While a Tom Petty tune pipes through his hard-hat headphones, Dave Flori quickly and precisely angles his carving tool against a tree trunk. Wood chips fly. The 50-year-old artist and operator of Treefrog Carving & Milling South is a sculptor whose implement of choice is the gas-powered chain saw instead of the usual hammer and chisel. In a little more than eight minutes, the time it takes to play Free Fallin' back to back, Flori carved 2 feet of palm tree into the first side of a "teeth and tongue" tiki totem, a popular accoutrement for the exotic lawn set.
From rustic furniture to statuary and customized signs, Flori's work, crafted from reclaimed wood, is entirely milled and carved with a chain saw. With a steady hand, smooth movements and a lot of experience, his chain saw blades can emulate many of the tools found in a traditional woodshop.
For example, a blank sign is made from a cedar branch with a section of the bark and sapwood removed, exposing the colorful heartwood underneath. The depth of the cut is consistent and the curve is smooth, but Flori doesn't use a router or a belt sander.
When the piece is finished with a name or phrase carved into it, he will use a chain saw for that, too. "Chain saw calligraphy," he calls it. The signs sell for $20 to $100, depending on length.
The big advantage of using a chain saw to carve is the speed, Flori said. Plus, it's a lot of fun.
"People ask why I don't do layout. Because by the time you can write it down and draw it out, I can be done carving," he said. A 2-foot pelican carving takes him about 20 minutes.
Even precise line work, like the rows of parallel lines that compose the tiki's teeth, is eyeballed.
He has been working wood since shop class in the seventh grade, he said, and he learned all sorts of handiwork from his father, whom he described as "a do-anything guy." He also spent 10 years as a tree trimmer learning about the particulars of wood grain and chain saw mechanics.
"I've had probably about 50 different jobs in my life, but this is what I'll do the rest of my life," Flori said.
When the Big Pevely Flea Market in Pevely, Mo., closed in November after more than 40 years of business, Flori was left without a workshop. He moved to Florida and essentially started from scratch, he said.
Flori set up shop at the Value Fair Market at 3951 34th St. S in St. Petersburg in January. He's nearly tripling his 360 square feet of space in the rear of the building to turn it into a proper workshop.
"As an artist, I really do think I can prosper here, because of all the other artists" in the area, he said.
But five hours a day of steady cutting, sometimes seven days a week, and searching the city dump and sawyers for suitable reclaimed wood is hard on the body.
He knows he can't keep up this pace forever, but he's making plans.
Flori does custom work and displays his larger pieces at Value Fair, but most of it is sold through two retailers, Palm Harbor Palms at 3660 22nd Ave. S in St. Petersburg, and Tropical Driftwood Art at 427 75th Ave. in St. Pete Beach. He also makes house calls, carving for $100 per foot up to 6 feet and $200 per foot after that.
Flori's art is a good fit, said Nick Tersigni, who owns Palm Harbor Palms. Along with landscaping work, Tersigni runs what he calls "a one-stop shop for anything exotic to put in your yard," from koi and waterfalls to ceramic pottery and tiki poles.
Tersigni prefers to stick with local artists "instead of buying from some factory," he said.
Pat Powers, the owner of Tropical Driftwood Art, said he set out "to have the coolest shop on the beach."
"I'll take anyone's stuff that's one of a kind," he said. Along with his own driftwood pieces, Powers sells the works of six other artists. Flori's two-piece chairs carved from red cedar are some the best movers, he said.
The economy has been difficult for artists especially, said Powers. "My stuff just isn't a necessity." He's paying the bills, but it has gotten hard to put anything in the bank.
But Powers sees potential in a specialized retail space for Flori's naturalistic furniture. The plan is to have a store running within the next few weeks at the Value Fair Market. Powers would gauge the market and run the shop while Flori provides the product.
Flori is also starting production on a chain saw carving instructional video series. But the ultimate goal is to create a chain saw art pro shop, hire some help, teach classes and dedicate his own carving time to big commissions and professional tournaments.
In the meantime, "the rheumatoid arthritis, tendonitis and carpal tunnel," the result of repetitive stress injuries from decades of chain saw vibrations, "it all goes away when the music starts," Flori said.
"He won't say it himself," said Dennis Johnson, who makes and sells Osage American Indian art at the Value Fair Market, "but Dave's one of the best at what he does."
"Mother Nature does all the work," Flori said. "I just shine it up."