Starting a chain saw carving business was not on Tom Nowacki’s radar before he saw a dead tree in his yard four years ago.
“I had a dead tree on our lawn and it had to get cut down so I decided to try to make something useful out of it. I carved a bear — or something that kind of resembled a bear,” he said.
He then started making a few tree-shaped carvings, which caught people’s attention. Before long, what had started close to home became his business, Tom’s Timber Carve, which has since taken his pieces to 15 states, including as far as the Everglades.
“A couple of people decided to put orders in for them and that led to a customer asking me to do a horse and that led to a full-blown business after that,” Nowacki said.
Although growing up stacking firewood while his dad would use a chain saw to cut it, Nowacki didn’t use a chain saw much. He said he had one lying around to use to cut branches off of trees, but that was about it. Today, he has dozens of different chain saws that allow him to carve just about anything his customers can imagine.
“I go off of pictures and go off of customer requests. I can’t really draw but have been learning,” he said. “I usually just stand back and look at the piece and remove what needs to be removed. Hopefully you don’t cut too much, but if you do you just make the piece a little smaller or there are always screws and glue to put it back together.”
He uses white pine for his creations, getting the bulk of the wood from local loggers and tree service professionals. The pine is easy to work with and is often less desirable by mills, especially when it comes in oversized pieces.
Nowacki estimates he has made hundreds of pieces since his start, with eagles and dogs being two of the most popular designs.
“I get a fair amount of memorial pieces, which has been a lot of dogs lately, but can also be for a lost family member,” he said. “Those are really special to do because of the reactions you get from people. There are usually some tears and they are so grateful; that is probably the biggest reward is their reaction. Knowing that you helped somebody through their struggles.”
It takes about a week for Nowacki to complete a piece, but it can take longer depending on the complexity of the design. He starts by roughing out the design and then works on the details, ending with painting and sealing. Nowacki said about 95 percent of the work is done with a chain saw, with the other 5 percent done with rotary and other tools. The pieces are completed either on site or at Nowacki’s shop near Athens.
He said one of the biggest challenges of the work isn’t the design but how physical the work is.
“I work a full-time job, so I do this seven days a week in the afternoons and then on Saturdays and Sundays. The wood can be troublesome to move and then as you are carving, you might find defects inside that you can’t work around,” he said. “A lot of my wood comes from trees that died or got struck by lighting. They are still useful for carving, but bugs like to bore into them and make pretty good-sized holes that might be right where you need the beak (of your eagle) to go. You have to learn to just work with it.”
Another challenge is the wood’s tendency to crack.
“Wood cracks are every carver’s worst nightmare,” he said. “After the tree sits, it might crack or it might not. I work with my customers that have a piece that cracks and if they want it repaired, I will fix it.”
Nowacki said he is always focused on making sure he provides a product that is more than what his customers expected and tries to keep his prices as fair as possible. He makes sure to use the best quality finishes he can to help prolong the life of his pieces.
In addition to custom orders, Nowacki sells his pieces at three stores: Northwoods USA in Minocqua; This and That Wisconsin Store in Stratford; and Flowers by Laurie in Medford. He also carves a piece each year at the Athens Fair and during Beef-A-Rama in Minocqua, which he later sells.
Nowacki said he never imagined when he started that his business would become what it has today.
“The day I started carving, if you would have said that in the next couple of years you are going to spend $100,000 on your business, I would have said what the heck are you talking about. But by the time you buy the equipment, the buildings, the insurance, all of those things, it adds up quickly,” he said.
He hopes to someday be able to do carving full time, but until that becomes a reality he said he would keep balancing the workload.
One piece Nowacki is really looking forward to completing at his shop in 2019 is a Statue of Liberty carving, using a massive tree he got from near Wausau.
“It was so heavy that the big equipment couldn’t lift it, so we were dragging it to get it up on the logs,” he said, adding he expects the project to take about a month to complete with all the detail work required. “It is neat because I have the original picture of this tree from 1903 when it was just a little tree.”