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Highway 68 chainsaw artist becomes TV star

By KELLY NIX

Published: January 6, 2012

WITH RAZOR-SHARP teeth that could easily take off a limb, chainsaws have to be the strangest and most dangerous thing used to create art. But watching a chainsaw carver hack away at hunk of timber and transform it into an intricate sculpture is downright irresistible.

That’s what Toronto-based Buck Productions is banking on when it premieres a new TV series this weekend called “Saw Dogs,” featuring local carving expert, Steve Blanchard. The premiere episode airs Saturday, Jan. 7, at 9 p.m. on Velocity, a channel launched in October by Discovery network. (Locally, it’s on Comcast 754.)

Described as “‘American Choppers’ meets wood chainsaw carvers,” the 30-minute episodes center around Blanchard, a master wood carver who for years has owned a studio off of Highway 68 near Toro Park. With amazing detail, Blanchard builds tree houses, forts, sculptures and furniture — all with a chainsaw.

“Steve is the boss in ‘Saw Dogs,’” the show’s executive producer, Jim Kiriakakis, told The Pine Cone Wednesday. “He is the lead guy and kind of makes sure everything gets done.”

In the 10 episodes that were filmed for the show’s first season, Blanchard and the show’s two other main characters, Canadian carver Pete Rieger and apprentice Ryan Cook, create detailed sculptures and other carved items using Stihl chainsaws.

“In each episode, there is a high-end commission for a client that needs a carving for a certain occasion,” Kiriakakis said. “They are always battling tight deadlines, budgets and creative personality conflicts. It’s a fun, roller-coaster ride of a show.”

According to a promotional video for “Saw Dogs,” Blanchard and the others in the TV series also regularly face pressure and stress from opinionated customers who pay big bucks for elaborate sculptures.

“When you have clients demand the very best,” according to the promo, “every sculpture has to be a cut above the rest.”

Though Blanchard can create nearly anything from wood, he is probably best known locally for his whimsical hobbit-like treehouses that can sell for tens of thousands of dollars.

But for Blanchard, wood carving is not just a job.

“For most of my life, I’d never felt like I fit in anywhere until I started carving, which I believe was a gift,” Blanchard said. “Like God had mercy on me and said, ‘Here. Do this.’”

Blanchard is also known for his creation of Itsyville, a half-sized village made up of his tree houses. One of his biggest fans, Dolly Parton, wanted to incorporate Itsyville into her theme park, Dollywood.

He first picked up a chainsaw in 1986. Since then, he’s been across the country and the world, performing his art at competitive events or doing commissioned work.

“Steve is a veteran in the chainsaw carving world,” Kiriakakis said. “A lot of carvers are really excited to get involved in the show. Some of them have never met Steve in person but have heard of him.”

While reality shows seem a dime a dozen, “Saw Dogs” is no “Keeping up with the Kardashians.” There’s no caked-on makeup, up-dos or pretty manicures. Instead, viewers are treated to gritty “chainsaw-carving geniuses,” who use their sweat, and sometimes blood, to get the job done.

The series was filmed in Squamish, British Columbia, a logging town located halfway between Vancouver and Whistler also known for its outdoor sports.

“It was a great backdrop,” Kiriakakis explained. “We started shooting at the beginning of September and wrapped up mid-November.”

The show also regularly features guest carvers who are specialists in certain types of wood sculptures, such as animals, and others who excel at “speed-carving.”

“Just as great as the characters are,” Kiriakakis said, “you are also watching some amazing things being done. The things they do with the chainsaw are absolutely extraordinary.”