Carving Out a Distinctive Niche
A Naperville artisan offers an alternative to removing withered but much-loved trees
Bill Baker of Naperville gives new life to dying trees. And ironically, he does it with a chainsaw.
Baker’s unusual vocation started when his uncle, a tree trimmer, cut down a tree in a beautiful Elmhurst garden. Normally, he would grind out the stump, but that would have torn up the garden. So he decided to carve a rabbit out of it instead.
Baker’s mom showed him a photo of her brother-in-law’s carving — in retrospect, a little unusual, since chainsaw carving isn’t an activity moms typically encourage their sons to try. Nineteen at the time, Baker had always enjoyed art classes, so he was intrigued.
“I’d never used a chainsaw before,” says Baker of that day in 1999. “Carving is one of the most dangerous things you can do with a chainsaw because you use the tip, which gives a lot of kickback.”
But his uncle taught him chainsaw safety before teaching him how to carve. Baker quickly picked up the skill, practicing by carving pumpkins for a Hillside festival, selling as many as 100 over three weekends. That hobby helped start a small business, thanks to occasional phone calls from people who put “tree carver” into a search engine and found Baker.
“Maybe five or six years ago, I’d get, like, three stump jobs throughout the year. But when the ash trees started dying, I started getting more calls,” says the former veterinary assistant and Glen Ellyn native. “I’d do seven of those a year — people had them cut down to a certain point and then called me to carve.”
Netflix’s 2015 show, “Carver Kings” gave more people the idea to have dying trees transformed into decorative stumps rather than erasing them from their yards.
“When people have to cut down certain trees, they get a little sentimental. ‘My kid used to climb that tree’ or ‘When I moved here, it was this small,’” says Baker. “Carving the stump brings life back to a tree.”
Baker’s hobby became his full-time job after carving 40 tree stumps on various sites between March and November last year. He believes he is one of the only on-site carvers in northern Illinois.
While many carvers create freestanding bears or eagles to sell at shows or ship to customers, Baker’s niche is custom work. He carved an image of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz at Bloomington’s Evergreen Memorial Cemetery where Dorothy Gage, for whom the fictional character was named, is buried. He has carved Bigfoot. He has carved trees as tall as 18 feet, using a scaffolding to reach.
“I carve that section, seal it, drop the scaffolding down, carve, seal and drop it down,” explains Baker. “Some carvings take three to four days.”
Considering his gasoline-powered chainsaws weigh as much as 14 pounds, it can be a strenuous job. Baker has amassed a collection of 12 chainsaws, each with different tips. Some are as small as 6 pounds, some are battery powered.
“I started with two, which is really all you need to start doing small jobs — pumpkins and mushrooms and bears. Then the obsession comes.”
Because, of course, there are chainsaw carving competitions. After he created a Facebook page, Top Notch Carving, Baker became part of an online chainsaw carving group. He entered his first competition in November in Kentucky and took first place.
“When I started carving full time, I noticed you don’t get much interaction with people and you get a little lonely — it wasn’t like working for the vet, when I talked with people all day.”
Interacting with carvers online also gives Baker new ideas about both subjects and process. Branching out into cyberspace, though, has cut into his backyard time.
“My daughter (age six) usually says she wants a unicorn and my wife wants a llama, which I still haven’t done because I’m usually too busy,” says Baker with a laugh.
He carved three bears looking in different directions in a town parkway tree in Michiana Shores, Ind. last fall. He’ll travel up to two hours, and the price depends on the amount of detail — the average is about $1,000.
“You name it, I’ll try it and do it. Everything I’ve done is geared toward the client — it keeps my creative side going. I don’t want to do the same thing over and over.”
One thing he absolutely won’t do is cut down a tree so he can carve it.
“I’ve been asked. They say they have a tree they don’t like . . . but I’m not about killing a tree just for art,” says Baker. “I’m a little bit of a tree hugger.”Edit Module