Gas power, skip chain

Thomas DeWinter

Photo By Jill Wagner

Anyone who’s driven on La Riviera Drive in East Sacramento recently probably noticed a nondescript home with an immaculately carved sailor, giant wooden shoes, benches, tree trunks and several bears in various states of completion in the driveway. If you are lucky, the next time you pass by, you’ll see multimedia artist

Thomas DeWinter studying a redwood trunk or flaying away at a slab of black walnut with his chainsaws. DeWinter is a retired Coast Guardsman; the father of two grown children; and a lifelong artist who creates surreal oil paintings, furniture and, of course, wood carvings. (See He also restores totem poles.

What was your schooling like?

I went to Catholic school when I was younger. Oh boy, I hated them nuns. I got cracked over the fingers more times than you can shake a stick at because I was a daydreamer. I’d look out the window. Math would be going on, and I’d be drawing. The thing is, I was into my art. Everybody in art class asked me to do their work for them. They all got A’s. I got B’s because the art teacher knew that I was doing the artwork for the other students.

How did you start carving with chainsaws?

When I was about 17 or 18, I saw this chainsaw carver just ripping out, throwing sawdust like crazy. It was like being rained on by sawdust. I thought that was kind of neat, holding that motor with that blade so sharp. It was a real thrill just to see it. Knowing and working with machinery and how dangerous it could be, I thought, “Man, I could do that. I’m an artist. I can do it.”

Gas or electric?

My first chainsaw was an electric chainsaw, and I was like, “You know, this is nice and everything—no fumes—but it’s not fast enough. Not enough power.” So, then I thought, “Gas.” And when I got my first gas chainsaw, I was like, “Woo yeah!” I did some research and bought my first carving blade, and I was like, “Why didn’t I do this years ago?”

Where do you get your wood?

It’s gotten from tree trimmers in Sacramento instead of them taking it to a landfill and getting charged for it. So, I call the tree trimmers that I know and say, “Hey, I need some wood.” They drop it off in my driveway for me. A lot of these tree trimmers know what specific parts I want: what kind of grain, how the bark looks.

What’s the best part of a tree to carve?

Anything from about a foot and a half up to 20 feet up. You have to look at the way the bark is on the outside, and once you cut it, you have to look at the grain. So, in other words, it’s three-dimensional. You have to walk all the way around it. Sometimes, you’ll see me out here walking around a piece of wood. You might think I’m crazy or something, but I’m eyeing every spot. I’m looking for a void or a sap pocket. You cannot see into the wood, so I have to modify to make it look right.

What’s the most unusual thing you’ve ever carved?

An elephant standing on a ball. My abstracts are the most unusual and most creative, but those I kind of like to keep.

People stop by your house all the time. Does it interfere with your work?

I don’t mind talking to people who are artists if people want to learn something else. I’ve been studying for years. This mind is exploding.

How many chainsaws do you have?

I have 14 chainsaws. Every one of them has a different blade or length.

What do you have to do to maintain all those chainsaws?

Mix the gas, make sure [the chainsaw] has oil, make sure that it’s lubed right, maintenance and tuneups, make sure that you have the right edge on the cutting edge on the chain itself, whether it’s a skip chain or semi-skip chain. It takes a couple of hours.

How many chainsaws have you worn out?

About eight. I don’t toss them out; I save the parts for my other chainsaws. I basically keep buying the same model that fits the carving bars. So, basically, all I do is swap my carving bars to a new chainsaw.

Are any of the woods that you carve toxic?

Certain woods you might have a small reaction. The more exotic woods, you’re going to have a bigger reaction to it if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Like what?

Camphor. It smells like Vicks VapoRub. If you get a sliver of camphor, it’ll fester up on you. If you cut black walnut when it’s wet or damp, and you get wood chips on you and start sweating, you are going to break out in blisters or hives.

What would you do if they ever got rid of chainsaws?

I’d go back to hammers and chisels.