Spotlight: Jennifer Feist and Alan

Working Woodlands – Furniture and Crafts

jennifer and Alan with their two dogs showing off a table and wood slabJennifer and Alan aren't your average timber harvesters. While most woodland managers are in pursuit of the perfect log, Jennifer and Alan prefer the twisted, gnarled, knotty, and worm-eaten timbers. "Basically any wood that does not cooperate with commercial logging equipment," Jennifer says. "They want long and straight. And we want oddly shaped."

Jennifer and Alan make artisan furniture and other crafts from what is called 'character wood,' proving that one landowner's trash tree is another's treasure. They used to sell raw wood materials wholesale to log cabin builders, but after the economy changed following the Great Recession, they began to focus more on creating their own finished products. They harvest some wood from their own 77 acres, as well as neighboring state and private lands, coming in after commercial logging operations to collect the undesired specimens that were left behind. A curved cedar trunk may become a beautiful mantelpiece or headboard for a bed. A split-topped jack pine (previously damaged by a gnawing porcupine, insects, or an ice storm) may turn into the pedestal for a table, while a large black ash burl (a rounded growth caused by damage or disease) can produce the table's uniquely-shaped top. The possibilities are endless. "You have to look at this stuff out in the woods and try to find the pieces you need in them," says Jennifer.

The couple harvest their own trees using a chainsaw and hauling equipment, though occasionally they have used their horse to pull logs. "She's kind of lazy though," Alan jokes. After harvest, they let the wood mature a bit before blasting the bark off with a pressure washer. Sometimes they get a little help from nature with the process, which adds character to the wood; Jennifer points to a shelf with worm-eaten tunnels delicately interlacing across the surface. "That is cedar that sat with the bark on for maybe six months through the summer. If we keep our piles kind of low so that it's more in the high humidity grass, then that encourages the bugs to work the bark loose." Jennifer and Alan's woodland management activities also provide materials for their business. They are currently managing a stand of large white cedar for future harvest, and the smaller trees they remove during the tree-thinning process are the perfect size for furniture legs or coat racks.

The couple say they have considered purposefully managing their trees for character wood. "If you look at what misshapes the trees naturally, you could do some of that on your own," Jennifer says, giving examples such as clipping the tops of jack pine or tying the top of a young cedar to the ground to create a curve. However, they haven't found this to be necessary. "We don't get around to it because so much of it occurs naturally." Jennifer and Alan's approach to woodland management and harvest goes to show that a little creativity can go a long way toward making a living in the woods. "Everyone always says, 'I'd love to live here but there's no jobs.' And it's like, well do something then. Make your own job."

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