Carving out a niche: Hillbilly Hewers specialize in chainsaw art

Aug. 6—GREENBO — Just outside the entrance to Greenbo Lake State Resort Park, a carved bear sits overlooking the road, standing guard as the roar of chainsaws and grinders ring out from the woods behind it.

A creation of the Hillbilly Hewers, the bear signals to passersby the art being made behind it. Using the tools of lumberjacks, the Hewers create art and work to ensure the craft is passed down to the next generation of chainsaw artists.

Greenup County native Greg Bays watches as multiple chainsaws, grinders and rotary tools send sawdust into the air at the hands of the teenagers to whom he is teaching the art form.

"I coached most of these kids at (Greenup Junior Football League)," Bays said, adding that a couple are children of members of the Hewers. "I have probably had 20 or 25 come through my wood shop that have carved something over the last couple of years."

Bays said teaching the children provided them with an opportunity they would not otherwise have.

In addition to inspiring the next generation of carvers, Bays loves watching children light up seeing the carvings.

"This is what it's all about for me is the kids," Bays said. When he sets up in public, he always makes sure there is a "Kids Corner" where young people can paint and have a good time.

Additionally, the group uses its Facebook page to post pictures of the items they have made and upcoming events such as a monthly scavenger hunt, where they hide carvings in local businesses and their followers try to be the first one to find them.

Hazel Massie, of Argillite, had been trying for some time to be the first to find carvings but she kept missing out.

When the Hewers had a promotion at the Farmers Market by the McConnell House, they gave away three sets of two of their mushroom carvings — Hazel came in No. 4.

"Her father took her to the Farmers Market," Hazel mother, Kelly, said. "It was about 9 a.m., and we were surprised that they (the mushroom carvings) were already gone. She just loves it."

Bays wanted to reward the group's "biggest fan." He told her if she would come to their next event at Crump's Old Stables he would make sure she got a mushroom carving.

When Hazel, 7, showed up, Bays gave her two mushrooms and a bandanna for being an "honorary member" of the Hewers.

He then went on to help her use a rotary tool to create the beard of a wood carving and gave her a custom wood-burned Harry Potter-style wand done by his daughter Avia Bays.

Avia was the inspiration for the name Hillbilly Hewers and uses the off cuts of the carved pieces to create her own art, wood burnings.

Bays said his road to chainsaw art is as crooked as the beards on his carvings.

Bays jokes he can barely write his name, and "can't draw worth a lick," so art wasn't something he had really considered doing.

A Greenup County native, he has lived in the county his entire life, with the exception of the three years he spent serving in the U.S. Army.

After graduating from Greenup County High School, Bays initially tried his hand in the logging industry.

"Logging just wasn't cutting it, so I joined the service," Bays said. "That's where I met my wife."

After his end of service, he and his wife returned to the county and he tried his hands in the construction industry as a steelworker.

After being in Ironworks Local 769 for a decade, Bays currently works at the Corp of Engineers.

The saws, vises and brackets of chainsaw art came naturally to a man who had lived his life with them in his hands.

"We were down there at work, and this old boy started talking about wanting to carve a walking stick," Bays said.

His fellow employee thought he might want to carve something interesting, like perhaps a skull or something similar on the walking stick. Bays said when he thought about that the idea appealed to him.

Giving a nod to social media, Bays said he did what most people do in today's world; he "Googled" it.

Initially he was surprised by just how much information he found, he said. But eventually he settled on one.

"I got on YouTube and found a guy by the name of Jordy Johnson out of Canada," Bays said.

He learned Johnson had been a carpenter by trade until he'd had an accident. Johnson got into carving and painting as a form of therapy to help him recover from the accident.

"I got to watching his videos, and he had started out with Wood Spirits — which is my favorite thing to do," Bays said.

Bays said the way Johnson explained things just made sense.

"He just took a piece of paper and a pen and said cut here and here," he described Johnson's technique. "Do this, then do that, and this is what it's going to look like."

Bays does most of his working a variety of chainsaws and rotary tools.

The Wood Spirits he enjoys so much are typically carved of softer woods — often driftwood he has dredged from creeks and streams — and the chainsaws are better for harder woods and larger projects.

"It's different using a chainsaw," he said of his carving. "You get that saw in a lot of different positions than what you would just cutting a tree down. There's a lot more kickbacks if you aren't careful. and some of the things I do, like putting fur on a bear, you're playin' the kick, rather than just sawing up and down. You want it to kick a little to make the marks."

The kick, when done safely, helps accentuate the piece, Bays said, and gives it a more realistic look.

"I started out with Wood Spirits," he said. "We went into jack-o-lanterns, which was pretty basic. and everything I learned in the beginning was off of Jordy Johnson's YouTube."

Bays said a friend of his, Greg Adkins, started getting into carving as well, and joked that neither of them was any good at it.

"But we try, and we have fun," he said. "We make enough to buy new chains and some other tools, but we aren't trying to make a lot of money off of it."

Later he said he connected with a friend from high school, Gary Bishop, who had been carving for quite some time.

"Gary can do anything he wants," Bays said of his friend. "And he started carving with us and teaching us some things, trying to bring us around."

Bays said the addition of Bishop was a game-changer.

The more experienced Bishop continued to "give them pointers" as well as teaching them which tools were best to use on what types of carving.

"He could tell you 'I've had those. and they're junk, so you might not want those,'" Bayes said. "That helped us save a little money, because when you just see something, it might look like it would work, but actually wouldn't."

Advice on tools is crucial, considering Bays uses several saws and rotary tools, and will need to sharpen chains after every day of carving.

Find more information on the Hillbilly Hewers Facebook page.