The Walker Family on Vancouver Island has a rich heritage of meeting loggers’ exacting needs for chain saws, and Walker’s Saw Shop continues to be the “go-to” place for professional fallers—such as Buckin’ Billy Ray Smith—on the island.
The outline of the hills against the sky hasn’t changed. But most other familiar shapes have vanished. Little surprise, really. It was 1949 when Bob Walker first laid eyes on his new home with its wooden sidewalks, buildings and bustle. The Nanaimo River Camp was run by then B.C. forestry giant MacMillan Bloedel, and housed log harvesting crews who were dispatched daily into the forested hinterlands surrounding the camp in central Vancouver Island, off the British Columbian coast.
Bob Walker was 10-years-old and in camp with his stepfather, John Westerholm, who’d taken a job as a foreman at the camp. Young Bob slotted readily into the camp life routine. The camp emptied of loggers early in the morning. On weekdays, Bob would soon follow on his 30-mile round trip to school. The steam trains chugged through the forest at all hours, laden with prime timber destined for log dumps in places like Chemainus and Ladysmith. Fellow forest company titan Crown Zellerbach also operated a logging camp and rail network in the area.
After school, Bob took to hanging around the chain saw repair shack where another form of education began taking shape. The camp was to become a springboard from which Bob Walker launched a long and colourful career. At its heart was an enduring interest in and knowledge of chain saw operation.
The journey culminated in the early 1980s with the foundation of a family run store dedicated to the safe use and care of chain saws. Today, Walker’s Saw Shop is in the family’s third generation and something of an institution in Nanaimo and well beyond. It’s appreciated by the professional faller and the weekend warrior.
But there’s much more to their story. It’s one of hard work and commitment that gathered momentum after Bob and Holly married in 1964. Today, Bob has dementia but he can still tell stories from the past with clarity, and Holly has proven a keen chronicler of the couple’s early days.
In the early 1960s, Bob was dispatched from the Nanaimo River Camp to the logging outposts of northern Vancouver Island. Places of early B.C. forestry lore like Gold River, Fair Harbour—where Bob operated his first power saw shop— Kyuquot and later on to Holberg. One of Bob’s assignments was as driver of whatever was available. “This reminded Bob of his father who had taken him along with his logging truck,” said Holly.
Back in Nanaimo, Bob landed a salesman’s job with McCulloch Chain Saws. The work involved travelling the province and listening to fallers.
“And then the fun began,” recalled Holly. “Bob realized that by making saws more powerful, they could cut quicker and get the faller out of harm’s way.” And opening the muffler makes the saw run cooler.
By the late 1970s, Bob and Holly were seriously thinking about starting their own business. The recession of 1980 accelerated the plan into a priority. The family home started doubling as a workshop.
“Our family remembers a lot of early mornings waking up to the sound of Bob grinding chain saw cylinders at the kitchen table.” Holly maintained the young company’s books to keep the business on an even keel. Walker’s Saw Shop was open for business.
“I purchased the store about 13 years ago when it was still home-based,” said John Walker, Bob and Holly’s oldest son. John and his wife Deb expanded into a new building about eight or nine years ago.
The present store occupies about 5,000 square feet close to downtown Nanaimo. Walker’s Saw Shop employs four mechanics and three sales and parts personnel. The staff reflect a change to a more diversified and service oriented approach to its customers’ needs, noted John.
Walker’s is an authorized dealer for the Echo, Husqvarna and Stihl chain saws and product lines. But the store also carries a range of associated services and products. These include safety gear, portable sawmill and woodcutting tools. Equipment for arborists is in stock along with lawn and garden machines, lubricants and even apparel, toys, models and books.
The store’s product range proved useful during COVID which affected the business of many retail outlets—in Walker’s Saw Shop’s case, to the positive. “We had booked bigger quantities in fast moving products. It was good timing I guess,” said John, modestly. The pandemic forced more people to look closer at home and property improvement projects. The result was a couple of good years for Walker’s Saw Shop.
Accurately predicting trends and taking advantage of them is good for any retail outlet. Latterly the Walker’s Saw Shop has been taking advantage of the growth in social media to expand its audience base. John noted the process requires staff versed in the language and types of outlets.
Professional fallers are traditionally an independent thinking bunch. They still are. Walker’s Saw Shop has evolved into a haven for the breed through the years. People speak and understand the same language there. Buckin’ Billy Ray Smith is a Vancouver Island-based faller and YouTuber (www.youtube.com/@BuckinBillyRaySmith), and he hasn’t forgotten his roots. He’s known Bob and Holly and their sons, John and Donny, for years.
“I’ve known Bob since 1997. The Walkers sent me off to camp with a Husky 394 in about 1999,” he relates. “It makes me happy to give back to a business that supported me and my family in my early days of being a woodsman.”
John Walker’s habit of looking ahead includes keeping the Walker family’s legacy intact. His younger brother, Donny, works for the family store as does his daughter, Cheyenne, who started working part-time at the store in 2013.
Donny Walker’s your man if you’re curious about what “Walkerizing” a chain saw really means. His voice takes on a different tone when he starts warming to the subject of chain saw care and understanding. Donny draws on his Dad’s lifetime of experience and his own work testing and providing feedback on the latest Husqvarna chain saws under development. It’s why he’s always working on customers’ chain saws from around North America, Australia, New Zealand and across Europe. He is truly following in the work boots of his father with the chainsaw work he carries out. “The challenge,” summarizes Donny, “is to make the
chain saws quicker and safer.”