- Associated Press - Sunday, March 27, 2016

NAPLES, Fla. (AP) - Michael Von Schroth tops his chain saw off with gasoline. He snaps on ear protection then scales the scaffolding surrounding an 11-foot tall chunk of cypress tree.

At the top, he hikes up his jeans and revs his chain saw, considering the trunk. Two dolphins have already emerged from the top, with arched backs and delicate fins. Sea turtles wrap the base, their sharp heads hewed from the light wood, have yet to be sanded.

Everything I see is three dimensional,” he said, explaining the process. “I can’t draw because I can’t see flat. The chain saw is the pencil.”

Von Schroth has been carving art out of wood for the past 26 years. Each season, he sets up shop at a small storefront near Gators’ Crossroads Restaurant & Bar at the intersection of U.S. 41 East and San Marco Road.

What started as a hobby with a friend has evolved from hand carving to a full-time business he’s used to support himself and his family.

“I actually learned it to pick up girls,” Von Schroth said, adding that it worked. “I got married a few times. Now I can’t stop doing it. It’s a passion.

For the past 20 years or so, he’s returned for the season in Naples to sell his work. The community here has treated him well during that time and now he wants to reciprocate.

“It’s time to make something really big and say thank you,” he said. “If I didn’t have all the people buying from me I would not be this good. This is my school.”

Von Schroth has been tackling his largest project yet as a gift he hopes to donate to an organization in Naples. The idea is to show a dolphin baby’s first breath, where the mother dolphin pushes the calf to the surface. In his piece, other sea creatures gather to watch the moment unfold.

The 11-foot tall version is a test run of sorts. Von Schroth wants to show it around to some organizations, to give them an idea of what he can do. Then, he hopes to collaborate on a finished product with the recipient he will later donate it to for display.

His roadside shop has a handful of pelicans, a few dolphins and some sea turtles cut from smaller stumps. They range in price from $150 to a few hundred dollars. Something as large as his 11-foot piece would go for about $20,000 he said.

What’s popular with buyers here ebbs and flows, he said.

“I had 20 pelicans, now there’s four left,” he said. “All of the sudden it’s eagles, then dolphins and I can’t keep a dolphin.”

He’ll take commissions, too, as long as it’s some kind of marine or wildlife figure. He won’t do dogs, cats or horses because he said those pets are too personal. He can’t quite recreate a specific animal, only its likeness.

On Wednesday, wind carried the wood shavings Von Schroth cut from the cypress tree. He pressed the edge of the blade into one of the turtle shells, drawing the lines that form the geometric pattern on its back.

Squinting at the flying wood chips, he paused to look at his work, then opted to jump off the scaffolding and work from the other side.

“I don’t know what to get into,” he said. “You have to be really careful. If you just jump in there and start cutting you could get rid of something that goes somewhere.”

The carving part usually goes quickly. Then each piece is sanded smoother and smoother until it can be burned with a small torch to bring out the wood grains and textures. Most pieces he seals with polyurethane for a polished look.

He’ll pop black marbles into each creature’s eye socket, and sign it so the recipient knows it’s a Von Schroth original. If you haven’t had face time with him during the purchase, you’re likely buying a knockoff, he said. Von Schroth signs his name with a black marker in front of the buyer.

His step son Luke Parker, 21, and a family friend, Devonte Young, also 21, have been his apprentices of sorts. They usually tackle the detailed finishing work. When they’ve mastered that they can begin carving as well.

Von Schroth starts each project with an idea, then grabs his chain saw. he doesn’t draw anything out beforehand, just hopes he can follow the plan he has in his head.

“Every one of these is a mistake. Not one of them ever comes out as what’s in my head,” he said. “But you would never know it.”

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