One Man and His Chainsaw

Click Play Video to watch chainsaw sculptor Ivan McNally at work

Puffing on a crooked roll-up cigarette, Ivan McNally puts on his helmet, replete with visor and earmuffs, and revs up his chainsaw. 

Resting against a wooden sculpture of a giant dolphin sits an uncut block of wood. In what seems like the blink of an eye, McNally has shaped an Aztec face from the piece, woodchips flying through the air as he swings his mini-chainsaw this way and that. He lets go of the trigger, takes off his headgear and stands back to admire his work.

‘How’s that?’ he asks, as pleased as punch, as the two city-slicker journalists stare, goggle-eyed, at the Mermaidsculpture before them, suddenly oblivious to the mud and sawdust soiling their expensive pressed shirts and leatherette shoes. 

McNally chuckles, flicks his smoke to the ground, and leans back on the bonnet of his car to roll himself another. No airs, no graces. He’s not your average artist.

McNally is one of only a handful of Northern Irish sculptors who use chainsaws as their primary tools. As much a showman as an artist, McNally often appears at public events throughout the country, wowing crowds with his lightning-quick skills and collection of weird and wonderful life-size sculptures.

His workshop – an open field on the outskirts of Belfast – resembles a scene from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, littered with human figures, magical creatures and animals frozen in time, turned to wood by some evil Queen and left, for their sins, in the Northern Irish countryside. It’s an exhibition in its own right. McNally might do well for himself to charge an admission fee at the gate.

Artists of his kind are a common sight at state fairs in the US, but McNally is happy to be something of a unique figure on the Northern Irish landscape.

‘I used to work on smaller pieces with chisels, but after I was commissioned to do a much bigger piece I started using chainsaws,' he explains. 

'It took me about three years to figure it out. There are other people who do it. I think there’s about half a dozen artists or craftspeople in Northern Ireland who use chainsaws, but nobody seems to advertise, so it’s not very well known. I think it’s going to get bigger, as long as we have enough trees to carve.’

RabbitMcNally uses different types of timber for his sculptures, but works primarily with pine at public displays due to its pliability. 

After fashioning the main structure of each piece with chainsaws – of which he has many – McNally then adopts a more traditional style using chisels and an electric sander for the finer details and finish. Occasionally he paints his sculptures, but prefers not to. Michelangelo didn’t paint his marble; McNally doesn’t paint his wood.

‘I think the material speaks for itself. As someone who works with wood all the time, I appreciate it for what it is. I don’t like to disguise the grain of the timber. I prefer the natural look.’

McNally works mainly on large, corporate commissions for garden centres and public parks, and to a lesser extent on smaller private commissions. However, he would like nothing more than to see wooden sculptures taking pride of place in urban settings such as Belfast and Derry.

‘The councils won’t go for wood,’ McNally states. ‘They prefer bronze because it’s so cheap and it lasts longer. Maybe they think that wood can be easily vandalised, but I think that large pieces would look great in the centre of Belfast and elsewhere. 

'The pieces I work on for parks are quite chunkified, they’re unbreakable really, so there would be no danger of anybody wrecking them. But I’m not sure how you would change people’s minds in that regard.’

It’s obvious that McNally takes pride in his work. He didn’t have to make an Aztec face for us – we only The artist at workneeded some pictures of him at work – but seeming to work isn’t enough for McNally. Once he gets that chainsaw in his hands, he’s like a big hairy kid in a sweetshop. And he’s more than happy for people to commission whatever they choose. Just don’t mention the dreaded fungi.

‘Bloody mushrooms,’ he exclaims, spitting onto the sawdust at his feet and waving a battered fist toward his enclosure of sculptures.

At first they're difficult to notice, smaller than everything else, shapeless, obscure. Then they spring forth from every crevice: wooden mushrooms and toadstools of all shapes and sizes. The types you see in gardens, in craft shops, rustic restaurants and hippy mantelpieces throughout the land. ‘Everybody wants mushrooms,’ McNally growls. ‘It’s getting a bit annoying.’