Art has always been about content and form but for furniture maker Ryan Schlaefer, using Colorado’s beetle-killed lodgepole pine to make shelving, tables and dressers proved far from easy.
The knotty nature and splintery texture of pine does not lend itself well to furniture — especially not the sheeny, crisp lines of contemporary designs. It’s a soft wood and there are all those knots to work around. In the case of beetle-killed pine there are trunk-length cracks and hundreds of checks, not to mention the blue stain left by insects that killed the tree.
But Schlaefer did it anyway because he’s attracted to the story behind the wood — those acres of dead standing trunks that make people say it’s a shame there’s nothing to be done with them.
The medium does not naturally lend itself to his art but why doesn’t a jewelry maker always use gold. Why not just use cherry?
“It’s tough to get away from the cliche of what it is,” Schlaefer said of log furniture. “I don’t want it to look anything like what we’ve seen.”
That’s the artist talking. Then there’s the businessman. A solo craftsman selling his wares on his own with only a little help from his wife, Schlaefer took the path of many entrepreneurs: He recognized demand, looked around and saw that no one was filling it and decided to do it himself.
“There’s a call for it. A lot of people like the idea of it,” he said. “When I first started thinking about it there wasn’t one showroom that had any beetle kill in it.”
The mountain pine beetle has impacted nearly four million acres in Colorado and southern Wyoming, choking trees until they die and their needles turn red then grey. Harvesting costs are higher than proceeds of any commercial use, leaving communities with a lot of wasted wood lying around.
Summer drives from his Fort Collins-area home over Hoosier Pass to a family cabin near Fairplay gave Schlaefer the initial cause to ponder the wood.
“I was a little slow on how to develop it,” he admits.
Schlaefer, 39, is really a designer, tool craftsman and woodworker rolled into one.
Shortly after graduating from the Art Institute of Colorado as a graphic designer, he figured out a cubicle job was not for him and moved to Washington state, where he worked in a lumberyard making mantles and doors for customers. Then on a small Colorado Front Range crew he learned framing, how to hang drywall and all the other details of putting up a house. Finally, before starting his own custom furniture business six years ago he worked at a Denver furniture design center.
“I had no intentions of building furniture but it was a melding of three skills I found myself with: design, tools, and furniture, and then back around to the design side,” he said.
His graphics background directs him toward contemporary furniture with its clean lines, sharp angles, mix of textures and cunning use of color. The complicated, knotty look of pine and especially beetle-kill pine can “fry” the eyes, according to the artist, so he molds it with a glue press and transforms it with multiple layers of finish to make something that looks very unlike knotty pine.
He’s in luck because a major trend in mountain interior design is toward cleaner lines and away from overdone ornamentation — fashion’s answer to the heyday economy hangover. There’s still a demand for natural materials like wood, iron and stone but it needs to be easy on the eyes and uncomplicated.
Schlaefer’s creations fit the bill but to turn soft pine into durable furniture the wood has to be worked, almost as literally as a potter works a lump of clay on a wheel. He starts with kiln-dried pine from a Fort Collins milling and lumber company that buys from a Woodland Park beetle kill supplier. He spends more to buy it kiln-dried but it’s still half the price of traditional furniture woods.
The supply is the easy part. A recent curio case is framed in quarter-inch solid pine on the face, backed up with a plywood core, plus a maple veneer on the outside edge he made with a glue press. The maple balances the complicated aesthetics of the pine but also physically helps the case stand up. Finally, wood textures are complimented by glass doors and metal knobs.
Pine can make a table but it’s so soft that use will distress it, leaving divots and marks. Schlaefer might use beetle kill around the outside and legs of a dining room table but place a harder wood in the middle.
So while the material cost might be lower, the artistry and time required to craft it is not.
Still, he plans to create a furniture line for his business, Ryan Schlaefer Fine Furniture, that would make beetle-kill pieces more accessible to the general public.
“Obviously custom furniture is a luxury in most cases and it excludes a lot of the population,” he said. That bothers him, so using the beetle-kill could keep costs down and still provide great design and custom finishes.
And by using the local pine he would open an outlet — if a tiny sliver of one — to do something with all that dead wood.