Unwanted Juniper Trees Turn into Highly Desirable Furniture
by Michael Dresdner
Drive past Bruce McAllister's shop in Mitchell, Oregon, and you will surely see one of his favorite pieces sitting out front; a 12-foot high rocking chair that weighs over half a ton and was assembled with the help of a forklift. While the size may first catch your eye, the unusual wood is the real draw. The rest of his furniture is normal sized, but the unique, multicolored twisted branches and trunks of juniper that he builds his pieces from is what makes them so very impressive.
Twisted with dramatic dark and light bands coiling around each other, the wood he chooses shows up in only about one percent of the Western juniper from which he makes furniture. Rather than lose this remarkable natural display, he crafts his pieces not from milled lumber, but from cleaned, debarked natural forms, cleverly assembled to look as if they had conveniently grown into handy furniture shapes. Like so many things in life, serendipity helped lure him into this work.
"Along with my two brothers," Bruce recounted, "I was doing tree thinning for the national forest service in Ochoco National Forrest. My neighbor was making patio furniture that folded from a bench into a table. I bought a set. He showed me how to make them, and I started making and selling them out of a small woodshed.
"During this time I would do a lot of hiking around Mitchell. There were a lot of juniper trees, which the ranchers hated because they suck up too much water in rather arid areas. They take up a lot more of the grazing land than do other trees, in part because they are very hardy and grow very fast. Junipers are considered so much of a nuisance that the government pays ranchers to clearcut them. One day I saw something made out of juniper. It looked unlike anything I had ever seen before. I knew I didn't want to cut juniper for firewood, but seeing that, I was hooked."
Bruce cuts all the pieces live from standing trees, which is the only way to get the color variations. Junipers, which grow to be over 2,000 years old, contain both dead and live wood in them. The color variation, which is white sapwood against darker heartwood, comes out best when the tree is cut live. "A tree lying on the ground attracts insects, and loses its color variation," McAllister explained. "Cut live, it will stay that color, even without finish on it, as long as it is indoors and out of direct sunlight. The twisted wood seems to come mostly from older trees on south-facing slopes. I've seen branches on the same tree twisting in opposite directions, and trees right near one another doing the same thing. Some folks think I twist them and paint them, but it is all nature."
Out of this unusual wood he makes tables, chairs, beds, mantels, benches, candle holders, coat racks, lamps – pretty much everything in the woodworking pantheon. In addition to furniture, he also sells raw juniper as already debarked mantels, columns, and branches for other woodworkers to use. "Mostly what I like to do," said Bruce, "is to find a piece of wood and not change it much. Sometimes I'll drive by a tree and see a coffee table or a lamp in it. When I get nice pieces of wood that tell me what they want to be, it is a lot of fun."
As a result, much of his fun comes from hunting down the wood. "First, I get permission from the owner of the property to cut the juniper," Bruce explained, "then set out with a four-wheeler and start looking at trees, most of which are on ranches on private land. Many of these ranches are 50,000 acres or more. The most interesting wood shows up primarily on south-facing slopes, and I can spot a prime area from half a mile away."
"Many of the ranchers give me standing permission to cut whenever I want. One rancher asked me to make a table lamp for her in exchange for culling rights, but often, they ask for nothing in return. However, I help out by keeping the owners informed whenever I see anything unusual, like a damaged fence, a dead animal, or even trespassers."
Most of what he cuts is over 600 years old, and some of it twice that age. "Sometimes I'll see a hillside with tens of thousands of junipers on it," Bruce told me. "They can take over and area and fill it, growing quickly, but if they are in an area where they escape the forest fires, they can live to be very old. There are so many places to look for this wood, I never have to go to the same place twice, and usually do not."
Spotting these diamonds in the rough is not all that easy. With the bark on, the tree looks similar to Western red cedar. "Even the ranchers tell me they had no idea the wood looked like that under the bark." Though both trees are in the cypress family, juniper is a lot tougher and stronger than cedar. Once he gets them cut, he cleans off the bark with a turbo nozzle on a pressure washer. "Some pieces have extraordinary character, but it isn't clear to me immediately what should be made from them. I store them and look at them until I see what the piece wants to be."
His shop, storage and a showroom all share space on a roadway near Mitchell, a town nestled in the high desert of Oregon. This tiny, remote village of only 170 inhabitants boasts one store, one post office, and a 600-pound black bear named Henry whose owner lets you go into his cage and feed him. "I've done that," Bruce admits. "He does not like to be petted, though, and he's got big teeth. He was raised from a cub, and his owner wrestles with him." Bruce was also mayor of Mitchell for one term, an experience he describes as "being in the middle of a huge family fight. One term was enough."
Mostly, Bruce looks for wood and figures out how to form it into furniture that looks too natural to be true, while modestly giving nature star billing. "I think the wood deserves most of the credit for what I do," Bruce insists. "I go out and find it, clean it, and put it together, but it is the wood that makes my furniture look unique."