Midwest Craftsmen Start with the Trees

Projects at Rockton Hardwood Products start with the selection of the trees and include the complete processing of the lumber.

By Jack Petree

     
Rockton Hardwood Products

Rockton, IL

Year Founded: 1991

Employees: 2

Shop Size: Sawmill — 1,400 square feet; cabinet shop — 2,100 square feet

FYI: Much of the lumber for the company’s projects is harvested from the hardwood forest on co-owner Dean Mohring’s family farm, where the sawmill and cabinet shop are located.

 
   
     

The craftspeople of yesteryear who built the fabulous homes and furnishings we consider to be today’s American treasures often “did it all” — they designed pieces to furnish their homes, harvested their own trees, milled the logs, dried the lumber and then shaped the result into those examples of the woodworker’s art we so appreciate today.

As the 21st century dawns, these “old ways” still continue in the shop of cabinet and furniture makers Dean Mohring and Jim Rous of Rockton Hardwood Products, Rockton, IL. Mohring and Rous use modern portable sawmill technology, dry kilns and an array of secondary processing equipment to harvest, mill, dry and shape their own quality lumbers. That lumber is then used in the highly customized cabinets, panels, mouldings, trims and other specialty pieces they build for local homes.

For Mohring and Rous, total involvement in all aspects of production has brought them more work than they can handle. As their skills have gained renown, they have been called upon to furnish some of their region’s most admired new residences.

Mohring is a former business executive who, a decade ago, decided he would rather be working with wood in his own business than managing quality control at the large food processing firm he worked for at the time. He says he was always interested in woodworking and worked for a local cabinet shop in his free time. He was fascinated, he says, when he watched an experienced craftsman sawing lumber using an old circle saw setup some years earlier. That fascination, combined with an opportunity to return to his family’s farm near Rockton, led to a desire to explore the potential of sawing lumber as a business venture for himself.

     
 
One of the most unusual projects ever handled by Rockton was two cypress bridges, built for the Anderson Japanese Gardens in Rockford, IL. The company received 60 cypress logs from Missouri and processed the lumber on its bandmill.  
     

After carefully researching small sawmills, Mohring decided to purchase a portable bandmill from Wood-Mizer Products Inc. and start his own company. The mill can be towed behind a pickup truck to the site of a log to be sawn and operated by one or two people to process it into grade lumber. For Mohring, this meant that small amounts of timber, or even single trees with special attributes, could be efficiently sawn into lumber.

“I bought a sawmill and two dry kilns from Wood-Mizer, resigned from my job and went to work,” Mohring says.

When he first began the business, Mohring says he intended to saw lumber and process it into trim and moulding which could be sold to builders. But, “I found that boring,” he says. So the focus turned to building cabinets and sawing lumber for both his own use and for other cabinetmakers or individuals.

Soon after he started, Mohring partnered with Rous and began to specialize in one-of-a-kind cabinets and other furnishings for upper-scale homes and gardens in the nearby region.

Clients get the personal touch

A typical project begins with meeting the customer. According to Mohring, when he and Rous first began working together, most of the initial contact came from individuals who had seen the duo’s work in a home or office and wanted something special for themselves. Today, most work comes through contractors, who bring clients in to discuss a project.

“We sit down with the client and get an idea of what they want,” Mohring says. “We will do some sketches, make suggestions and work with them until we feel we have a good grasp of what their vision for a project is. Based on that, we will begin to design the project, always working with the customer, until we arrive at a final concept.”

     
 
This cherry built-in bookcase/wall unit was built for the library in a Rockton, IL, residence. The cherry was harvested from woodworker Dean Mohring’s farm.  
     

Sometimes it might take three or four meetings before both sides agree everything is just right, Mohring says. But, he adds, the time spent is worthwhile, both because designing a special piece is something he enjoys and because satisfying the customer is his priority.

With a clear idea of the project in mind, the process of selecting the wood begins. Mohring’s farm, which has been in the family for generations, includes about 70 acres of hardwood forest with a wide variety of species, including red and white oak, cherry, walnut, maple, hickory and elm. Dead and dying trees are removed on a continuous basis for processing into lumber.

There also are hundreds of other farms scattered throughout the nearby area which have ongoing supplies of wood that need to be harvested in order to preserve the health of the wood lots. For those farms, there are not enough trees for harvest to justify a full logging effort, so they are available to Mohring. This always gives him a good selection of logs to work with. He says he can pick out the most appropriate wood for his own projects and sell any that might be left over to other cabinetmakers.

When Mohring needs a species that is not available locally, he orders it. But even in those cases, Mohring says the ability to saw his own lumber is an advantage, because he can buy the lumber as larger pieces and saw it to match his needs. This provides economy in both shipping and commodity costs, he says. Whether locally obtained or shipped in, Mohring and Rous mill the wood on the bandmill and dry it using a Wood-Mizer solar dry kiln. The kiln-dried wood is then cut, shaped and processed as needed.

     
 
Rockton’s work in the Lake Geneva summer home includes cabinets in the master bath and a vanity in the powder room, both with marble tops. The curved trim along the bottom of the vanity was steam bent. The company also built about 27 feet of cabinets with pull-out shelves for his-and-her dressing rooms. These cabinets are all poplar, painted, distressed and antiqued.  
     

In addition to the rough mill equipment, which is housed in a 35-foot by 40-foot sawmill shop, there is a 2,100-square-foot cabinet shop. Woodworking equipment includes an Altendorf sliding table saw with digital readout; Tannewitz 30-inch bandsaw; Timesavers 37-inch widebelt sander; Ekstrom-Carlson pin router; 12-inch and 25-inch planers with gang rip and moulding capabilities, and an oscillating spindle sander, edge sander and 3-horsepower shaper, all from Grizzly. The company’s newest piece of equipment is a 3-axis milling machine, Model 1500XL, from Legacy Ornamental Mill.

The shop as well as the house are heated by an outdoor wood furnace, utilizing slab wood from the sawmill, “junk logs,” sawdust and cutoffs from the shop. Mohring says that his total heating cost last winter for both buildings was $20 for propane.

Currently, there are just the two employees, plus Mohring’s wife Marilyn, who is the bookkeeper. “We don’t plan to get any bigger,” Mohring says.

Mill capabilities bring unusual projects

Rockton Hardwood’s ability to process its own lumber came in handy on a recent project for the Anderson Japanese Gardens in Rockford, IL. The company was commissioned to build two elegant bridges in cypress. Sixty high-grade logs were shipped to Rockton from southeastern Missouri and processed on the bandmill.

“These were very high-grade logs that are not often available in large quantities,” Mohring says. “A drought in the region allowed them to be removed from the forest and shipped to us.” Being able to mill their own lumber allowed them to get the maximum material possible out of the logs, he adds, enhancing both the cost effectiveness and the beauty of the project.

Processing their own lumber also allows Mohring and Rous to have complete control of their work, from the selection of the trees to the installation of the final product. They say they enjoy the flexibility they have to create custom projects that otherwise might be difficult or expensive to do.

Customers obviously appreciate their work. They have been in business since May 1993, with plenty of work to keep them busy. Their success in the marketplace shows that customers value their special abilities and their special woods.

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.