For bragging rights

Carvers let the sawdust fly during Sawfest competition

Derrick Stanton’s fish might be out of water, but they certainly aren’t out of place at the Town of Living Trees.

He spent the last few days using a chainsaw to turn a spruce log into a fisherman standing with a salmon.

And that wasn’t his first attempt at turning wood into the water creature.

“Two summers ago, it was a cowboy riding a king salmon,” the Nikiski resident said of an older carving.

The cowboy was life-size, he said. The salmon was larger-than.

“I do a lot of fish,” Stanton said. “They kinda deemed me the fish guy.”

Stanton is one of six carvers who participated in the annual Sawfest competition at Scott and Sandy Hanson’s carving business on the Sterling Highway this week, just as he has for each of the five competitions Hanson has organized.

Stanton learned to chainsaw carve from Hanson, and then went on to beat his mentor in the competition a few years ago.

That’s why Stanton keeps coming back, Scott Hanson joked.

Hanson made his comeback last year, taking first place using a 15-foot log, Stanton reminded him.

Like other participants, Stanton said the real reason he enjoys the competition is the camaraderie, and the chance to spend a little extra time on his art.

“It’s fun to see what you can actually do when you have the time,” he said.

Most of Stanton’s work is on commission or inventory to sell at his store in Kenai — Derrick Stanton Logworks on the Kenai Spur Highway. He doesn’t often get to spend more than five hours on a piece, he said.

Eric Berson agreed that a highlight of the competition is spending more time on a piece, and being creative with it.

“Mainly its just for fun,” he said.

Berson, a summer resident in Sterling, is another long-time participant; this was his fourth year at the competition. Last year he won second place for a piece that featured salmon swimming and eagles flying. Wildlife is an unofficial theme at the competition, and the frequent subject of carvers’ work when they aren’t competing, too.

Like Stanton, Berson carves year-round and sells his work on the Peninsula. But he spends his winters in Washington and then ships his inventory north for the summer. Here on the Kenai Peninsula, he operates The Dreamer’s Woods on the Sterling Highway.

Thursday morning — day two of the competition — Berson was carving a flying eagle. But he knew he needed a second scaffolding to reach the top of his piece, and said the design might still change, with more than two full days of chainsaw time before was set to begin.

Competitors could wield chainsaws from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. The rest of the nights they were welcome to work — just not with saws blaring.

Saturday their work was cut short for judging and an auction.

Some chain sawyers use nearly all of that time to carve.

Stanton said he has pulled an all-nighter to finish his entry in years past, but had planned out his carving to avoid that this week.

“I’m getting smarter and wiser as the competitions progress,” he said. “Doing harder pieces in less time.”

Not every carver this weekend was an old-timer. Ben Firth, of Anchor Point, participated for the first time.

“I just started doing the big chainsaw carvings,” he said.

Firth is an artist, who had experience with booth wood and chainsaws for other projects, just not the two combined. He’s done smaller carvings with other tools, and used chainsaws for his ice sculptures, he said.

Hanson helped bring Firth into the chainsaw wood carving fold, just as he did for Stanton years before.

Firths’ first chainsaw wood carving experience was in Seldovia, for the competition there started by Toby Craft, another ringleader among local carvers. That was over Memorial Day weekend.

Firth said the large chainsaw pieces help him see all of his work in a new way.

“It’s a different way of thinking for me,” Firth said.

Firth and his son, 17-year-old Silas, were working on a river otter, which he planned out before going to the competition, just as he would for any sculpture.

“I draw it and I actually did a little clay model,” Firth said.

Hanson takes a similar approach, visualizing his work before turning on the chainsaw.

“You’re carving it before you’re carving it,” Hanson explained.

This year, Hanson worked on a picnic table that could go on a deck or in a bar.

“It’s an eagle with a table underneath and some fish under the table,” he explained.

Hanson, who has helped many locals get their start with chainsaws, began when he was living in Minnesota 21 years ago.

“I had a tree in my yard,” he explained.

He moved to Alaska in 1997, and has been spreading chainsaw wood carving around the Peninsula for much of his time here.

But while others credited him for bringing them to the art, he thanked the competitors for making the event worthwhile.

“It wouldn’t happen without them,” he said.

Now he makes his living largely as a carver — and other business endeavors at Town of Living Trees — but the competition is still a non-profit-type event. He lets the carvers keep their work if they want, but doesn’t offer a cash prize. Just bragging rights and a blue ribbon.

“We’re all competing, but we all want to become good friends,” Hanson said.

The camaraderie was enough, everyone said.

“I enjoy being with my son,” Firth said.


Molly Dischner can be reached at



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