It shows when people love their work.
There are stores and shops all over El Reno that attest to the love and dedication of their operators. Each of these businesses tells a story.
Wet Willie’s Custom Shop is a place of artistry and friendliness, nearly 50 years in the making.
The shop is owned by the eponymous Willie Chadwick, a passionate chain saw artist whose heart can almost be felt beating within his works of wood.
And actually, though he can be called a chain saw artist, the simple word “artist” might be more fitting, as being creative has been with the 62-year-old all his life.
“I was always drawing in school,” said Chadwick.
“But nowadays, instead of drawing before sculpting, it all comes from in here,” he said, pointing to his head. “I have a vision for everything I do.”
Chadwick uses his chain saw and innovative finishing techniques to sculpt beds, garden ornaments, signs, Native American figures, and most of all, bears.
“I’ve done 121 bears,” said Chadwick. “Every one of them has a different personality. There aren’t any two that are the same, but I always do happy bears. I won’t do angry bears because, to me, they’re like my kids, and I don’t want angry kids out there.”
Chadwick’s list of clientele is impressive. Though a great many locals pay him to create his characteristically unique objects, there are quite a few travelers along historic Route 66 who have also taken notice of his talents.
“It’s something people are always going to want. The rustic look is something that really appeals to people.”
Chadwick’s history is one of art, in one form or another.
“I started airbrushing motorcycles in 1973 before the end of high school. The paint I used would still look wet even decades later, and it still does.
“That’s one reason I called myself ‘Wet Willie,’ and also because there was a band with that name who had a one-hit wonder called ‘Keep on Smiling.’ I’ve been doing business officially as Wet Willie since 1980.”
Chadwick has always had people who inspired and influenced him.
“I was influenced by Henry Bushyhead from El Reno. For a while, he was the only one in town custom-painting bikes. He let me watch him paint a car tag, and I went from there.”
After his venture into airbrushing, Chadwick began to build custom motorcycles in the ‘80’s and ‘90s. Later on, he trained with carpenters, built houses from the ground up, and owned his own screen printing store.
“I was doing several different things — figuring out which direction my life would go. I never dreamed that in all those years I was actually training for what I get to do now. I mean that — I get to do this, and I love it.”
When Chadwick picked up a chain saw and began making signs in 2013, it was the start of a whole new life. He and his wife had taken their vacations in Arkansas for many years, and it was there that he started studying chain saw artists in action.
“When I started, someone asked me to carve a bear when I could barely carve my own name. I laughed at the idea.”
Something happened then that Chadwick didn’t expect — the bear was a success, and the American animal icon became one of his favorite pieces to sculpt. Nowadays, people assume due to his skill that he’s been doing chain saw art his entire life.
His sculptures are unique gifts that people can share with their loved ones, and his techniques have earned him a reputation for being innovative. Hollywood has benefited from his creations. Two of his bears appeared in the 2017 film, “I Can Only Imagine,” and one of them is now owned by one of the movie’s producers, he said. His shop was also featured on Discover Oklahoma in 2015.
Chadwick has a word of advice for people who want to follow their dreams.
“Never say you’re too old. I thought I was too old to start a new venture. But my life just began all over again.”
With a custom motorcycle he’s owned for decades, and a 19- year-old lawn mowing business, Wet Willie is an energy-driven person with a lot on his plate. Still, out of all the different types of work he’s done, he said his chain saw art is probably the closest to his heart.
“I don’t know what I’ll carve tomorrow. And that’s what’s so neat about it.”
Chadwick mostly carves in the winter at his shop, located at 208 S. Choctaw, though he will also carve on location. For more information, call 405-830-2820 or visit his Facebook page.