Art With a Chain Saw

If a chain saw is Tom Zimmer’s brush, then lengths of white pine, catalpa and walnut are his canvases. Instead of creating a flower bouquet still life or a sun-splashed canyon landscape, Zimmer painstakingly crafts logs and dead tree trunks into intricate, lifelike sculptures using nothing but the terrifying, all-devouring power tool rarely associated with art.

Most people don’t think of New Yorkers as being “country,” but the upstate area near Watkins Glen where Zimmer and his family hail from is a serene enclave of natural beauty, with rolling mountains dotted with breathtaking waterfalls, placid lakes and picturesque vineyards. It’s also home to a thriving logging industry, and when there’s a surplus of felled trees lying around, it’s only a matter of time before someone finds something creative to do with them. Zimmer owned a logging business until the chain saw sculptures he saw on display at fairs and festivals caught his attention, and it wasn’t long before his self-taught hobby turned into a career.

A day at the office for Zimmer included chain saws, tree stumps and a vision. He worked hard. He kept his shop stocked with about 200 carvings available for sale at all times, with each masterpiece taking up to 36 hours to create.

The competitive circuit kept Zimmer busy and on the move, traveling all over the eastern half of the U.S., from Ohio to Florida, to compete against other chain saw sculptors for notoriety and large cash prizes. The contests, while thrilling, were arduous. Participants each start out with the same size log, and then they would be allowed nine hours, spread out over two days, to transform the objects into something extraordinary. The works of art would then be judged on such criteria as the 360-degree point of interest, the story the piece tells and level of completion. He placed in the top three in at least a dozen competitions, and occasionally won first place, sometimes in international
competitions.

“Some of the competition pieces were hard, trying to fit six or seven animals on a log. It gets kind of tight to get in the corners with just a chain saw. In some of my competitions, I’ve pushed my envelope a bit farther than I thought possible to get them done, but you learn a lot at the competitions,” Zimmer said. “I’m my own worst enemy. If I’m not pleased with it, then I’m just not happy with it. I think if I’m happy with it, then I think everybody will be happy with it.”

He and his wife, Wendy, home-schooled their two children, Jeff and Erica, in the eight years they spent in the rigorous life the profession demanded. Now, at 41, Zimmer is thankful that his chain saw work has been reduced to a hobby and that he now has a less physical, full-time job at FedEx with a steady income, retirement and benefits.

“I burned out from it, temporarily. Physically, it’s hard on your shoulders and elbows and wrists. Most people don’t hold a chain saw for eight to nine hours at a time. It’s really comparative to a sport, physically” Zimmer said.

“Right now, I feel as though I did as good as I could in the competitions as far as making a living, and right now I feel like I just want to do it as a hobby,” he said. Since moving to Oklahoma, Zimmer has done four sculptures for private homes in Edmond and one each in Davis, Grand Lake and Mustang, in addition to several other commissioned pieces.

His current projects include a girl with a dog in Oklahoma City, totem poles near Eufala as well as a flying pig. He tries to do about two chain saw sculptures a month as a side business, and even though he’s interested in competing again, he’s the only chain saw sculptor he knows of in the area.

Sculptures generally take from 8 to 15 hours to complete, but his more complex creations can take as many as 36 hours to finish. Zimmer said sculpting the human form is always the most challenging subject to tackle—and some of his most common requests are to create fire chiefs, Indians and cowboys. “Human form is more subject to critique than animals are. You can get away with very little,” he said.

Zimmer’s most popular subject is bears, but his favorite things to carve are of the feline persuasion. “Mountain lions and the African lions—I like carving big cats,” he said.

Even though hundreds of Zimmer’s unique creations are spread across the nation, there isn’t much evidence of his work on his own property. “Believe it or not, I really haven’t done much for myself. I am looking to accessorize my yard, though,” he said.

Anyone who is looking to accessorize their own yard and thinks chain saw sculptures might be just the thing to complete the landscaping is encouraged to call Zimmer at 390-1035.

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