DECATUR — In 28 years as a member of the Decatur Fire Department, Dan Harding avoided a serious injury on the job. For six years before that, he did the same as a member of the Navy.
With such a sparkling safety record, it’s probably no surprise that the careful crafter has now spent another eight years carving about 1,000 chain saw sculptures without any other accidents to speak of. It’s a streak the artist is proud of each time he looks down and sees 10 intact, but calloused, fingers and thumbs.
“I like to start each day complete and end it complete,” Harding said jokingly, motioning with his fingers to one of the many chain saws that make his garage look a little like the set of a horror movie. “These tools demand your respect. The rules are the same as any other tool: Keep it sharp, use the right safety equipment and use it for what it’s meant to do.”
In carving up logs into the shapes of bears, eagles, frogs and other animals, Harding is indeed using his chain saws for their intended purpose of wood cutting, but he’s certainly stretched the extent to which these utilitarian tools are typically employed. His home business, Bears-n-Buddies, produces these animal pieces, along with benches, signs and special-order carvings, at a rate that goes far beyond a hobby. In fact, the total number of pieces Harding has produced works out to an average of one every few days for the entirety of the past eight years. It’s the love of the hobby, however, that keeps the carver going at such a feverish pace.
“I’d say that 90 percent of the reason I do it is for the hobby, pleasure and art,” he said. “I just want it to pay for itself, which it does. My problem is that the next best tools are always coming out, and I can’t help myself.”
Given that desire to stay current, it’s a little easier to understand how one person could own 31 chain saws, a figure Harding was able to supply immediately from memory, without stopping to count. From his recessed home near the shores of Lake Decatur, he is free to employ every one of them to add layers of fine detail to his carvings, using the smaller, tapered-point saws to get in close and work out the texturing of a bear’s fur or eagle’s feathers.
The neighbors, he says, have never complained about the daily noise of his chain saw as he transforms logs into critters from his driveway work space.
“I only have a few neighbors, and they’ve all bought carvings, so I don’t think they mind,” Harding said. “At this time of the year, I’m only out on the driveway carving a few times per week, but from the late spring on, I’ll be carving out there every single day until the weather gets bad again.”
Diane Harding, the carver’s wife of almost 40 years, has become quite used to the sound of buzzing chain saws herself and has often served as a judge and sounding board on her husband’s pieces.
“She supports it 100 percent and has been my greatest fan and critic,” Dan Harding said. “I’ll bring out a new piece, and she asks me, ‘Is that supposed to be an eagle? Oh, the wings are too big.’ ”
Of her husband’s hobbies, which also include tending to a five-hive honeybee apiary in the backyard, Diane Harding is uniformly supportive and says she has never had too much worry for his safety, despite all the time spent working with dangerous tools.
“He made it through all those years on the fire department without anything really bad happening,” she said. “He takes all the precautions. He’s been around that stuff for most of his life. I would be really surprised for him to have an accident at this point.”
His passion for carving, she continued, has at times filled their home with great carved pieces; pieces that, unfortunately, are all up for sale.
“I’ve lost a couple of my favorites to his customers,” she said.
As Diane Harding suggests, it was his time as a firefighter that first lent her husband proficiency with chain saws and other power tools, as well as the safety training and serious mind-set to operate them carefully. The carving hobby, first witnessed at a festival in Casey, was originally the firefighter’s way of keeping himself busy following his 2004 retirement.
“It never entered my mind while I was sawing into a roof as a firefighter that I’d be trying to make an eagle out of it,” he said. “A lot of it was self-taught. Back then, there were a lot of times I would start carving a 5-foot bear and end up with a 3-foot eagle. I try not to let those kinds of mistakes happen anymore, especially when I’m carving as entertainment.”
Indeed, these entertainment and show-carving engagements now occupy many of Harding’s summer weekends. From local appearances at places such as the Macon County Fair, to fairs in Missouri, Indiana and beyond, the artist has been pleasantly surprised by the warm welcomes he has received, as well as the market for his carvings.
“I’ve gone all the way to Galveston, Texas, and Denver, Colo., carving and selling these pieces,” he said. “The majority of them are actually sold to women, which I didn’t expect when I started. I did two frogs at the Macon County Fair last year, for instance, and two women were actually fighting over them at the auction.”
Beyond the bestselling bears and eagles, more eclectic pieces have included squirrels, raccoons, dogs, turtles, rabbits and even an iguana on one memorable occasion. When he travels, Harding brings extra saws to be able to finish pieces as quickly as possible for crowds that are there to watch him work.
“They’re paying me to entertain, so I need a whole array of saws in front of me so I can go from one to the other and not have to gas up or do maintenance,” he said. “I really go through a lot of chain saws, because there will be times when I’m running them around 50 hours per week. An average homeowner who buys a saw, he might only use it in his yard for a few hours once a year.”
Harding has even taken time away from his personal carving to teach other interested artists the tricks of the trade. Decatur resident Raychelle Conley learned how to create chain saw art through Harding’s careful instruction and also picked up some of those same safety tips that have kept her mentor in one piece for all these years.
“He was such a great teacher,” Conley said. “He critiqued my form a lot and showed me how to fix all my mistakes. Any time I needed him, he was there for me. I remember he told me I had to read the entire chain saw manual, and I even went that far.”
With Harding as her teacher, Conley has safely carved for years and is now working on providing carvings for Rural King stores. She’s thankful for the role the retired firefighter played in introducing her to a hobby that has become a true passion with endless room for growth.
“Every chance I get, I’m out there carving,” she said. “It really never gets old, because you’re always trying to get better. I hope to be as good as Dan Harding someday.”