When woodchips fly

| 01 Nov 2013 | 02:10

Jim Haggart pulls his gray pickup, loaded with tree stumps and four of his ten chainsaws, up to Pennings Orchard in Warwick. This is where Haggart, 38, stations himself Fridays through Sundays. After he unloads, he will fire up his chainsaw and begin to carve atop a mound of two years’ accumulated sawdust. (The sawdust is free for the taking, he asked me to mention.) It’s a great spot, 10 minutes from home, where cars traveling the busy intersection will see woodchips flying and stop to watch -- and buy.

Jim Haggart was 20 when he picked up his dad’s chainsaw, not to cut up firewood but to carve a funny face in a cherry tree. Two weeks later, he sold his first piece, a bear, to a co-worker at the timber mill where he worked part-time. It’s been “groundhog day ever since,” he said. Now a father of two, Haggart makes his living carving and selling wooden bears, eagles, turtles, frogs, and tiki statues.

His art training consists of the doodling he did while industriously ignoring teachers in high school, and one art class in college, which he dropped after he got a D. (His work was already selling well at the time.) When he began carving, he’d sketch his ideas beforehand or buy figurines to use as a guide, but once he’s done something a few times, he can do it again. And again.

Before he had kids, Haggart’s carvings would sometimes reach 10 feet tall. But those giants did a number on his body and were a headache to transport. Now he spends most of his time on his best selling animals, and the tiki figures, which he thinks would probably sell better on the Jersey shore – but hey. His proverbial 10,000 hours behind him, he can carve a bear in as little as 20 minutes (burning, staining, sealing and putting in the eyes takes longer). He sells about 450 pieces a year.

It might be nice to have a job with benefits and paid vacation, Haggart muses, but he doesn’t do well taking orders. His one-man company, Chainsaw Carvings, has in fact stopped taking commissions to sculpt people’s dogs. His best work comes about when he wakes up in the morning and decides what he feels like doing that day.

Sometimes he buys wood by the truck load from local tree guys, and some of his raw material comes from his three-acre property. Hurricane Sandy brought down enough trees to last Haggart a few years. “And just the right trees came down,” he said.

We gaze at a stump. It’s catalpa, his favorite wood because it’s soft, insect resistant, has a nice grain and doesn’t tend to crack. Does he get that Michelangelo feeling that he’s freeing a figure that’s already in the stump?

Not even a little. “I’m not artsy-fartsy,” he said. “There are a number of things I could do with that log that would work.”