A Chainsaw Carving Festival to Benefit the Blind

(This is a section of a larger article which will appear very soon in the International Lions Club Magazine, The Lion- written/photographed by me and my son, Bryce Gladfelter

When Lions Club Member Don Winner, (a chainsaw carver) attended the granddaddy of all chainsaw carving events in Ridgeway, PA back in 2002, he saw that their auction raised an amazing $50,000 a year for charity. At this time, the Confluence, PA Lions Club was looking for a new fund raiser and Don thought a chainsaw carving event would work for them. It was unusual enough to draw attention, entice carving participants and supporters. Proceeds could go towards the Somerset County Blind Center, which services about three hundred people in the county.

He then approached then Lions Club president, Tom Briar, and together they asked Rob Stemple, a blind Lions member for his input. Rob endured a head-on drunk driving collision back in 1989 and lost his sight in the process.

“What do you think about carving yourself?” Don asked Rob.

“I’ll try anything once,” was his reply, and the pair decided on carving a cactus.

Rob was “shown” where the saw controls were, a small Stihl with a 12 inch blade, making possible kickback manageable. He sized up the knot-free hunk of cedar wood with his hands. He lined up the saw and made two cuts to the sides as flanks. Don kept his hands on the backs of Rob’s hands. After every cut was made, he felt the wood with his hands. Two wedges were cut out for the space between the cactus’s two branches. The grooves in the skin were the trickiest part. Rob went on to carve three more cacti and he was highlighted as the PR “poster boy” for the first Lions Club National Road Chainsaw Carving Festival held in 2004.


At the event, if a sponsor donates $300 or the equivalent of that in services, many of which are Lions Clubs, they receive a “thank-you” chainsaw carving. A flatbed of donated carvings are set aside for this purpose. Out of the 50 carvers present at the 2012 festival, 30 carvings were donated for this event. To involve the Somerset County Blind Center members, a judging  of “the favorites” is conducted by a handful of local blind people, including Rob Stemple. The top winning carvers receive chainsaws and trophies.

For a blind person to learn to judge a chainsaw carving, he must first learn “to see” with his fingers. Lions Club members direct them so they don’t miss any details and answer any questions they might have.

“Give me a hint, animal, vegetable or mineral?” Rob jokes but usually it is quite obvious.

“Is it a bear?” he muses out loud. “No, it’s snout is too long. Fox? Coyote?”

“I look for details,” Rob shares, “On the face-if the ears are finished out, if nostrils are chiseled in. I feel for knuckles on eagles, claws on bears, ferules on feathers. I also pay attention to the finish. I can tell if it is painted, if it is smooth and slippery. It’s all about what I can feel.”

Rob, who is now employed in public relations by the Susquehanna Association for the Blind and Vision Impaired, is a high scorer and takes his time. He labors over details and intricacies.

“A tremendous amount of time goes into creating these pieces. I want to be as accurate as possible. I am fearful I will miss judge a really beautiful piece just because I can’t see it.”

The sculptures are rated from 1-10 and results are tallied up.

At the big auction at the end of the festival, some sculptures go well into the thousand dollar range. The nice thing, for the carvers, is that they receive half of the price, which makes the long distance traveling to participate worth it. It also encourages them to put in multiple pieces for the auction, a win/win situation for everyone- the carvers and the local blind folks.  Last year, there were 140 pieces up for auction, bringing in almost $40,000!

“The past nine Festivals have raised over $100,000.00,” Tom Briar Festival Cochairman relates, which the Confluence Lions Club has contributed to the Somerset County Blind Center. It has helped them sustain the operation of the Blind Center and provides much needed services to the blind and vision impaired in Somerset County.”

(This event is held in June- mark your calendars for next year)

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