Niche Products Put Alaska Timber to Creative Uses
In fact, the forest sector was Alaska’s second-largest industry in the ‘70s, but large-scale logging and milling are gone. In its place, smaller operators turn Alaska’s remaining wood harvests into niche products.
“Wood and wood products are ubiquitous,” says Tessa Axelson, executive director of the Alaska Forest Association. “Wood is used in a variety of products that our members provide supply for. Much of the high-end musical instruments produced internationally, sailboat masts, cultural logs used for panels and totems, and high-end beams and custom finish carpentry products are made from wood that comes from the Tongass National Forest.”
Alaska Specialty Woods (ASW) salvages tonewood from old-growth Sitka spruce and cedar from the Tongass on Prince of Wales Island. “Woods for the world’s music, in harmony with the land,” is part of the company’s mission statement.
“Responsible stewardship is the essence of our process,” says ASW founder Brent Cole Sr., who owns and operates the business with his wife Annette and two sons. “The future of music and its cultural significance depends on the forest, and it is our responsibility to make the best use of it. Salvage is key in sustaining the Tongass old growth for future generations to appreciate and experience while supplying the world with quality soundboards.”
The family started the company in 1997, and ASW now annually supplies more than 50,000 guitar tops made of Sitka spruce, western red cedar, and Alaska yellow cedar to tonewood users such as custom luthiers, manufacturers, and other builders of acoustic instruments.
“Every guitar maker has their own distinct shape and design,” says Cole. “We manufacture hundreds of products, from ukulele tops to double bass fronts. Soundboards—the top or board that vibrates, moving air that creates sound, arguably the most important piece of any acoustic instrument—are our specialty.”
The Living Edge
While Cole’s wood speaks through music, Reid Harris of Aleph Designs gives his a voice through design.
The 39-year-old Juneau resident was on an Alaska Airlines flight a decade ago when a magazine article featuring a stunning live-edge table caught his eye. Instead of cutting a square slab out of a piece of wood, live edge tables follow the contour of the tree, from one bark edge to the other.
“What is that?” Harris recalls asking. “It was absolutely phenomenal.”
A woodworker himself, Harris determined the $25,000 price tag was out of his league, but he knew he had the talent to craft his own table. Months later while at a friend’s mill, he saw a shaggy old piece of red cedar with a live edge, took it home, and created a table he was proud of. Soon his expertise spread by word-of-mouth, and now Harris estimates he has more than 100 pieces floating around, mostly in Juneau.
Harris purchases many of his slabs from Wes and Sue Tyler of Icy Straits Lumber & Milling as well as from other local millers.
“Buying in slabs preserves the natural and unique characteristics of a tree. It is an actual segment right through the tree, from one bark edge to the other bark edge,” says Harris. “There’s a lot going on inside of a tree, and the slab cut helps reveal that beauty. Every tree tells a tale.” That character is lost when the slab is cut into dimensional lumber, “the type of mass-produced stuff you’d buy at Home Depot,” he says.
Annette and Brent Cole Sr. have been salvaging old-growth Sitka spruce and cedar on Prince of Wales Island for Alaska Specialty Woods since 1997.
Harris says the heavy decline of the timber industry in Southeast is arguably for better or worse, but for certain the remaining local mills are struggling to keep the lights on and pay their employees.
“When I buy one of these slabs from Wes, I pay more than the dimensional value of that lumber if that was just a 2×4,” explains Harris. “He has to take extra care not to mar the edges, to cut it properly, to kiln dry and get it to me, so it’s a value-added product. I pay him a premium over other buyers and then, when I sell a piece, it creates a value-added production loop from local resources. This is something I highly value and see as a community benefit.”
Icy Straits Lumber and Milling has been operating since 2003 on Chichagof Island near Hoonah, about 40 miles west of Juneau. Wes Tyler, 74, began working in wood right out of high school and learned most of what he knows about the forest products industry from his father, grandfather, uncles, and cousins.
“They all taught me how to work and to strive to do your best, no matter the circumstances,” says Tyler. He met his wife in 1970, and the couple have been living and working in the woods of Southeast for fifty-two years.
Tyler classifies his mill as a “custom cutting” operation, but that has never been the main objective.
“When handling any volume of wood fiber, you come across numerous odd pieces that can be turned into unusual items,” Tyler explains. “We keep an eye out for those and set them aside for future projects. Our particular local wood species add to the uniqueness of many of these furniture items.”
Tyler credits his wife for the more creative side of the business. He says she has an excellent eye for decorating and artsy things.
“She would set ideas in front of one of our employees who was talented in woodworking and a gifted artist,” he explains. “She would talk over the idea, and he would wave his magic over the pieces of wood, and out would come neat one-of-a-kind pieces of furniture or artsy woody decorations.”
Jeremy Douse, the Northern Region Forester and acting Coastal Regional Forester for the Alaska Division of Forestry, says his agency is working to continue providing wood for value-added wood products, even though it doesn’t create a huge amount of volume.
Based in Fairbanks, Douse says many folks in the northern region who make bowls, cutting boards, and other craft items supplement their income by selling firewood or wood for making pellets and chips for heating.
Fairbanks-based The Great Alaskan Bowl Company takes pride in the tradition that using birch bowls represents. The company turns as many as 100 bowls in a standard shift, says Emily Berriochoa, daughter of founder Lewis Bratcher.
“We go for volume,” she says. “We have a kiln that helps us dry a bowl in about a week, so that’s different than someone doing things at home and having to rely on air drying. So that’s kind of our secret sauce, essentially.”
And the northern region is well-stocked with birch.
“Birch isn’t old growth. It’s not going to live 300 years, but starts dying around 70 to 80 years,” says Berriochoa. “We try to look at the older trees at the end of their life span and let the younger ones grow up.”
Now in their 31st year of operation, Berriochoa likes to describe her shop as an Alaskan-made home goods and gourmet food store.
“We’re reminding them of an era of when their grandparents made everything from a wooden bowl,” Berriochoa says of customers entering their store, “and the reason those bowls are still around is because there wasn’t a dishwasher for somebody to put them in and ruin it.”
That 70- or 80-year-old birch could exist for another 80 years as practical woodcraft.
“We’re trying to produce heirloom items in this disposable economy,” Berriochoa says, “challenging our customers to think differently and to know it’s going to cost a little bit more upfront, but the long-term enjoyment is something you’re not going to get out of a big box store.”
New Life for Scraps
Alaska Specialty Woods founder Brent Cole Sr. specializes in soundboards for musical instruments. The company also manufactures thousands of guitar tops each year.
Van Sleet’s rings start out as a very thin piece of wood collected from aspen, spruce, and willow found on their off-the-grid, solar powered homestead. “I shave off thin pieces with a chainsaw mill and hand sand them down further,” he explains. “The wood is soaked and then hand-bent around itself to the size needed. Then I use my mini lathe to create the channel and inlay materials. Each ring takes about three to five days to make.”
Word of his rings has grown far beyond Alaska.
“My rings go all over the world now,” he says, including the United Kingdom, the Philippines, and Australia. “And it all started with that first wooden ring for Lori.”
In addition to rings, Van Sleet also makes pens and bowls, most of them sold online.
In Southcentral Alaska, a carver in Girdwood lets the piece of wood he’s working on speak to him before creating one of his whimsical wood spirits.
Inspired by his father’s wizard carvings, Cody Burns began wood carving following his graduation from college.
“I love the whimsical look and feel of wizards and wood spirits,” says Burns, who works full time as a ski patroller at Alyeska Ski Resort and part time as an artist and wood carver. In 2011 Burns had saved enough gas money to move to Girdwood, where he created his Alaska Wood Wizard.
“I try to let the piece of wood speak to me and I try not to expect anything,” Burns says. “As I’m carving, I’m not really thinking about what I am doing. I just do the next thing that the piece of wood tells me to do.”
Burns also makes items such as relief carving tree scenes, bowls, spoons, hearts, lamps, and coat hangers. He gathers his wood locally, favoring cottonwood bark, spruce knots, or spruce planks he finds leftover at sawmills.
“I carve every free chance that I get, oftentimes with my daughter and golden retriever puppy, who likes to eat the wood chips I make,” he says. “I do all of my work right here in Girdwood. I have a nice cabin in the woods with a back porch so I can carve outside in the fresh air.”
Small-scale wood businesses can’t replace Alaska’s former timber industry, but they keep the porchlight on until the day when logging might return to the Tongass.
“Second growth that is coming isn’t quite there yet. It’s kind of a wait and see,” says Douse, the Fairbanks forester. “Everybody is kinda on edge—what kind of industry will we have down here?”
He explains that commercial use of wood is part of what keeps a forest healthy. “I don’t think a lot of people understand that if we lose this industry or are not able to produce much volume, then we lose the capability to really manage forests,” Douse says. “It’s an important tool from a forestry perspective.”
Architecture & Engineering Special Section + Small Business
In the February 2024 issue of Alaska Business, we engineered a special section that inspects the many ways architecture and engineering enrich our lives, from creating beautiful and functional spaces to crafting functional and safe transportation corridors. In addition to the built world in which we live, this issue celebrates small businesses and the many functions they provide, whether they're developing tools in the healthcare industry or opening new dining locations.