By DUNCAN ADAMS
BOONES MILL, Va. (AP) —
Dwayne Hodges winced.
Carla Archer, for the second time in less than an hour, had referred to Hodges as a “master carver.”
“I’m not a master carver,” he told her. “You’ve got to quit telling people that.”
Archer held her ground.
“Dwayne’s amazing,” she said. “He’s definitely a master of his art.”
That would be chain saw art.
Hodges will readily tell you he’s no Michelangelo, carving David out of marble with mallets, chisels and rasps. But he does consider himself an artist.
“Uh, yes, I do,” Hodges said. “I can grab a log and make you whatever you want. If you want an Indian, I can get you one. If you want a Tweety Bird, I can do that, too. I don’t think that it’s just a craft.”
He prefers Stihl and Husqvarna brand chain saws.
“They just hold up better and they have more rpms,” Hodges said.
For detail work he uses dime carving bars and chains. Sanders and grinders play a role, too.
Hodges, 36, is a Franklin County native who began working with wood when he was 14 years old. He apprenticed with Greg Desaulniers of The Yankee Whittler shop. Desaulniers now owns, operates and cuts hair at the Scruggs Road Barber Shop but still does some carving.
Fletcher Boone, who teaches building trades at Franklin County High School, introduced Hodges and Desaulniers. Boone said it was clear early on that Hodges had artistic ability.
“He had the eye for it,” Boone said.
Now, more than two decades later, Hodges’ business, Woodchuck Woodcarving, centers around a 12-foot by 24-foot shed on a parcel he leases off U.S. 220 in the heart of Boones Mill. The mingled aromas of sawdust, wood smoke and chain saw exhaust waft around the place.
He has an apprentice, David James, 47, a recent transplant from California.
“I’m pretty much learning this from the ground up,” James said.
James uttered the “m” word but Hodges didn’t hear him.
“He’s a master,” James said. “And he’s patient. He doesn’t get too worked up if you mess something up. He’ll say, ‘It’s just a log.”’
Hodges has others who help out.
His son, Jonathan, 17, makes signs. James Eubank does some painting and fires up a propane torch to burn away fuzzy wisps of wood that linger after sawing.
Archer helps paint the figurines.
Some folks just drop in.
“It’s a Boones Mill hangout,” Hodges said. “We pretty much have a good time.”
And he said he pretty much has a good time being a chain saw artist.
“I get burnt out once in a while, but I really like what I do,” he said.
His shop stays open all year. Hodges, who has a ready and dry wit, occasionally takes a break.
“Sometimes I’ll fire myself for coming in late,” he said.
Hodges can carve a small black bear figurine in about 20 minutes. Finishing and painting follow. The smaller bears sell for about $125, he said.
Some sales occur after people stop to shop. Other work is commissioned.
Hodges said he has completed large, complex pieces that have sold for $4,000 and $5,000.
He’ll use white pine, cedar, cherry and walnut. White pine is easy to carve and locally plentiful. Sometimes he harvests the logs himself. Sometimes someone he knows brings them by. Once in a while, he caves in and buys a few.
Through the years, Hodges has carved bears, rabbits, dolphins, whales, sea turtles, raccoons and “pretty much any bird.” He has produced cowboys, mountain men, vikings, knights, hillbillies, a mermaid, a 23-foot-tall totem pole and more.
In 1997, he coaxed a towering cigar store-style Indian out of an oak tree stump on Cleveland Avenue in Salem. The figure, named Kaw-Liga by the couple who commissioned the work, roused a little controversy. Some people felt the sculpture perpetuated a racial stereotype. Others loved it.
On a recent morning, Hodges wielded a small chain saw to transform two short lengths of white pine into two small black bears. Asked what work-related wounds he has suffered through the years, Hodges immediately knocked on wood. He said he has been spared major injury.
There was that time, though, when a long splinter that was kicked back during sawing penetrated the very tip of his nose. It stuck straight out, he said, making him look like a husky version of Pinocchio.
“Your nose bleeds a lot,” Hodges said.
Once in a while, people who stop to inspect his work ask dumb questions.
“Do you make these out of wood?”
“I get that all the time,” he said.
Duncan Adams writes for The Roanoke Times.