Is there any handheld tool more dangerous than a chain saw?

And, yet, in the hands of an artisan, a chain saw can take a chunk of wood and transform it into a piece of delicate beauty. That’s the magic of this unique form of craftsmanship, said Ben Semler, owner of I Saw It In Minnesota, during a phone interview Thursday, April 29. I Saw It In Minnesota is a small family-run operation located on Highway 371 north of Baxter that specializes in chain saw art, products and services.

It was Semler’s father, Joe Semler Jr., who founded I Saw It In Minnesota about 15 years ago. At first glance, it would seem a son following in his father’s footsteps is to be celebrated, even expected, but the truth is, Ben Semler was hardly a natural when it came to chain saw art. He was, by his own admission, the definition of a late bloomer; a person whose artistic talents never found an outlet but had to be patiently unearthed from the gnarled woodgrain.

“I had zero interest in ever doing that job because of my artwork. I'm not an artist, I don't know how to draw. I can barely write legibly. I have zero confidence. I never knew I could do it,” Semler said. “But then my dad and my wife said, ‘You can do this.’ I found a talent I didn’t know I had. And we took this thing and we built it together.”

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It was tough sledding at first. The Semlers — proprietors of a small hardware store in St. Francis at that time — had to hone their skills. Semler said it took about two years before he felt he had a good grasp of the artform and now he’s been doing it full time for more than a decade.

In the intervening years, Semler’s father has since retired, but the business remains largely the domain of a father and son, with Ben Semler helming the operation with his son Dylan working alongside him. Semler’s other two children, Ethan and Olivia, also help occasionally, which leaves I Saw It In Minnesota firmly in the hands of the Semler family.

Ben Semler, owner of I Saw It In Minnesota, paints the eyes on an eagle Thursday, April 29, 2021, at the family business on Highway 371 north of Baxter. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
Ben Semler, owner of I Saw It In Minnesota, paints the eyes on an eagle Thursday, April 29, 2021, at the family business on Highway 371 north of Baxter. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Originally from Cambridge, Semler said at one point the operation branched out into five locations across Minnesota and Wisconsin. Now, the location along Highway 371 is the only outlet, due to Brainerd’s locale as Minnesota’s “capital of tourism,” as Semler puts it — a community tailored to and passionate about the kind of craftsmanship in which I Saw It In Minnesota specializes.

These carvings vary, noted Semler, who said much of I Saw It In Minnesota’s stock can be described as lawn ornaments or statues often in the range of 3 to 6 feet tall. There’s also other, more unorthodox options in this niche business, such as the option to call the Semlers out to a property to cut down a problematic tree and turn it into chain saw art on the spot. That’s a key element many don’t realize, he noted. Chain saw art is as often a performative spectacle as it is physical artistry.

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There’s always going to be a strong internet component for a niche business of this kind, said Semler, who estimated roughly 35% of his revenue comes from online sales. This was never so apparent as when the COVID-19 pandemic hit last spring. Like most small businesses, I Saw It In Minnesota had to adapt to societal upheaval. Having a strong digital presence is one answer, Semler said, but it’s always been a boon that chain saw art is naturally conducive for social distancing. People want to see chain saw art in the making, he noted, but it’s not like they want to stand that close once the wood chips and sawdust starts flying.

I Saw It In Minnesota has a variety sculptures on display outside Thursday, April 29, 2021, at the family business on Highway 371 north of Baxter. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
I Saw It In Minnesota has a variety sculptures on display outside Thursday, April 29, 2021, at the family business on Highway 371 north of Baxter. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

“It provides us with enough business. People’s excitement was the highest up here,” Semler said of the Brainerd lakes area. “Selling carving is a very interesting sale because you can't get so caught up in a store, and hope somebody can sell it. What sells carvings is the production side of things. In my shop, people get to experience more than just looking at a carving.They watch us carve it, get to talk to us. We actually made it an important factor for people to have this experience in this cool environment.”

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GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at gabe.lagarde@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5859. Follow at www.twitter.com/glbrddispatch.