clarion. The hard standings of the lumber mill yard are ideal for the carvers to set up their carving and for the visitors, which this year numbered around 40,000, to walk freely around.

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Craig ‘Steeley’ Steele, Tim and Mike Burgess, and Pete and Sam Bowsher represented the UK. For Pete, Ridgway Rendezvous or the ’Vouz is a special event.

“I have attended the Ridgway Chainsaw Carvers’ Rendezvous many times in the past. It used to be held in February and was the coldest place that I have ever carved at! The main reason for attending the ’Vous was the social side of the event. We had a carver’s forum, which was very active, and then attending the ’Vous allowed us to meet all the characters face to face. Lifelong friendships have been developed on the back of the ’Vous. This year there were about 80 carvers in attendance and I have seen times when there were over 200 at the event. That just does not happen anywhere else.”

Forestry Journal: 40,000 people turned up to this year’s ’Vous. 40,000 people turned up to this year’s ’Vous. (Image: Chainsaw Carvers Rendezvous)

Pete and Sam were the featured carvers this year. This meant that carvings from each of them were featured on the Rendezvous event merchandise, including the Rendezvous T-shirt and hoodie. 

“For the first time in the history of the ’Vous, there were two different T-shirt designs available. One featured my running cheetah on the front; the back of the shirt was my dad’s classic woodsman carving and one of my best dog carvings of a Vizsla, as well as a list of all the carvers attending the event. The other T-shirt design was the same carvings just vice-versa.”

Sam added: “When I was growing up one of the exciting parts of my dad going to the Rendezvous was the event T-shirts he would bring back. Every year there was a different design and it was always featured carver ‘big names’ that I had grown up hearing about. For me to now be one of those featured carvers is unreal. I honestly cannot believe that myself and my dad were featured on the Rendezvous 2023 T-shirt.”

Pete agreed.

“To have the opportunity for Sam and I to be the featured carvers was a real privilege, especially when I know all of the carvers that have featured in the past. Of course, there is no such thing as a free lunch so we were asked to do a one-hour seminar each.”

The T-shirts sold at $20, while a hoodie cost $45. 

Forestry Journal: Ridgeway Rendezvous 2023 T-shirt.Ridgeway Rendezvous 2023 T-shirt. (Image: Supplied)

Sam, as a young carver, has had quite an eventful couple of years, winning chainsaw carving competitions, participating in the inaugural Discovery Channel A Cut Above, and this year of course being invited to Ridgway.

“In 2022, I took part in A Cut Above, which is being shown in the UK on the Sky History Channel, I won Carve Carrbridge, and I was second at the APF Show, as well as being the Carver’s Choice and achieving the highest auction price. My piece featured a life-size roebuck, a sleeping roe fawn at the bottom, as well as a scene of rabbits running away from a sleeping fox around it. This carving was bought by Alan Jenkinson, of AW Jenkinson, and it now stands at their office in Cumbria.” 

While at Ridgway, Sam was able to meet up with a number of his fellow carvers that took part in the A Cut Above carving show, near Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada. The show saw 12 talented chainsaw carvers from across the world compete for a top prize of $50,000.

“It was brilliant to catch up with five others from the show that also attended the ’Vous! It was nice to be in their company and not competing against each other! To me, the Rendezvous was the American event my dad and later on my mum and older siblings would go to nearly every other year. My dad came back with the most stories from this event. It is one that has been on my bucket list for years. Ridgway Rendezvous is special in my eyes, for the Rendezvous is not a competition; it is a gathering of carvers.” 

Ridgway isn’t just about the carvers. There is a wide range of craft, art and food vendors on site, as well as wineries and breweries, all of which add to the attraction for those who flock to what is one of the premier carving events in the US.

Forestry Journal: Sam carving an owl during the Quick Carve, using a special Japanese chainsaw carving bar with a tip radius of 6 mm.Sam carving an owl during the Quick Carve, using a special Japanese chainsaw carving bar with a tip radius of 6 mm. (Image: Supplied)

The second day saw Sam and Pete, as the featured carvers, giving a carving seminar each. First up was Pete. “It was a very informal atmosphere at the log pile in the warm sunshine in front of the carvers. I spoke about how I got into chainsaw carving back in the early ’80s, pre-internet and pre-mobile phones. I then explained how I have seen the carving scene grow in the UK to where it is today.”

Sam’s carving seminar followed, during which he explained to the crowd that one of his earliest carving memories was when he and Dennis Beach sat in his local restaurant.

Dennis, from Wapwallopen, Pennsylvania, is a world-champion carver, who specialises in the fine art of carving and in particular speed carving. While in the restaurant, when Sam was around seven, Dennis explained, drawing on a paper napkin, how you carve a bear.

Clearly, that meeting  made a big impression and that is what Sam tried to get through in his seminar, albeit he admitted to being a bit choked up doing it with Dennis siting in the crowd watching on. That became worse for Sam when Dennis, after the seminar was completed, handed him a small souvenir of the occasion. This was a small piece of wood with the inscription “Teach a man to Fish – Dennis Beach”.

Forestry Journal: Sam’s fox carving, which proved a hit at the ’Vous.Sam’s fox carving, which proved a hit at the ’Vous. (Image: Supplied)

“The seminar was a great experience. I got so choked up due to the fact I tried explaining that all my life my heroes were chainsaw carvers, then I looked up and the majority of them were there staring back at me. The whole thing hit me at once and I realised I am literally living my childhood dream – a dream that I never want to wake up from.” 

Sam also got to carve a bear alongside another childhood hero, Brett McLain. Brett has been sculpting in wood for over 20 years and is the head artist at Freehand Custom Carvings, an international sculpture gallery and studio located in north-west New Jersey.

“I’ve known Brett from when I was around seven. My dad met him a couple years prior to that at the ’Vous, and they became close friends. Brett’s one of those guys that is such a character you cannot help but love him.

“It is fun to now be able to have ‘carver talk’ with him rather than ‘when I grow up’ talks. Brett supplied dad, and Ryan Villiers, from A Cut Above, and now a very good friend of mine, as well as me, with all the tools at the event. Brett’s a talker and I think sometimes forgets he has carving to do. So, 20 minutes before the auction started, he had about an hour’s worth of work to do on his bear. I asked if he would like some help and he said yes! Before we knew it, we were both carving his bear!” 

While Sam is grateful for the help he got, and encouragement since an early age from many well-known and great carvers from across the globe, there is one he’s keen to highlight – his dad. He is quick to point out just how important that has been to him becoming the carver that he is today.

Forestry Journal: Sam and Pete Sam and Pete (Image: James Ross)

“If it wasn’t for my dad I probably would never have found chainsaw carving. That is the biggest influence he has had on me. I would say though it was a smart move by him to not push me into chainsaw carving. He let me find my own way. I have looked to work it out for myself. Figuring out what I am doing wrong myself or asking others how to do things right. That said, I have always known my dad was there if I needed him.” 

The climax of the Rendezvous is always the Quick Carving, which was followed by an auction of the carvings produced.

“In this event I carved my go-to quick carve, a barn owl on a stump. My dad did his, a perched eagle. Every year there is an auction, all carvers are asked to donate one piece to be auctioned, and all proceeds of that piece go to the carvers that are receiving the funds that year. This year, the beneficiaries were the Scoggins family from Mississippi.

They lost their house to a fire last year, which was obviously gut wrenching to hear as Michelle and Dayton Scoggins have been very good to me over the years. I actually spent three weeks with them in 2020 at the start of lockdown.

“The second family to benefit was the Backuses from Whidby Island, off the coast of Washington State. Their carving workshop caught fire last year and was burned to the ground. Again, this is a family that has helped me out massively. If it was not for big Steve Backus, I would not have got the opportunity to compete in Montana last year, and his stories never fail to brighten your day.

“Due to the above, I was chuffed to bits to raise the second-highest auction price for my bear carving, all of which was donated to these families. I got the biggest hug from big Steve and the Scogginses.” 

Forestry Journal: Sam carving at the ’Vouz with his bear watching on! Sam carving at the ’Vouz with his bear watching on! (Image: Chainsaw Carvers’ Rendezvous)

Sam’s first carving at the ’Vous was a bear. “When in America, carve a bear!” 

He also produced and otter carving. “I carve a lot of otters, but the best thing about this event is the amount of inspiration you can walk around and see. On all the carvings I made I tried something different from my usual. I gave this otter a lot of texture, which I do not normally do, and I think I way prefer it textured rather than totally smooth!

“A fox carving is another common one of mine, this one at the ’Vous turned out to be very popular and again I tried a few different things. My wolf carving was my fourth carving of the event, which was bought by a lovely couple from Pennsylvania. For my owl carving, in the quick carve, I used a special Japanese chainsaw carving bar with a tip radius of 6 mm. Safe to say one of these is now on my shopping list!”

Forestry Journal: Sam’s wolf carving which was his fourth carving of the event.Sam’s wolf carving which was his fourth carving of the event. (Image: Supplied)

Despite the weather, the organisers, the carvers, and those that attended the 22nd edition of the Ridgway Rendezvous called it a great success. There were lions, panthers, eagles, fish, raccoons, rabbits, and loads of bear carvings produced and on show, and countless other carvings of all shapes and sizes. 

For Sam, a final thought about this year’s Ridgway Rendezvous: “I had a rough idea of what the ’Vous would be like and I had some hopes of what I would experience. It is safe to say it exceeded all of them.”