Arborist Michael Watson turns his hand to chainsaw art with wood spirit carvings

With precision and skill, Michael Watson carefully edges his chainsaw over the exposed, dried-out log in front of him until it resembles a face.

He is carving the long beard of a wood spirit into a piece of swamp mahogany, a relatively hard wood native to Queensland and New South Wales.

Working with a chainsaw is second nature to Michael, an arborist for almost 15 years in Cairns, far north Queensland, but he’s new to woodwork.

“For me, a chainsaw is like an extended hand and I’m pretty good with it but I’m not very good at art so I was a bit reluctant to start something artistic,” he says.

He decided to teach himself the art of chainsaw carving after seeing videos on YouTube and has learned by watching hours of tutorials and through trial and error.

Three logs each with a carved face of a wood spirit
Michael carves detailed faces into each log to create individual wood spirits.(Supplied: Michael Watson)

Art of the chainsaw

Michael uses a permanent marker to draw a rough outline for the eyes, nose and moustache and then uses the tip of the chainsaw to carve out all the facial features.

“I use the same pattern for every wood spirit I make but they all end up with such different faces and their own character, it’s quite strange how that happens,” he says.

Man standing in backyard with his chainsaw and block of wood with carved face on it
Michael taught himself to carve with a chainsaw by watching YouTube and through trial and error.(ABC Far North: Amanda Cranston)

“As I start carving, I don’t really have any idea where I’m going besides the moustache shape and where the eyes and nose will be and then the rest of the face just comes naturally.”

Michael says the hardest part for him is carving the eyes.

“The eyes are really hard to get perfect, so I am practising eyes, slowly but surely,” he says.

4 different carved faces into logs, the one on the right with green hair and beard
Each carved wood spirit is unique.(Supplied: Michael Watson)

Michael says he started carving wood spirits because they’re good for beginners.

“You don’t have to get the proportions right, like you do with realistic carvings,” he says.

“You can have a bigger nose and a wavy face, it doesn’t really matter because it doesn’t have to be perfect.”

Man squatting beside log which has a kookaburra carved out of the top of the log
It took Michael eight hours to carve, sand and paint this lifelike kookaburra.(Supplied: Michael Watson)

Michael is starting to carve more complicated pieces like Australian animals and birds as he gains more experience.

“I’d like to start getting into more realism carving but it takes a lot of patience and practice to get everything perfect,” he says.

He recently carved a kookaburra, which he made using a chainsaw, a grinder and a sander to smooth the edges.

“It took me almost eight hours to make the kookaburra because I ended up painting the patterns and feathers on it and I’m not really an artist,” he says.

Man sitting between two tall logs he has carved, there is a face carved into one log and a goanna carved on the other
Michael with a goanna and wood spirit he carved with his chainsaw.(ABC Far North: Amanda Cranston)

Michael says it would be great to connect with other chainsaw artists to share tips and learn from each other.

“It would save a lot of time instead of trying to learn everything on your own, from which chainsaws and chisels to use through to the best types of wood and finishing techniques.”

Each piece of wood has character

Michael said it doesn’t matter what type of wood you use for carving because each piece of wood has its own characteristics, but he prefers dead or dried wood.

“I try to collect wood that’s already dead so I can start carving on it straight away, otherwise it can take up to two years for a fresh green piece to dry out and I don’t have room to store it for that long,” he says.

“I’m actually liking carving on eucalyptus, it’s a hard wood and is a bit harder to work with the chainsaw but I get a lot better detail in it.”

Man moving logs around in his courtyard
Some of the wood Michael collects from his day job as an arborist.(ABC Far North: Amanda Cranston)

Michael says each piece can take from 45 minutes up to four or more hours to complete depending on the level of detail.

He has recently carved a goanna, a horse and even started a cassowary, but he still loves making old wood spirits, which are a symbol of good fortune.