The Treasures in the Trees
Feb 06, 2019 11:55AM
“I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.”
~Dr. Seuss, “The Lorax”
At first glance, the Woodrich company looks like many other small lumber mills you might find in central Pennsylvania. To get there, you follow a small gravel road beside a woodlot to find large equipment and buildings. But that is where the similarity ends. For this is a place where magic happens—where the unloved, the “in the way,” the diseased, and the dead trees of Pennsylvania go to become some of the most unusual and ruggedly beautiful handcrafted furniture. How that happens comes from the passion and vision of Raffaele Colone, owner of Woodrich.
Today, there are several companies nationally that feature “live edge” furniture, but fifteen years ago, Raffaele was one of only a handful of people in the country who were working with whole logs, as this kind of work takes both great strength and skill. Raffaele was trained at the Pennsylvania College of Technology as a forester. He was a tree climber, an arborist, and knew both how to remove a tree and how to manage a forest. But he had no interest in cutting trees that were perfectly healthy. There were trees that needed to be removed, and many of those trees were in an urban environment. He saw the beauty in these trees, in this old wood. Woodrich uses this type of salvaged wood, from both the towns and the woods, as the raw material for furniture.
At first, Raffaele worked out of his two-car garage, without heat or electricity, under the name Trees for Life. To create a live edge plank from a tree, he sawed the rough logs using a chain saw with a five-foot blade and a frame to help hold the saw level to the log. From the finished slabs, the furniture was created. It only took a few years before he needed more space, and moved to a Pennsylvania bank barn just outside of Williamsport. But from the very first days there was the dream of a plant where the business could really grow.
That dream was realized in 2013, when Raffaele and the Woodrich company moved to a lumbering plant. For the plant, he designed an eighty-inch-wide mill to cut the logs, and a sixty-inch-wide planer for flattening the slabs and making the logs ready for use. By then, he had hired Jason Mitstifer to work with him. Jason, a master craftsman, was another graduate in forestry from PCT and shares the love of the outdoors, the forest, and the trees. With the space and the specialized equipment, the company became a leader in both fine furniture and in finished and unfinished slabs. The plant is a sustainable facility, with the portion of the trees not cut for furniture creating the heat needed to warm the building and operate a kiln to season and dry the planks, this after they have carefully air dried in Jenga-like towers for two-to-three years.
The warehouse is a fragrant forest, filled with long planks and the crosscut “cookies.” As he looks at a log, Raffaele can see the planks and crosscuts that will show this particular tree to best advantage. But there are surprises.
“The fun is when you open the log up,” he says. You don’t know what you will find. Horseshoes, barbed wire, and slugs are some of the metals found, encased in a tree that simply grew around these foreign objects and swallowed them up. And the trees in this warehouse are not only the trees we think of when we think of fine woods for furniture. Sure, there is cherry, walnut, and many varieties of oak. But there is beech, birch, hickory, sassafras, and poplar ready for finishing. Even white pine, box elder, and other less desired species of tree stand there, looking gorgeous.
“I don’t let anything go,” Raffaele says.
That finishing process happens in an area roughly the size of the original two-car garage. There, Raffaele, Jason, or apprentice Alex Neidig sand and polish the slab. The edge is only sanded to the cambium layer of the tree, which is the growing part of the tree, where the bark is replenished and the wood is grown. The darker pattern of this layer reminds us of the bark of the tree and provides an edge that is both polished and rustic. As the work is done to transform the unfinished slabs to furniture, care is taken to avoid filling cracks and crevices. They are part of the character of the wood. On one project in the warehouse, a glass surface is crafted to provide the working surface and let the beauty of the deep crevice in the wood be the star.
A tree, of course, has history—is history. Recently, Woodrich salvaged an ash tree, killed by the emerald ash borer, from Centre County. The tree was 275 years old and is in the process of being made into a large table for a client in Boalsburg. It’s not uncommon for people who have a tree that needs to be salvaged to contract for a finished piece from Woodrich.
Salvaging is in the “heartwood” of this company, so it was only logical that Raffaele and Woodrich would “repurpose an industrial space that was crumbling” in Williamsport as a showroom for high end, handcrafted, Pennsylvania furniture. Located at the corner of Church and Academy, the former Coca-Cola bottling plant, built in the first decade of the twentieth century, is perfect.
“No one wanted it. The city had it on the demolition list,” Raffaele says. Now in the process of being lovingly restored, the building exemplifies, in the most practical sense, the value of salvage, and is a fitting metaphor for this company devoted to saving and transforming.