CWB May 2004

 

The Best Nature Has to Offer

Pinecones, twigs, deer antlers and more find their way into Todd Barrow's rustic furniture.

By Hannah Miller

 


What's good enough for Mother Nature is good enough for rustic furnituremaker Todd Barrow - up to a point.

He takes much of his material straight from the North Carolina forests and countryside around him - yellow birch for uprights, rhododendron branches for curving table legs, old barn wood for tabletops.> But 17 years of experience have taught Barrow how to peel, scrape, join and finish nature's bounty into something not only useful but also attractive to humans. So attractive, in fact, that he can price a large armoire in the $20,000-$26,000 range.

The reputation of his Rustic Raven furniture has grown to the point that, when Architectural Digest wanted a couple of custom-built patio chairs to decorate a Santa Fe home for a photograph, he was asked to make them. He made bedroom furniture for the Treehouse in Orlando's Disney World. His chairs have been on the cover of Southern Accents magazine, and in 2000, he was one of the "Modern Masters" profiled by HGTV. He regularly sells through the prestigious New Morning and Grovewood galleries in Asheville, NC, and is beginning to sell through galleries in New York and Ohio.

He grew up in Hendersonville, NC, then graduated from the Portfolio Center in Atlanta in graphic design. As a young man, he was camping with friends in north Georgia and "we needed chairs to sit around the fire pit." He whacked several together, and his impressed friends told him, "You ought to sell these things."

 

Hand-hammered Canadian pennies outline the barn-wood top of this chest, which can also be used as a vanity. Legs are of yellow birch. Panels are paper birch bark decorated with birch twigs. The birch plywood frame is covered with a poplar bark border.>

 That started him off on nearly two decades of studying the history of rustic furniture and experimenting with ways to make it. It used to be a specialty of gypsies traveling the United States, he says. He still uses an old gypsy design to make an elaborately configured straight chair that he says will easily support a 300-pound man.

Now 42, Barrow started in business as a young vagabond, living and working in his van, "mostly up and down the Blue Ridge Parkway." He'd park in an out-of-the-way spot in a campground, and at night he'd make a few chairs. In the morning he'd go into the mountain vacation towns of Blowing Rock or Boone, sell the chairs for $200 or so each, then go rent a motel room.

He was in his mid-twenties then, and "it was a blast," he recalls. Only once did park officials interfere. A ranger closed him down once at a parkway overlook where "I was making chairs in one of the pullover areas."

Eleven years ago, he "moved back to North Carolina and started treating it like a real business." His shop is in the yard of his home, a rustic shed decorated with natural artifacts including bleached animal skulls and antlers. He chose the name Rustic Raven because he has an abiding interest in Native American mythology, and a raven is the Inuit symbol for creativity.

Barrow's work is said to be a cross between Southern Appalachian and Adirondack styles. Yet it has a good slice of pure Barrow in it. Instead of letting nail heads be a part of his rustic look, he uses very fine finishing nails and buries them with a Porter-Cable brad nailer. He doesn't want to risk splitting the wood. He had no idea how to flatten pinecones for decoration, so he experimented using his OEM angle grinder, which works fine, he says.

He tramps the woods near his rural home north of Asheville, looking for wood, leaves and pinecones. "I climb all over the mountains back in here and find out where a patch of something is," he says.

He used a lot of willow when he started, from state and utility rights-of-way. But now the powers-that-be are using poison to control the willows' growth, he says, and he's had to substitute rhododendron.

 

People guess that the door panels in this entertainment armoire are leather or stained glass, says Barrow. "Nobody has said, 'that looks like white pine bark,'" which it is. He covered the entire face of the unit, a "blank" built by another cabinetmaker, with fire-cherry twigs. They're used straight and in a herringbone pattern. The door handles are antlers from fallow deer; the uprights are yellow birch. >

 "I usually take down one barn a year," he adds, but he's now found someone else to do that dangerous work for him. Snakes and poison ivy are formidable threats, and "mice and rats all have nests in there."

After collecting his own leaves, he presses them "when I'm vegging out in front of the TV." He glues them to the paper birch or white pine bark that he uses for panels in doors and lamps, then seals it all with a Minwax oil-based polyurethane.

Whatever touches he adds to his pieces are likely to be intricate and time-consuming. He hand-hammered all the Canadian pennies he used to surround one barn-wood vanity top, and the customer remarked on his patience.

"That's what people pay me big money for," he said, but added that it's a love of the work rather than patience that sees him through.

The door panels of one hutch are entirely surrounded by willow-twig trim, with the end of each twig rasped by hand. "Every twig that I do - this is what people are paying for - is rasped on the end. That's why you can see them. Otherwise, they just blend in," he says.

Twigs of fire cherry are a favorite. "It's got that real pretty red - the deepest, most beautiful burgundy." He uses the twigs' straight lines to outline panels or to form decorative inserts, sometimes in a herringbone pattern. He also winds curved birch twigs across panels for decoration.

North Carolina laws protecting native whitetail deer keeps him from using even naturally shed antlers for his door handles and decorative touches. Instead he uses imported antlers shed by fallow deer, a European breed.

He still uses the tools he started business with: a hammer, a rasp, a knife bought at a flea market, and a Japanese saw, which he says "is just incredible. You can use it almost like a power saw." He's since added the angle grinder, a Porter-Cable brad nailer, a Makita circular saw and a DeWalt palm sander.

He uses sandpaper and a wire brush to scrape mountain laurel, which if left natural, tends to shed its bark, he says. "If you have a cream-colored carpet, you wouldn't want that. You'd be vacuuming every day."

 

Side and front panels in this two-part hutch are of white pine bark, decorated with strips of willow. The rest of the piece, except for the barn-wood shelves and back, are birch plywood covered entirely with willow twigs. Imported deer antlers form both the handles and the decorative piece at the top.>

 He sells a line of mirrors, lamps, half-moon tables and coffee tables through galleries, and "I try to do something unique with each piece," he says.

Much of his work is commissioned by decorators and architects. "Most of my money is Florida money, Atlanta money," he says. People with summer homes in the North Carolina mountains often like to own something made locally, he says. He also does some rustic architectural millwork.

Barrow's work is moving away from the purely rustic, and he sees galleries moving in the same direction, to pieces that combine rustic and fine-furniture elements. "I'll do some really high-end finished tops" and use natural materials for the bases, he says. Some customers don't care where the materials come from, and he's begun to use African woods when he runs out of barn-wood.

Barrow's also begun to incorporate fine-furniture features in his work, partly a result of his studies last year at the nearby Penland School of Crafts. "Used to, everything I did was straight up and down," he says. But now he's using the curves achieved by bending plywood. Over it, "I use Mother Nature's veneer," he says.

Though some customers go for a simple style, "it seems like the more you have going on, the more people like it," he says. He too prefers the pieces with a lot of detail, though, "every time I think there's only one more step, there's something you forgot.

"If you love something enough, you find the time to do it," he says.

It's all worth it when the coat of polyurethane goes on, defining the piece's features, he says. He compares it to opening a Christmas gift. "Everything just pops right out."

                                                                                                                                                                                           

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