Family Business Starts with the Harvest
Working in different areas of the country, two brothers-in-law prosper as woodworking partners, sharing lumber from the family farm.
By Ann Gurley Rogers
Eric Blackmore of Orlando, FL, and Mike Mason of suburban Cleveland, OH, do not need to rely on documents to identify the origin of the lumber they use in their custom woodworking business, Sylvan Forge Inc. The majority comes straight from their family’s 180-acre wooded site in southern Ohio. Here, these two brothers-in-law and self-proclaimed “wood hounds“ have access to a vast variety of trees, including plum, pecan, red elm, osage, birch, maple and pine, which they harvest and use to build custom furniture and turnings for clients across the country.
While there are rare occasions when they will buy lumber elsewhere, Blackmore and Mason say they prefer the lower grades they obtain from their own woods, which provide irregularities that they incorporate into their pieces for striking visual effects. Over the years, the two have learned a lot about harvesting trees. For example, they found that the best time to fell a tree is after it has been standing dead for several months and after the rainy season is over. In this period of time, it has dropped its sap and most of its water, which makes the wood more stable to use for lumber.
They cut the wood into sections 10 to 20 feet long; then the wood is efficiently milled to yield thick flitch-cut boards as well as turning blanks cut from the tree top and root ball. The boards are stacked in the barn, banded and labeled and can stay there for several years until they are dry enough to be used for custom furniture.
The milling is done at a neighborhood mill near the family farm, owned by Ray Walters. Walters was a carpenter who built a sawmill in order to build his own house. He intended for the mill to be temporary. That was 25 or 30 years ago. In the meantime, Walters discovered that the mill seemed to fulfill a local need. Neighbors showed up with wood to be milled, and Walters either charged cash or bartered for some of the wood in exchange for his milling services or use of the mill.
Over the years, Mason used the mill on a regular basis and, in the process, he and Walters discovered that they enjoyed each other’s company. Mason made a routine of visiting Walters every week, and the two would talk about trees and wood. Mason says that what he learned from Walters about the best uses of various woods and their properties has been invaluable to him in building his projects.
Although Walters died in 1998 and the property changed hands in June 2000, the new owner agreed to allow Sylvan Forge to continue to use the mill.
Mason mills most of the wood for both himself and Blackmore. Their barn currently has between 60,000 and 70,000 board feet of different species of wood, with 5,000 to 6,000 board feet remaining to be cut.
Cross-Country Business Shares Harvest and Name
Blackmore makes at least one trip a year to Ohio to transport wood back to Florida, and family members who come to visit him usually bring wood along. Additionally, both Blackmore and Mason call themselves “wood hounds” because if they notice somebody cutting down a tree that looks interesting to them, they stop and ask for it. By now, they say they both have a reputation so that people will offer them wood.
Although Blackmore has been working as a graphic designer, he has done woodworking since he was a child. With his graphic design abilities, he created a logo for the business, developed a brochure and maintains the company’s portfolio. While he continues to do some graphic design work, about 75% of his time is now devoted to woodworking.
He begins his projects by visiting clients in their homes to get a sense of their lifestyle and tastes. He uses his portfolio as a starting point, and says he does not like to be asked to build something that he has already done.
During the first session with a client, he discusses features that the piece is to have and determines appropriate dimensions. “I built one coffee table for a client that was to double as a storage chest,” he says. “The customer was a small man, so I made the handles to fit his hands, and the sides were shorter than they might have been for a taller person.”
After the initial meeting, Blackmore makes a drawing on his computer and then has a second meeting to confirm that he has visualized the same thing as his client. “When the client sees the drawing, he might realize that he wants a drawer to be deeper or a shelf to be bigger. At this point, I can give him an estimated price based on how much wood I am going to need and how much time will be involved,” he says.
A recent client gave Blackmore the kind of latitude that he likes best — the assignment was simply to build a dining table that would comfortably seat six people. Blackmore selected poplar and, to his delight, the client suggested that he leave as much of the bark on the edges as possible.
“I coated the outside with a thin mixture of tongue oil and applied 10 coats. This helped the bark adhere to the table. In the places where the bark was just too loose, I tore it off,” he says.
Since this was a custom piece, he took measurements of both the husband and wife to determine a comfortable height for the table. “I have a high torso, so I am aware of table heights. One that is a bit taller than normal is better for me,” he says.
Blackmore’s custom furniture pieces have ranged in price from $2,000 to $10,000; he also turns bowls, which sell for between $50 and $500. Blackmore says that the type of wood, the complexity of the joinery and the design time all contribute to the bottom line.
One of the best features of the relationship between Blackmore and Mason, they say, is the fact that they understand and take advantage of their personal qualities, which complement each other. While Mason has been a professional carpenter all of his adult life, he gives Blackmore credit for opening his eyes to the artistic side of working with wood and to the pleasures and delights of using a lathe to turn wooden vessels. On the other hand, Blackmore says he is continuously amazed at his brother-in-law’s keen eye and his ability to look at a board and be able to tell its exact length.
“Over the years we have turned this into a competitive game,” he says. “I would point out a board and say that it would be eleven feet and 1/2 inch, and Mike would say, ‘No, it is eleven feet and 3/16 inch.’ Mike is always right.” Additionally, Blackmore says he admires his brother-in-law’s ability to make one quick measurement, set the mill and cut perfect boards all the way through the process of milling a log.
Mason says his approach to furniture design is to let the piece of wood determine the nature of the project to be built. He says that he is not particularly versed in various styles and types of furniture, but characterizes his designs as contemporary. One example is a table that has an osage top, walnut legs and turquoise inlay. The piece has a tung oil finish and was buffed and waxed with carnauba wax.
Most of Mason’s time initially has been spent milling lumber. Blackmore has produced most of the company’s furniture projects, and Mason’s professional work has been primarily turnings. As his milling chores wind down, however, he will expand into doing more furniture as well. His furniture has sold for anywhere from $75 to $500, and his bowls sell for between $10 and $200.
Small Shops, Different Tool Stories
Blackmore’s 950-square-foot Florida shop includes a Delta 1836 drum sander, which he says saves him a great deal of time, a Delta lathe, DeWalt 12-inch planer and a drill press, bandsaw and 6-inch planer, all from Jet. He built an extension for his Jet 10-inch table saw, which allows him to cut pieces up to 24 inches deep. He says that he likes to use hand tools as well, because he believe he achieves a better surface that way. Among his favorites are some antique hand planes that he found in a local antique store.
In his shop, Mason has accumulated a group of old three-phase machines that he says have saved him lots of money and perform with accuracy. Included are a Powermatic 12-inch saw and Powermatic 12-inch surface planer that a local lumber company was retiring because they did not meet OSHA requirements. Mason updated them with the necessary safety guards and stickers.
Mason’s other equipment includes a 16-inch radial arm saw and a 17-inch Model 90 lathe, both from Powermatic, a 15-inch Delta drill press and a 12-inch Northfield planer. He also has a 15-inch Hitachi bandsaw that he uses for cutting contours, resawing and bookmatching.
Since they both enjoy their own family ties, Blackmore and Mason are pleased that a second generation of the family is beginning to be involved in woodworking. Mason’s two daughters, ages 11 and 14, have learned to use the lathe to turn vessels. Last year, both girls succeeded in placing items in the American Gallery of Arts and Crafts in Cleveland. One piece was a buckeye vase and the other was a spalted maple bowl. And the wood, like most of the wood for their fathers’ projects, came from the family farm.
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