Chainsaw carver sets up shop in Harpersville

HARPERSVILLE – Joshua Gates carves new wood sculptures with a chainsaw every day off Alabama 25 in Harpersville.

It is his artwork and passion, but it is also a career.

Gates sells his pieces to passers-by near the intersection with U.S. 280 and also produces carvings on orders from repeat customers or people who have learned of his work by word of mouth.

Gates, a 28-year-old from upstate New York, came to Harpersville by chance about two months ago, but the town has become his base of operations as he hones his craft and builds his business.

“It’s a real blessing,” he said. “It has granted me all the freedom I could have ever wanted. It doesn’t feel like work. I like to spread cheer.”

In addition to carving from pieces of wood, Gates can carve stumps, which led him to Harpersville.

After carving a stump at a residence on Lake Logan Martin in June 2015, Gates received a request for a piece from someone in Birmingham.

Harpersville happened to be halfway. He met the customer there and ended up making friends at Bigman’s restaurant, which is adjacent to his work site, and securing a business license.

Gates travels to various locales—white spruce in New York, cypress in Florida and black walnut in Michigan—for material for his creations.

In those areas, what might be considered a rare wood in central Alabama is so plentiful that he can usually acquire what he needs without paying for it—instead he barters with carvings and hauls the material back in a box truck he bartered for along with an RV.

“I’m a real connoisseur of wood grain and the different qualities wood has,” Gates said.

Gates got started in chainsaw carving after he met a man carving sculptures at the Sterling Renaissance Festival in New York a couple of years ago.

“We just kind of hit it off,” Gates said. “Next thing you know, we were headed off to Colorado, where I started my training.”

Though he had no experience with chainsaw carving, Gates had a desire to be the “best ever,” he said.

“I had never touched a chainsaw,” he said. “It was terrifying in the beginning—and not to mention physically exhausting.”

Gates started out carving what he wanted and then hoped someone would buy the pieces. As the business has grown, however, orders fill most of his days.

“There’s so much demand that it’s like a full-time job,” Gates said. “It had to evolve that way. In the beginning, I couldn’t do something someone asked for specifically.”

The availability of the material used for a certain piece is a major component in Gates’ prices. Some of the wood he uses was cut in the 1800s and has been underwater for 100 years.

“Really what people are buying is a piece of history,” Gates said.

Still, a piece Gates might sell for $500 could have an actual value of closer to $5,000.

“If it’s a sculpture I’ve never done, I’ll give a big price break because I consider it a chance to learn,” Gates said.

Gates has been carving wood with a chainsaw for only about 16 months, which pales in comparison to the lifelong experience boasted by many of his competitors at international events he has been invited to—including the Chaptacular Chainsaw Carving Bash in Gray, Georgia; the New York State Chainsaw Carving Championship and the Ridgway Chainsaw Carvers Rendezvous in Pennsylvania.

To avoid overheating while competing, Gates usually carves while wearing a cowboy hat, no shirt, no shoes and no safety equipment, which has made him somewhat of a celebrity.

Gates does use safety equipment when carving outside of competitions, including ear muffs with country or classical music playing.

Still, the Southern heat is an obstacle for the native New Yorker.

“You won’t see me here this June,” he said. “I miss the snow, but it is a big hindrance because I can’t be on the road making sales.”

To connect with Gates, search for “@abearsnecessity” on Facebook.