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James O’Neal isn’t a bodybuilder, strongman, or even a fitness enthusiast for that matter. Still, fans at the 2019 Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus, Ohio were lining up to shake O’Neal’s hand and marvel at his 350-pound, oak tree sculpture of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“I started carving wood about 11 years ago and doing life-sized people just three years ago,” O’Neal told us at the Greater Columbus Convention Center. “I like carving out the athletes, and trying to capture the anatomy and the muscles.”
O’Neal claims that he started with big statues from the jump, and he clearly has an aptitude for it. So far, he’s carved Conor McGregor; Arnold; Floyd Mayweather; UFC women’s featherweight fighter, Cris Cyborg; Muhammed Ali; and is working on a Sylvester Stallone sculpture.
Six statues over the course of three years doesn’t sound like too much, but O’Neal’s wood carving process involves some serious heavy lifting. Each sculpture starts out as a 3,000-pound hunk of wood—usually oak or maple. He then takes a chainsaw to the trunk to carve off about 2,000 pounds of wood and develop the rough shape of the piece. Once that’s done, O’Neal works over the course of six months, logging close to 800 hours, using mallets and chisels to slowly carve the wood into its final form. And that’s just the main work. Wood, according to O’Neal, is a finicky medium to work with and requires a lot of small fixes.
For example, the raw statue of Arnold had hundreds of little cracks in it, which O’Neal filled by cutting tiny strips of wood to fit and hammering them in. Arnold’s top half is also made from two different pieces of wood, requiring O’Neal to bolt the pieces into place through The Austrian Oak’s armpit and chest. The abs of O’Neal’s Conor McGregor piece alone took a couple of days to complete, he says. “That’s about 20 hours of work,” O’Neal explains. “There’s a lot of comparison with pictures. I try really hard to get them to look exactly like they do in real life.”
“No celebrities have reached out to buy them,” O’Neal continues. “I was kind of surprised when Conor didn’t. I thought he would buy his. He seems very vain, and I thought it would appeal to him.” Though, McGregor may be one of the only people who can afford an O’Neal wood sculpture.
Given the number of man hours it takes O’Neal to finish just one, he says he’s looking to sell the statues for close to $50,000 a piece.
“There’s no set price,” he says. “For someone like Conor who is worth a hundred million dollars…I may tack on another zero.”
To learn more about James O’Neal and his impressive wood sculptures, follow him on Instagram @jamesonealwoodart.