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A cut above: Carve Wars chainsaw competition, auction coming to northern NM

Leo Sanchez of Los Lunas shows off a recent piece of his chainsaw art. He will be competing in his first Carve Wars event coming up in northern New Mexico. (Courtesy of Leo Sanchez)

For Leo Sanchez of Los Lunas, chainsaw carving used to be a way to kind of simply let off steam while feeding his creative nature.

“It was a stress reliever. That’s what I was using it for,” he said. “There’s an excitement behind it, working with a dangerous tool and being able to create something.”

He used to make a couple of sculptures a year. That is until he got a chance to be part of the pit crew at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in 2018.

“I saw what those guys were doing and it piqued something in me, a desire,” Sanchez said. “I got in the show with them and got to meet all of the carvers that came in that year. They were really cool to share information, showing me what bars to use and different techniques on the off days. That’s really what blew it wide open for me.”

That helped him overcome some rough patches.

“In the beginning, it was a lot of trial and error,” he said. “I started with one saw that I still use today; it’s one I first bought in 1984. I’m still using that same saw. But as I was creating things, making a bear’s head, the nose would blow off and I wouldn’t understand why. It took years and talking with other carvers who were able to reveal secrets. That’s something I’ve noticed in the art world, how open a lot of these people are to share.”

Now, Sanchez is part of Carve Wars (, a seven-person, speed-sculpting competition to be held Friday, July 23, to Sunday, July 25, at Sipapu Ski and Summer Resort.

“It’s a blast to carve with other carvers, to get in the mix with them,” said Sanchez, who was a local alternate until a cancellation by another carver opened up a spot.

“I try and stick to what I know, bears,” he said. “I can do eagles, trees, pretty basic. Mail boxes, lighthouses. Fish and turtles. Being that it’s a race, I’m going to stick to what I know and see how it goes. It’s kind of intimidating because all of these guys are pretty well known.”

Carve Wars owner Joe Wenal, who is bringing his speed-carving event to northern New Mexico, attacks a log. (Courtesy of Carve Wars)

Carve Wars owner Joe Wenal said he does 10 to 15 similar events around the country, bringing in carvers from across the country and sometimes from other countries.

“We are based on three-day, speed-carving competition,” he said. “They go as fast as they can for three days. With these carvers, we get upwards of 100 carvings.”

The carvings will be put up for auction throughout the weekend, with a portion of the proceeds going to the local food bank, La Jicarita Food Basket.

Purgatory Resort in Durango, Colorado, holds a similar annual event, said Christiana Hudson, a marketing manager for Sipapu, part of the Mountain Capital Partners collective that also owns Purgatory.

“People around Durango love it,” she said. “It’s a big event. I thought that, with the Taos community and the rural towns around Sipapu, it would be a really good fit for people who love art and culture. We thought people like to see how to wield a chainsaw in such peculiar ways. It’s a good crossroads of art and fun. It should be an unusual spectacle for our community.”

What makes this an interesting event is that people can watch the sculpture as it takes place, then bid on it for a chance to take the local creation home.

“We provide them with all the local logs, so all the logs are from these mountains,” Hudson said. “Our trail crew has been gathering logs and there are some huge, awesome logs, so there’s that kind of local connection, as well.”

As for Sanchez, he’s excited to get busy using the same Stihl 19-inch saw that he’s owned for decades.

“The first time I competed, I was in a competition in Capitan for the Smokey Bear 75th anniversary. I ended up winning the people’s choice award. That was an eight-hour carve for one piece. This one’s going to be very different.”