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Balloon Fiesta carvers listen to the wood

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Deftly handling his chainsaw, Chad Haspels, of Pagosa Springs, Colo., transforms a chunk of wood into the shape of a bird during Thursday morning’s Chainsaw Carving Invitational at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. (MARLA BROSE/JOURNAL)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The wood tells you what it wants to be; the trick is to listen and hear the message, said woodcarver Brian Gray, the assistant coordinator of the Chainsaw Carving Invitational.

The competition, now in its 13th year at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, brings together woodcarvers from all over the country, and often the world, to create sculptures from chunks of wood.

The craftsmen are given a daily theme, such as a bear, a bird or a balloon, and then create a sculpture incorporating the theme in a 90-minute “Quick Carve,” followed by the creation of a main piece sculpture that they have six hours to complete, Gray said. Judges score each piece on craftsmanship, creativity, degree of difficulty and other factors to determine the daily winner. At fiesta’s end, they compile the points accumulated by each artist from the entire week to determine the Invitational winner.

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The carvers, this year coming from Alaska, California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington, compete for prizes and cash, and then sell or raffle their sculptures.

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This life-like raptor was completed by professional wood carver Chad Haspels of Pagosa Springs, Colo., during the 90-minute “Quick Carve” competition Thursday morning during the Chainsaw Carving Invitational.(MARLA BROSE/JOURNAL)

The Chainsaw Carving Invitational is also a fundraiser for the Albuquerque Area Firefighters Random Acts of Kindness charity, which provides food, clothing and household items to needy families and those affected by fire, flood, storm or other devastating events.

Gray, who is an Albuquerque firefighter, said the competing woodcarvers each start off with a 6-foot-tall segment of ponderosa pine, which this year came from the Jicarilla Apache reservation. They use a long chain saw called a blocking saw to remove large chunks of wood and create a roughed-out shape of what they envision their sculpture will look like.

They then use progressively smaller chain saws for finer detail before turning to a variety of hand tools, such as grinders, sanders and Dremel rotary tools to create the final form.

The finished sculptures are often seared in places with a torch to burn off tiny bits of debris, as well as impart color to the wood. Finally, the sculptures are sealed with wood oil, stains or paint.

Gray, who has been carving for about six years, is not a full-time professional like those competing in the Invitational.

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Albuquerque firefighter and wood carver Brian Gray: “Listen to the wood telling you what it wants to be.”(MARLA BROSE/JOURNAL)

“I do it on my days off as a hobby and to keep busy,” he said.

Inspired by now-retired firefighter Mark Chavez, the primary coordinator of the competition, Gray borrowed a chain saw and took a 2- by 3-foot chunk of wood and carved his first creation – a boot.

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“It took me a few hours because I was using only one saw and didn’t have a grinder, sander or other tools,” he said.

Over the years, he refined his own technique and accumulated an inventory of tools, which includes 10 chain saws. He sells his sculptures at shows and from his Facebook page. They fetch from $45 to $1,500.

But technique and tools are useless, he said, “unless the carver listens to the wood, telling him what it wants to be.”

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