Tractors by Day, Woodworking by Night
Jun 01, 2020 03:37PM
By Karey Solomon
Several hundred small tractors, lawn mowers, and various other implements for taming vegetation, repositioning snow, and/or conducting construction projects are displayed outside and in at Nel’s Tractor, at 3611 Watkins Road (State Route 14) in Pine Valley, New York. When you look past them you’ll see large, beautifully grained slabs of natural wood leaning against an outer wall of the shop behind the tractors. Above them, if you look you’ll see a small sign modestly suggesting those interested might look within for finished pieces.
And inside, past rows of shiny red and yellow tractors, mowers, and other engine-driven necessities are gleaming tabletops and finished live-edge slabs. On the unfinished base of a treadle sewing machine rests a shiny, chocolate-hued oval of walnut, its dark heartwood encircled by the golden sapwood. About four feet across, it’s intended to serve as a platter for a wedding cake. Nelson Janowski, the “Nel,” behind the business, began making these last year.
He’s always loved wood, but when he opened the tractor sales and repair business here in 1981, it was a pursuit he laid aside. “My grandparents always had logs around,” he says, explaining the arts of working with wood were passed down through both sides of his family. His father worked in a sawmill. When something was needed, someone in the family built it.
Nel himself had a collection of logs he saved until, in 1999, he built his own home. To check this achievement off his bucket list, he hired sawyers with a portable sawmill to turn his logs into lumber. The experience rekindled his love of woodworking, though he kept it damped down until 2017, when he built his own sawmill and a shop to house the machinery and keep the wood under cover.
“Most sawmills work with logs twenty-eight to thirty inches in diameter. But no one builds a sawmill for the big stuff,” he says, then explains why he did just that. He designed his own sawmill so he can operate it entirely by himself. “The tractor business I do with other people, but I was looking for something I could do by myself.”
And because he can handle unusually large pieces of wood—“The largest I can do is seventy-one inches across”—people who have to down a large tree are referred to him. He’s become regionally known in the logging industry.
One huge walnut tree yielded eight “live edge” tabletops, each revealing the full glory of the grain. “Live edge” means the irregular edge of the wood beneath the bark, formed as the tree grew, isn’t planed away but is gently finished to retain its character as an organic, natural feature. After letting the slabs dry, then sanding them smooth, he finishes them with epoxy resin, which yields a tough, high-gloss finish while filling in any gaps or cracks in the wood. “We don’t have defects, we have character,” he says. Incidentally, he still has at least three of them left. In some smaller pieces, he’s tried out colored epoxy, which gives a stained-glass effect. “I was playing,” he says.
He points out an end-grain tabletop slab whose large diameter is the result of three original sapling trees that grew together and eventually fused into one large tree. “It’s a monkey face,” he jokes. Squint and you’ll see a face in the arrangement of tree rings. He’s created vanities, benches, coffee tables, trays, and more. He tried making chairs but didn’t enjoy the process—“Too much work,” is his verdict.
“Tables are the biggest thing—coffee tables, kitchen tables, countertops, and bar-tops,” he says. “I’ll custom build to what people want. Vanities are more popular now because a lot of people are doing just a farm-style counter with legs.”
He built his sawmill as a way of looking ahead toward retirement—he’s sixty-four now—when he decides to step back from the tractor business. Two sons are already involved, so he knows when he does lighten his shop schedule he’ll be leaving things in capable hands. For now, at the end of the day, when he puts down the tools used for tractor repair, he walks to the sawmill a few hundred feet behind his main shop and spends a few glorious hours before supper working by himself with wood.
Here a long slab of bark serves as a welcome mat outside two large sliding barn doors. The bandsaw, twenty-six feet long and two inches wide, is looped into an oval cutting machine. He does his own sharpening, but he has several replacement blades nearby just in case. Because he’s created a way of working with very large trees, loggers, construction workers, and highway crews bring him wood. “It’s out there and people know I’m looking for that stuff,” he says.
A wedding platter—still large for a single piece of wood but smaller than his largest tabletops—costs between $100 to $200. The bride’s and groom’s names, the date of their wedding, and any other designs they want might be engraved on its surface before finishing, a job Nel hands off to someone else at additional cost. Some couples decorate their platter themselves; one couple had their guests sign the platter with magic marker before the finish was applied, using it as a more permanent guest book. “They can use that for tabletop, or wall hanging,” he says—either way it’s a tangible souvenir of the day after serving as a sturdy platter for a momentous cake. A large platter might also, he notes, be a beautiful way to commemorate a significant anniversary.
For more information about wedding platters, tabletops, or engine-driven equipment, contact Nel at (607) 796-9087.