by Carolyn Jacobson
Most people, when left with a tree stump after a storm, will quickly arrange to have it removed. That wasn’t the case, however, at the Sheridan School at 4400 36th Street NW.
When the power company recently cut down a section of a dead pine tree close to the power lines in front of the school, Sheridan business manager Mike Stoll came up with another idea: Make it into an attractive carving featuring the school’s mascot, the owl, on top.
And that’s just what he set out to do, although he had no idea if he could find a person do it. So, he turned to the internet and found Joe Stebbing, Jr., who just so happens to specialize in chainsaw carving. And he’s local.
Arrangements were made over the phone for four days of work, based on the description of the tree and the amount of carving time anticipated.
Joe says that this arrangement is usually how he does business, as it works pretty well for him. He is able – based on experience – to make an estimate of time and price without making a special trip.
This job, however, had two significant challenges that he did not anticipate:
He was able to deal with the first challenge by using his ingenuity. The second was more difficult. He was working alone. He needed to remove a five-foot section from the top. And he knew that section easily weighed 400 pounds.
He decided that he could use the chainsaw, along with his ladder and scaffolding to remove that section – if he did it slowly. It didn’t go as anticipated. The scaffolding collapsed, and he ended up hanging onto the tree, with his toes holding the chainsaw. Fortunately someone in the school heard the noise and helped him down – unhurt, but temporarily shaken.
Describing himself as a “terrible drawer,” Joe says he never makes any sketches (that anyone would recognize as a sketch), although he might do some rough sketches for himself.
“I always start at the top,” he says, “and work my way down to the bottom. It works pretty well for coming up with ideas as you go.
“You really have to do things this way,” as there are spots “that you can’t anticipate – like where the wood is rotten.” He added, “You just got be thinking on the spot and change your plans.”
And that’s what he had to do with this tree, as there were rotten spots that he had to carve out. Luckily, he had the five-foot stump. From that he carved baby owls, which to him represents the children at the school, as well as other small wood sculptures representing greater DC’s wild animals, including squirrels, raccoons, bunnies, a bear and an eagle.
In addition to carving, Joe adds color to his creation with stain and paint. The final coat over the whole piece is a sealer.
Joe has carved a number of different tree species, including cherry, oak, locust, walnut, cedar. “Some carve easier than others, that is softer woods (pines, spruce, hemlocks, cedars, poplar) carve easier than oaks and maples.” He says it can take twice as long to carve the harder woods.
He only uses a few tools: a chain saw (of course), a die grinder (for details), a dremel (a rotary tool, with bits), and a sander (to shape and smooth).
How he found his passion
Joe started out after high school working as a plumber. He did that for 14 years. Three years into it, he started a night job at a custom-made furniture store where he learned how to carve. He got special satisfaction out of carving decorative objects like sea shells on drawers and table legs, which led him to start to practice the craft at home and experiment with designs.
He ended up following his passion and started Chainsaw Carvings by Joe. His website features a number of fabulous carvings – some in finished state and some being worked on.
Joe is amazingly modest. He denies that he is creative (and I was too polite to argue). “I struggle with everything I do.” He attributes what he creates to experience and what he calls “muscle memory.”
Although he has done this for eight years, he notes that “I put into what I do as much as I can. I try to make everything I do better than the last one… so I never get satisfied for too long at all. That drive helps me to keep improving.”
Joe never carves anything that is alive and healthy. “The tree had to come down for some reason,” he says. “It’s sick or has been struck down by lightning.” He observes that there’s often a story behind the tree – like a grandfather planted it. He sees himself giving what was once a living object a new purpose.
He once carved a likeness of Mr. Jack Daniel, of whiskey fame, for a bar in a customer’s basement. The man was a big Jack Daniel’s fan and collector and decided he’d like to add Jack himself to the bar. He told Joe what he had in mind, and Joe created Jack out of a pine log he had.
He has done carvings on reclaimed roof beams, fashioning one into a giant bear. For another homeowner, Joe created a bear with one arm raised so it appeared to hold up the front porch. The homeowner wanted the bear’s other paw positioned so his wife could have a can of cold beer waiting for him when he got home from work.
“It worked out real well,” says Joe.