Interview with wood carver - Dave Watson

For more than two decades Dave Watson has been carving wood sculptures with a chainsaw on his forty acre property in the Wisconsin Dells that he calls Watson Woods. Most notable for his of whimsical bears, Dave uses his creative talents to take plain wooden stumps and turn them into a large variety of functional works of art. Dave and his wife Annette were kind enough to invite me into their home recently where they shared incite to what brought them to the Dells, how Dave got into the craft of wood sculpturing, and what his average day of carving entails.

Tell me a little about yourself, are you originally from the Dells?

No, I actually grew up in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin and went to high school up there. Then I went to Madison Area Technical College for cooking. Went three years for that, became a chef, and then I cooked in Denver, Colorado. Then I had the opportunity to go over to Europe and cook, and after that in Minneapolis Saint Paul. I cooked for about fifteen years at various places till the late eighties.

What kind of cooking did you do?

I did all the fancy food work. I got into soups and sauces. Then I got into Garde Manger doing the ice, the chocolate, the butter, the cheese – the sculpture of.

How did that all start?

Well, I was always putzing. I like to make things real fancy, and I was doing some fancy food work up in the Twin Cities. A young gentleman saw me, who was the chef of the Decathlon Athletic Club - a private men’s club, and he talked me into coming work for him. He hired me as a Garde Manger, which is in charge of all the fancy food work. Did parties for a lot of Jewish people and their Bar Mitzvahs’ - so that’s where I really got into it. He was an ice carver. He has a full time business doing ice now. He quit to do that, and he taught me to do the ice.

Then in 1989 I entered the Saint Paul Winter Ice Carving Competition, and then I went to Chicago and I competed in the U.S. Open down there. Sixty degrees poolside there. Eighty carvers from around the United States came there to compete (by invitation only) and the last thirty of us weren’t even able to compete. Our ice re-crystallized in the two and a half hours it took before we could start. So we just sat back and had some drinks! (laughs) So then, I won some of the ice carving competitions.

The year that I won there was a gentleman that was the National Chainsaw Carving Championship was Barry Pinske, and he came there to compete in the ice. So I had won the St Paul Winter Ice Competition in eight-nine, and I saw Barry was doing the wood. There was a big article about him in the paper. So I went out to see his shop and was like - oh man this is awesome - and I asked him about some things. And he said, well you’re an ice carver - you’ll never make it as a wood carver! (laughs) So you know, it was a little bit of a twist, so I was like dang it I’ll show you! So, I went back and I picked up some Elm – and I had an electric chainsaw – and electric does not work real well on wood. I mean, you need a LOT of power and speed for wood. So I went back and putzed with it, putzed with it for about a year.

Then I did a show in New Glarus, Wisconsin in January, and I sold everything I made. I sold $4000 worth in a weekend and I thought doggone it, I can make a living at this!

So in April I came looking in the Dells. I dated a gal from the Dells back when I was in college, and I thought, it’s a tourist spot, so what the heck?  Jack Hansen showed me this piece of property and it was totally bare, and I like it. Said that’s it, I’ll give’er a shot.

So from ice sculpting, you made successfully made the transition to wood where you became good enough to win the National Championships?

I started competing in a lot of competitions in eighty-nine, ninety, ninety-one.  Then in ninety-two I won the National Championships.

How many people are entered in those?

Back then there was only about fifteen. They held it in Grand Rapids, Minnesota and now they hold it in Washington State. Now there are about fifty carvers or more from around the world. Japanese and everything - phenomenal carving. Now they call it “power carving” because you have, when I did it you only had sixteen hours, now they have seventy-two hours to complete a museum quality piece.

So do they just give you stump or can you pick what you want to use?

You draw number and then you pick your log. You can grab the one you eyed up.

Now when you go into something like that, do you usually have a picture in mind of what you hope to do?

Right. Yeah.

Do you practice it beforehand?

A little bit. You have some ideas. To compete though, you got to really be able to create the world. I got two of my competition pieces over by the shop. The one I won the Nationals with, and the one I won the prelims to the Nationals in ninety-three.

So you’ve worked in chocolate, butter, cheese, ice and obviously wood. What’s your favorite to carve in?

I prefer wood - it gives you a lot more character. I mean, you work with the piece, it’s stronger, it doesn’t melt . . .

What kind of wood do you use?

All white pine. I prefer the white pine. I do some oak for people or black walnut on special orders, but I prefer to only cut white pine.

What’s the reasoning for that?

Oh, it finishes up nice. It’s a good wood around here. It doesn’t mold as bad. It doesn’t crack as bad as the hard woods. It’s light enough to move and people around here, if they have one in their yard and they take it down or it falls, they’ll call me and I’ll go cut it up and get it out of there for them.

You help them out and at the same time they help you out . . .

Right. I have a lot of people in the Dells do that for me and it’s really been great. 

Do you usually get most of your wood that way, or do you get some off your land here?

Very little off the land here. We have forty acres, but we get very little off here. I buy it by the semi load from loggers too. They’ll bring it in, so that’s nice.

So the forty acres you have here called Watson Woods is where you decided to put down your roots. 

Yep, in 1990 - May 10th 1990. We started out with a little twelve by twelve shack, and then we built the home.

* Dave’s wife Annette, who he met in the Twin Cities while she was working for another carver, comes in and graciously offers me some coffee. I take the opportunity to comment on how beautiful the home is.

ANNETTE: Thanks! It’s different. Dave actually took down timbers from a chicken coop that was down the road and he built our home for us. At the time, it was just our summer home. We lived in Minnesota during the winter months. I had four children when Dave met and then married me, and that’s about all I came into the relationship with. (laughs) And all he really had was the land, so now that’s about all we have – the kids and then land too! (laughs) So, he took down the chicken coop down there and framed up this building. We lived here for ten years - just summers, and then we decided to move here year round because the Dells started to get busier year-round. Then we put on an addition. We have a lot of traffic coming in and out. A lot of our relatives come and visit and stay with us because we’re in the perfect location and destination.

DAVE: We then built the showroom and opened the store in 2000 – Annette and I did. She totally runs that, puts stuff in. I have a few carvings inside but most of my stuff is outside. I do coffee table bears, lamp bears, you name it for other little things for inside - rocking horses and stuff, but most of my stuff is designed to go outside.

Do you do a lot of custom pieces?

Tons! Tons of custom pieces. I’ve had bears pushing mowers for a guy that has a lawn mowing business. Bears with a tray and waiter towel for restaurants. The Log Cabin Restaurant in Baraboo has about fifteen pieces that I’ve done for them of different things. The Great Wolf Lodge has bears falling down with swimsuits on, giving directions. The moose at Moosejaw. I did the big moose there.

Do you do all your carving by chainsaw?

Everything is done by saw - well about ninety percent. Once I carve them, we burn them, wire wheel them, and then sand it down with the grinders to finish them - to smooth it off and highlight it. Then it’s painted. But ninety-nine percent of the carving is done with a saw.

How many chainsaws do you have?

I have about a dozen saws.

How many saws do you go through a year?

I go through about three a year at least, but I keep about twelve saws on hand. During the summer I’m hired as an entertainer, and I have to produce a piece in about forty minutes in front of people. So I make sure I have six saws ready to go.

Walk me through your typical day of carving . . .

I try to get up early, especially during the hot summer. I try to get up early and out carving by six-thirty, seven o’clock so that way I can beat the heat. I’ll carve till about eleven, come in and have lunch, take a good break in the afternoon, then maybe go back and carve around three-thirty or four for a few hours.

Do you have set routine, like I have to get this many custom pieces done first, and then do your whimsy?

Yeah, I always try to get my custom stuff out of the way. I have a fee in my head, every day I try to produce a thousand dollars worth of product if I’m going to go out and carve.

What do you like carving the most?

If I didn’t do bears I wouldn’t be in business! (laughs)

Is there a particular piece that you consider a favorite?

I like to do some fancy things. I did a rabbit once. A whimsical rabbit from Alice in Wonderland. It was a rabbit with a suit coat on, high heels and then smoking a pipe. I put a lot of time into it. I actually hand carved, used a piece of red cedar an actually hand-carved the pipe.

Do you have a certain type that you generally make - like your “go to” piece? Or are they all a little bit different?

They all are a little bit different. Even if I do one of the “go to” pieces - like in the tractor right now, I’ll show you. I have some pieces. My “Welcome and Go Away” Bears - a lot of the carvers do them. They have a little sign in front of them. You make them happy, sad, pouting - you try to give them a little character for each one because some people like this, some people like that. I do cardinal benches, raccoon benches, turkey benches, eagle’s benches, kangaroos, almost anything!

Do you have to look at a lot of different pictures of these things to use as examples?

I look at a lot of different artist’s pictures all the time - helps give me ideas and stuff. 

Speaking of different artists, I’ve noticed a few different carvers around town . . .

There are a few carvers around. Dave Ferrell is around - he doesn’t set up in the Dells too much anymore. He just does the fairs and campgrounds like I do. Tony Dodge out at the Antique Mall - he’s been carving since about 2002.

Are you in competition with these guys?

Aaah (laughs), you know it’s a competition, but no, we’re really good buddies. If I’m gone, I do forty days of shows during July and August. So my wife will sell a piece, and if somebody needs a name written into it and they needed it right away, Tony will come out and do it for me.

That’s nice that it’s not a cutthroat type thing.

Nope. Real good friends.

Speaking of cutthroat, have you ever cut yourself or been injured while carving?

Yeah, I’ve been stupid a few times! (laughs) A saw does not - it’s not forgiving. It jumped once. I was trying to hold the head of an eagle with one hand and push the saw underneath. I was holding the carving and pushing the saw through, and my hand slipped off. I slapped the saw and I put thirty-some stitches in these two fingers! Then another time, near the fourth of July - that’s a bad time of the year for me. I don’t know why, but I’ve been hurt three times on the fourth, or right around the fourth.

Another time I was doing a Ninja Turtle for my roommate in college. He is a karate expert and has karate schools. I was finishing up, cleaning up the base on his Ninja Turtle and the saw caught and jumped back at me! The carving was going over, it was a six foot piece, and I let go to reach for the carving and the saw caught me in the shoulder. Luckily it just got the hide.

Any stitches for that?

That I stitched up myself. Just taped it up. Another time I nicked it on here and just put superglue on that.

But you still have all your fingers.

Yes! (laughs)

So do you try not to carve around July Fourth?

That would be a good thing!

What’s the largest sculpture you’ve ever done?

Ah, about the biggest one I’ve ever done was a collaboration of three carvers – Homer Daehn (out of Baraboo), Ferrell and myself. That was done for Horoshi, a gentleman over by Bridgeville. It’s like twenty-eight feet tall, twenty-five feet or whatever of multiple of things. There might be a picture of it on my website. There is a ten foot eagle flying sideways at the very top - we got raccoons, blue herons, wolves, otters sliding down through the middle of it. The base of it is a big sea turtle

Otherwise before that - in 1989 when I was in the Twin cities, I did three trees in a guy’s yard - one was forty feet tall!

Trees that were still growing?

Yeah, they were right in his yard - around his pool actually. He wanted to get rid of the leaves and stuff, so I spent a summer there carving. I do a lot of trees in people’s yards. Just last week I was in Green Bay and did a rose in a ladies yard. She wanted about a nine foot piece. It had some limbs going off so I worked with them, and made those the leaves of the rose. I put a big rose at the top, a few leaves, and then a rosebud down here and a rosebud off on the other side. It was pretty nice.

What’s the oddest request you’ve had?

A pregnant Virgin Mary. I did that out of a piece of Oak for a church in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Mother with child. That took a long time. I actually hired Homer Daehn, a friend of mine, to come out and help do the face of her. Another project I had to do is a golfer for a man in Wisconsin Rapids. A gentlemen, his father - I went to school with him. His father passed away, and he wanted me to do his father standing with a golf club. I did the whole body and everything else, and had Homer did the face part.

* We made our way out to his carving canopy area which is about three miles north of the Wisconsin Dells on Highway 13. Dave mentioned that he produces at least sixty gallons of sawdust a day, and while he had only begun carving for the season for just a couple weeks, the ground was covered in several inches of sawdust everywhere.

So this is where all the magic happens?

This is where it tries to happen! (laughs)

How many carvings can you create a day?

I can do about eight of the little ones them a day. The medium sized ones about four and then the bigger ones about two or three. My first project took about forty hours with a chainsaw. Now I can do the same project in about three. The trick of it is to take the least amount of wood off to get what you want, and then pick out the piece of wood for what you want to do - and have a sharp saw!

Do you have names for them?

My kids used to name them. They would go around and show them and say “Hi, this is Fred!” (laughs)

Did your kids have any interest in becoming wood carvers?

My son Nathaniel, he does some of the finishing work, but now is a prison guard. My daughter Maria once came to me and said: “Hey Dave, do you think you can you teach me to carve?”  I thought oh, someone really wants to learn - yeah! So I took her up to the garage, and I had a pretty new saw so I thought all heck. I had some new chaps and new headphones that I was saving for the summer. I brought them out and put them on her. So they’re all clean. So then I showed her how to start the saw. She was having a hard time doing it - and I had been carving - so I reached over the top of her and grabbed onto the handle of the saw and went to pull it. She said: “Jesus Dave, you’re getting sawdust all over me!” Casey (a family friend) was finishing for me at the time. He said: “Throw that saw down and run as fast as you can, because dammit, it ain’t gonna work!” (laughs) That was it, she was done. “You mean you got to get that much sawdust on you all the time?” (laughs)

I’m sure with all this sawdust you got to shower each and every time you get done. It probably gets in some uncomfortable places  . . .

It just sticks to you in the hot summer. A phrase my kids have heard me say is that if you can’t put a handful of sawdust in your underwear – you can’t be a carver!

You ever dream about woodcarving?

Oh yeah – all the time! I’m always thinking about something different. It is a job, but it is a passion. I really do it because I enjoy it.