Have Chainsaw, Will Carve

Door County is famous for art. Around every curve and corner, you’ll find art fairs, art festivals, art galleries, concert venues, theater spaces – art is everywhere. 

Sometimes, however, the art is a bit unexpected. Take that six-foot-tall bear or two bald eagles fighting over a fish – eye-catchers for sure.

Cody and Ashley Leist of Sevastopol create these and other amazing figures using white pine logs as their canvas, and chainsaws, pneumatic grinders and acetylene torches as their brushes. The art form leaves many asking, “How do you do that?”

It all started in 2010 with a deer – not a carved deer, but a real whitetail deer that ran into the side of the Leists’ car and broke Cody’s right arm. The injury prevented him from working for his family’s business, Affordable Plus Tree Service, and to help him pass the time while he recovered, Cody’s mom gave him the book Chainsaw Carving a Bear: A Step-by-Step Guide by Jamie Doeren.

Cody’s first bear stands proudly in the workshop. Still, “when I got done with it, I thought, ‘I can do better on the next one,’” he said. Ashley added that her husband likes a good challenge.

One of Cody’s next projects was a bench for the couple’s home, complete with a compartment to hold a cell phone. Another bear carving for a friend’s wedding was the tipping point.

Photo by Rachel Lukas

“I brought that bear to the wedding, and people loved it,” Cody recalled. “I love seeing people love our stuff. That’s another thing that keeps me going.”

Even when you’ve grown up around chainsaws, becoming an accomplished chainsaw carver doesn’t happen overnight. Cody admitted there was a learning curve and that encouragement from family and friends helped to motivate his improvement.

“Everything we make, we have to make it better than the last thing we made,” he said. “Someone sends me a picture of a bear or an eagle, and if they’re going to pay for this, I want it to be better than the picture that they sent me.” As Ashley said, her husband likes a good challenge.

One carving led to another, and then to many, many others. The couple is especially busy around family holidays. In fact, rarely do they have time to do something just for themselves.

“We love getting orders; we love it when people are excited,” Cody said.

Every now and then, an idea comes along that’s too good to pass up. 

“I don’t know what got into me one day,” he said. “I wanted to make two eagles locked together. They’re fighting over a fish. A woman in Forestville owns that.”

Their work is a team effort. “Neither one of us could do it without the other,” Ashley said. “He’s more the 3D brain, and I’m more 2D. I could never do what he does – ever.”

Cody said shapes in the wood often help him visualize parts of the animal: “Like a little bump-out in the log, maybe that’s the bear’s butt or that’s where the arm could be. For sure you see that.” (His eyes seemed to focus on some imaginary shape in the distance as he described this.) 

“And the knots: You try to steer away from that in the head,” he said. “If you want to do a natural-looking bear with less finishing, and you get it all done and there’s a knot in the face, it can look like the bear has three eyes. The wood can determine the character of the piece.”

Ashley is from a family that likes to paint, and she studied art at UW-Green Bay. She uses her talent to bring color and added dimension to the final product. 

“I’m the finisher,” she said. “Cody does all of the shaping and getting it to look like what it’s supposed to look like. Then I go in with the detail.”

Ashley uses pneumatic tools such as grinders and wire brushes, and she’s also pretty handy with an acetylene torch. 

“The torch burns all the little – I call ’em shnibbles – all the little shavings that don’t come off,” she said. “Makes it nice and smooth. It also gives the piece depth. If Cody’s doing fur, the recessed areas are darker because they’ve been burned. Then you take the top off, and it gives it instant dimension.”

A quick look around the Leists’ yard and workshop reveals carvings large and small. Cody said the challenge on the bigger ones – an 11-foot bear, for example – is getting the scale correct. 

“Takes a little bit longer,” he said, “you don’t want to mess up one of those bigger chunks of wood.”

Photo by Rachel Lukas.

Cody carved that 11-foot bear at the 2022 Cherry Fest in Jacksonport, and it’s those fests and fairs where the couple fields another oft-asked question: How much does that cost?

“That’s the thing,” Cody said. “It’s hard to price things for people because it’s all time. I don’t really know. Sometimes they go fast, and I could get it done in a day. Others, a couple of days.” Some can take even longer: A seven-foot wizard occupied Cody’s time for a week, and a T-Rex took two weeks.

Orders are sometimes very specific: A man in Wyoming wanted a bear holding a sockeye salmon. Others are a bit more general: An eagle perched on a rock. Regardless of the request, the process is similar. “We’ll print off reference photos for different poses just to get an idea of every angle and what it should look like,” Ashley said. 

Taxidermy, like that on display at a Cabela’s store, can be helpful, and animals in the wild or at a zoo can provide insights that are not always available in photographs. 

Photo by Rachel Lukas.

“The eagles, for a long time I made them sitting straighter,” Cody said. “When you see the eagle in a tree, they’re perched sideways a bit.” (He described this while tilting his head and shoulders slightly from one side to the other.)

There are times, however, when the inspiration isn’t found online, in a book, in a store or even in nature. It comes from the heart.

Paula Symons, who served as the Sevastopol Elementary School secretary for 20 years, lost her battle with cancer in 2020. Ashley and Cody fondly remember her from when they were students. Cody’s sister Brooke Tanck, who is director of athletics for the Sevastopol School District, along with other teachers and staff, asked Cody and Ashley to create something special to honor Paula’s memory. The result was a bench that’s on display just outside the Sevastopol Elementary School gymnasium.

“When you’re doing something that means something to somebody,” Cody said, “it makes you want to try that much harder.”

Ashley recalled the joy it brought to Symon’s family when the bench was unveiled. “Definitely one of the coolest things we’ve made,” she said.

Around every corner – even where you may not expect it – you’ll find art in Door County.