Missouri craftsman's chainsaw carving a rare art

Friday, November 18, 2011 | 3:00 p.m. CST

HANNIBAL — There's a monk standing guard outside Loren Van Abbema's door. Sitting, actually, and reading a book.

The monk is the work of Van Abbema's hands, the only human image he has ever carved with his chainsaw.

Van Abbema has been creating wooden sculptures for eight years at his home, just south of Hannibal, using a pair of chainsaws and his imagination.

The tall, slender, Native American-like carvings, which mostly depict animals, adorn his yard, creating a fanciful wooden sculpture garden of sorts.

Van Abbema, 68, admits that his is an unusual, physically demanding hobby. To his knowledge, he's one of the only people in the region who does chainsaw carving.

"It's been a lot of fun, but it's not like knitting," he said.

It's also something he had no idea was an art form when he first took chainsaw in hand 11 years ago to fuel his new wood-burning stove.

"I had never used a chainsaw before, and you could tell," he said. "I didn't even know you had to sharpen it."

At that time, Van Abbema recalled, a man would do chainsaw carvings in an antique store in the shadow of the old Mark Twain Memorial Bridge approach. Van Abbema was fascinated by his work, and after a few years, the man gave him a chunk of wood and taught him the basics of carving a morel mushroom.

When Van Abbema was finished, he couldn't believe what he had wrought — or how much fun it was.

"It rather surprised me," he said. "Everyone who makes arts and crafts reaches the point sometime where they say, 'Wow, look what I made!'"

From there, he taught the craft to himself, with a few tips on technique and chainsaw maintenance from a couple of books he bought.

It's a time-consuming craft and often a frustrating one.

"You can spend two, three hours on a piece, ... (but) one wrong cut, and you've got firewood," he said.

Typically, Van Abbema begins with a large, raw chunk of wood, from which he cuts a rough shape using a 20-inch-long chainsaw. Then he begins the more detailed work of carving out a refined, recognizable creature. For that work, which constitutes the vast majority of his carving, he uses a 12-inch-long saw with a narrow blade suited to detail work — hardly the tree-felling behemoth he knows most people envision when they think of a chainsaw.

The size of the tool allows him to work with a variety of sizes. The mushrooms can be as small as a foot and a half tall. So can the finely detailed horse heads he creates. On the other end of the spectrum, the giraffes he carves usually stand about 7 feet tall.

Eagles are a popular item, too; Van Abbema estimated that he has sold about 50 of them. There are also bears, cats, dogs and rabbits. He tends to stick to animals; he doesn't enjoy carving signs, although he acknowledged that it's lucrative.

The larger carvings, like the ones in his yard, take about seven to 10 hours of work. He said that's small potatoes, however, when compared to the amount of time hand-carving takes; he has a niece who hand-carves both wood and stone.

"I could never do it. I don't have the patience," he said. "After using power tools, ... it would be like traveling by horse instead of automobile. It'd be scenic, but I want to get there now."

By the same token, however, the large-scale, power tool-driven carving Van Abbema does requires a perfect storm of physical strength and good weather. The former has been in short supply lately; Van Abbema is undergoing treatment for lung cancer, which he calls a full-time job. When he's feeling up to it and the weather cooperates, he'll do some carving, but he's done less and less lately.

Even at a decreased pace, Van Abbema remains one of the only chainsaw carvers in the region. He tries to keep track of local carvers, who used to hold an annual show in Quincy, Ill. He's lost track of the carver who organized that show, along with another in Keokuk, Iowa, but he's aware of one carver in Knox City, along with another in Hannibal who focuses on carving signs.

Many carvers work on a much larger scale, their pieces of wood measuring 4 feet in diameter and 7 to 8 feet in height before they begin working. However, Van Abbema is happy with the size and type of carving he does.

After all, it's afforded him the opportunity to create graceful works of art using one of man's most utilitarian tools and one of nature's ultimate raw materials.

"It seems so incongruous, this big, noisy, clumsy thing, this big, amorphous cut of wood," Van Abbema said. "You have to put everything into it."

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