Chainsaw carvings enhance visitors’ experiences at Wind Creek State Park

Ken Carter was a 10-year-old Boy Scout the first time he picked up a carving knife, but he’s come a long way from making feathered arrows for the bow he used then. The Wind Creek State Park volunteer is now retired, and he enhances Lake Martin’s premier campground with chainsaw carvings at buildings, gates and roadways.

“I just do it for people’s enjoyment, for people who visit the park and because I love Alabama,” said Carter.

Park Superintendent Bruce Adams said the carvings add to the experiences that campers have at WCSP. The perching eagle at the campground check-in office is a popular selfie station, and Carter’s most recent addition – a 350-pound horse head – was carved to help visitors find their way to the equine area at the park.

“One day, I was in line at the campground check-in, and the woman in front of me was asking directions to the horse area campground,” Carter explained. “It was kind of complicated, and I thought a carving of a horse’s head might help folks recognize the turn, make it easier for them to find it.”

The horse head is made from a large pine stump that showed some dark coloring in its core. Carter cut the basic shape, along with the mane and facial features, with a series of chainsaws, and the details were refined with a chisel and sandpaper.

“When I first started doing them, Bruce Adams said he wanted the carvings to be things that are native to the area. So I did the soaring eagle at the camp store because of the eagle’s nest on the point near there,” Carter said.

The Montgomery man has created six landmark carvings since that first eagle, including a bear, spirit face and an owl that greets visitors at the drive-thru checkpoint. Carter asked another wood carver, Gene Houston, to work the feather details on the owl for him.

“I’m really not a chainsaw artist,” Carter explained. “I’m really a blacksmith who got distracted and started carving wood.”

In fact, between his scouting days and retirement, Carter didn’t much pick up a knife to carve.

“I did blacksmith art and made ornamental stuff, all hammered in. I didn’t really think about carving until a blacksmith friend of mine said he was going to a woodworking meeting and did I want to come along. That was 15 years ago,” said Carter.

He begins his works by slicing the excess wood away to create a very basic shape. For the soaring eagle, that meant taking two tremendous cuts on the angle of the wood with a 260 chainsaw and a 20-inch bar.

“Once you’ve got the shape, you just come back in and get more and more detailed with the cuts,” he said. “You have to cut with the grain on the side you want to keep, or you won’t get a smooth line.”

He used a 16-inch bar for the angled cuts; and then, a 180 chainsaw for the detailing.

In addition, he uses a series of grinders and chisels.

“It’s a step-by-step procedure. I’m really more of a craftsman than an artist when it comes to these carvings.”

More often, his artistic pieces are Southwestern Native American busts, Carter said. He also works in clay and does some painting.

“I just like making things. I turn bowls and make spoons. Just to get out of the box and be creative,” he said.

He suggested anyone who is interested in carving start with a fish. Its graduating curves and changes provide opportunities to get used to the tools and learn how to handle them. Two chainsaws and a 4-inch grinder could do most of the work on the soaring eagle, he said.

“You have to learn the technique and gain some experience, and you can do whatever you want to do. But the more you do, the more you can do,” he said.

Carter uses a series of four chainsaws for his creations, including a 12-inch dime-tip carving bar that allows him to cut the lower curvature of an eagle’s neck and the underside of a horse’s chin.

“This is different from driftwood carving,” he explained. “With driftwood, you try to see what shape is in the wood, and you carve to bring that out. With chainsaw carving, you pretty much make the wood do what you want it to do.”

The amount of detail in a carving depends on the artist who makes the piece, Carter said. Some carvers are happy with a basic shape and a few defining details while others are intent on the intricacy of individual feathers on a bird or the fur on a bear.

Whatever their styles or media, Carter said, artists have much to offer public parks.

“I challenge other local artists to contribute to this state park. We have a lot of talent, and there’s a lot we can do for our park,” he said.

To learn more about carving, visit a local woodworking club.