Carving and Chainsaw Sawyer

During our stop at a Maine Welcome Center, I picked up a flyer about the Wendell Gilley Museum in the town of Southwest Harbor.   This museum of bird carvings celebrates the life and work of Wendell Gilley, who is considered a pioneer in the field of decorative bird carving. Gilley estimated that for over 50 years he carved over 6,000 birds and 399 species.  He wrote one of the first books to share the craft with others.    He started out working as a plumber and became interested in carving birds after seeing an exhibit of miniature bird carvings at a natural history museum in Boston.   His first carving was a miniature mallard duck which the Gilley museum still exhibits.   During the 1930’s and 40’s, he made and sold small scale carvings to the New York City store, Ambercrombie and Fitch.  Eventually he started making larger and more detailed carvings and at the age of 52 sold his plumbing business and decided to make a career out of his hobby.  The museum opened in 1981 and in 1983 Mr. Gilley passed away.

Above are carvings of Common Eider ducks which I enjoyed seeing in the museum because it was here in Maine that I first saw them in the wild.   I was hoping to see both male and female Eiders, especially the males since their black and white coloring is so striking.  But alas, it was only the females I was able to see.   After Eider chicks are born, the males take off and travel up the rivers where they will not attract attention of predators to the females and their babies who remain in the coastal areas.   One person described it to me as the males taking off for a “bachelor party,” but I could see the wisdom of nature in this, as the females are very drab in color and blend in well with the rocky shore.   The males though would definitely stand out!

Above is a photo of the work bench Mr. Gilley used for his carvings while working in the garage of his Southwest Harbor home.   I have always found wood carvings to be fascinating and these were extraordinary to see with such attention to detail.   Besides exhibits of Mr. Gilley’s work, classes are held here to teach bird carving.   The classes include everything from a one and a half hour introductory class to multi-session classes learning to carve and paint a chosen subject bird.    During our visit we were able to see an introductory class in session with a mother and two young daughters.  It looked like fun and we asked when the next one was being offered.   It so happened that another class would be held in the early afternoon.   I had other things planned for us to do:  a short hike near the coast as well as a visit to a lighthouse and beach we had not yet seen.   But things quickly changed when we found ourselves sitting at a work table with carving tools and a small partially carved wooden loon in our hands.

The museum has a very talented Carver-in-Residence named Steve who teaches the classes.  Some of his work like the Great Blue Heron in the photo above are displayed at the museum.   Mark and I were the only ones in the afternoon class so it became an informal lesson.   Although the introductory class was only for one and a half hours, Steve told us that he didn’t have anything else planned that day and we could stay as long as we wanted.   So we ended up staying there for almost four hours until the museum closed at 5:00.   Below is a photo of Mark working with a special carving knife on his loon.

It was a fun afternoon, not only because the carving was rather relaxing and interesting, but because we had such a great visit with Steve, a personable and easygoing guy who is a lifelong resident of Maine.   He explained that in his early years he wanted to be a lobsterman but ended up instead with a degree in biology and a job with the fish and game department.   He has had a great interest in birds since childhood and started out carving by making decoys with his father and uncle.  In the photo below, Steve works on shaping feathers on a loon piece during the class.

We shared together our birding adventures in the U.S. and Steve also talked about a recent trip to Europe and the unusual birds he found there.   We also found out that Steve is a big knitter, so Mark and Steve had that common interest to talk about.   Knitting comes in handy in Maine during those cold winter months!   A couple other museum staff came around to chat, including a gal who worked at the front desk who showed us her own bird carving in progress.   The afternoon flew by quicker than I thought as we chatted and chipped away on our loons.   It was inspiring sitting near so many professional bird carvings and if I lived in the area, I might be tempted to take a more in-depth series of classes.   But I realized in this class that carving is difficult and it would take me a number of hours to feel comfortable working with the knives.  At least I only cut myself twice.   Below is a picture of me with bandaids on my fingers which were conveniently available on the table as needed.

At closing time, we took our unfinished birds with us to carve on some more at home and Steve gave us some paint as well.   I wish I had thought to take a picture of how the carving was supposed to look when completed – a beautiful black and white male loon.

On another day, Mark and I made a visit to see a different kind of wood carving artist.   Ray Murphy, known as Chainsaw Sawyer bills himself as the first chainsaw artist, a skill he has been perfecting for the past 65 years.   He has a shop where he works on his projects and displays his carvings for sale, such as bears, squirrels, eagles, skunk and a ship captain.   In the photo above, Ray stands by a recent carving he made for a lobster and ice cream stand in the town of Bar Harbor.   Ray explained that the ice cream stand’s previous carving had been ruined after accidentally rolling down a hill.   When we arrived in Maine, Mark and I quickly learned that lobster and ice cream stands are very popular.


In the summers Ray puts on two hour shows each evening in a large building on the property pictured above.   During the shows he does such things as chainsaw a name on a person’s belt buckle (while it is being worn), sawing the alphabet on the side of a popsicle stick, a name on a pencil and even sawing 15 numbers on a toothpick.   He also wields two chainsaws at the same time to make two different pieces  of art.   No worries about the noise as he uses a soundproof booth.   We didn’t attend one of his shows but I bet it would have been quite interesting.   Ray has been written up in a variety of publications including being featured in Ripley’s Believe it or Not.   What is amazing is that he is still going at it in his late 70’s.

In his early years and prior to starting his show, Ray took his work on the road living in that old bus pictured above.   He said that he traveled for 25 years all over the U.S. and Canada and also went into Mexico and Central America.   In the photo above you can the building that houses his workshop and display area.   Scattered around the large lot are many pieces of wood, some waiting to be sculpted and some already finished.   After visiting with him for some time and seeing his work, it was hard to leave without buying one of his pieces.   I asked about one of his small bears that was not yet shellacked and whether it would still be durable.   Ray said that durability was not an issue and that the reason for the shellack was “SSS.”   I asked what SSS meant?   He said don’t you know “Shiny Shit Sells”?   Well, we went with the unshiny piece which I am touching in the photo below.

Thanks for checking in and stay tuned for more Maine exploring!

2 thoughts on “Carving and Chainsaw Sawyer”

  1. I bet the bird carving was a blast, would be another great hobby for a birder like yourself, but undoubtedly difficult. The ones Gilley did are so good, he makes it look easy. Were they for sale?

    1. Great to hear from you Matt! It was fun carving in that shop surrounded by all those neat carvings and talking to a local about Maine life. I didn’t get much done on it, but I learned more about Maine and the art of wood carving. We brought our unfinished bird carvings with us and perhaps we will finish them one day, but so far they have stayed in the box. I kind of looked at it as a one time experience, something to try out and it succeeded in that way. The Gilley carvings were not for sale as they are a permanent part of the museum exhibition. But I believe that the resident carver, Steve who taught the class has his carvings for sale as perhaps others.

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