Wood with character

By on August 9, 2017
Ben Shirk measures the base of the “killer log.”

Ben Shirk measures the base of the “killer log.”

It all starts at Ben Shirk’s sawmill in East Earl

The celebrated Japanese-American craftsman George Nakashima created distinctive furniture with hardwoods in their natural state. His tables, chairs and benches sell today to collectors for thousands of dollars.

A few furniture makers, several in Pennsylvania, are carrying on the technique. But this classic furniture could not be made without quality, live edge wood slabs. In Lancaster County many of those slabs come from Ben Shirk’s sawmill in East Earl. In the last decade, Shirk has quietly built a successful business providing this quality hardwood slabs to wood craftsmen.

The Lancaster County native specializes in wood with character — slabs with knots or defects that most sawmills discard to produce commercial lumber.

Shirk has been cutting wood for more than 30 years. He learned the skill at Rissler Forest Products just a mile from his family farm when his brother, who was working there, left and Shirk, still a teenager, took his place.

Shirk also bought some wood and spent weekends drying and selling it from his current sawmill site. He wanted to open his own business and that opportunity came in 2004 when Rissler closed.

In the beginning, Shirk operated a traditional business turning logs into lumber for the trade. He discovered by accident — a decade ago — an interest by craftsmen for slabs with fine grain patterns, defects from knots or even damage. Shirk explains, “These slabs are one-of-a-kind and can be fashioned into furniture that is unique and which sells for top dollar.”

Most of Shirk’s wood is brought to him by tree services who need to dispose of logs or homeowners who seek his help.

“Many times I get the first call to see if I am interested,” Shirk says, “and I take the wood, good and bad, and do something with it.”

On Shirk’s property, at any one time, there are more than 100,000 board feet of slabs in some stage of drying and aging before they are ready to sell. Working with his son Wesley, 17, who is learning the business, and brother-in-law Melvin, Shirk can cut multiple logs into lumber in a full production day sometimes starting early in the morning or extending after dinner into summer twilight.

Shirk recently purchased his first new band saw —a top-of-the-line Wood-Mizer LX450. Its hydraulics are capable of handling 36-inch in diameter by 21-foot long logs.

There is a smile on his face every time Shirk demonstrates the Wood-Mizer for visitors. “It is so much more efficient than the manual saw I have been using for years,” he says, “and allows me to handle logs safely and more efficiently. Many are turned into wide slabs for tables customers usually ask for.”

Amish craftsman Mike Fisher, New Holland, who has specialized in natural edge furniture for years and whose tables grace homes throughout the Northeast got a look at the new band saw on a visit to the sawmill and was impressed.

“Ben understands the needs of fine furniture makers,” Fisher says, “and he produces the finest slabs of hardwood and sells them at a fair price.” Fisher has been working with Shirk since 2007 when he purchased his first natural edge slab for a table that sold wholesale for $2,000 and double that at retail.

Shirk does not advertise but has no shortage of buyers, many of whom are in awe of the operation and the showroom with dozens and dozens of cherry, walnut, maple, ash, elm and other species of wood slabs — all with character — ready for sale.

The Brown Road site is a patchwork of large piles of slabs covered to protect them from sun damage and air drying. The wood will air dry from several months to more than a year before being kiln dried in final preparation to sell.

Only 10 percent of sawmill time is spent cutting while the remainder is filled with managing the wood yard. And when he has a customer, it isn’t a five-minute visit.

“My customers want to look, examine the slabs, and talk about the business as they decide on purchases for furniture projects,” he said.

In 2005, Shirk got his first big log from a tree service. It was a 4-foot-by-14-foot Gingko (a species that dates back millions of years and was native to China). “I made natural edge slabs,” Shirk says, “and could not sell them for several years. I was just ahead of the curve.” After they were finally gone — some discounted to sell — a number of furniture makers queried him about buying more, at any price. It was then Shirk saw a niche market developing and it would set him apart from competitors.

But to succeed and be able to saw wide diameter logs, Shirk needed a big saw. At the time, early in his business, Shirk needed a reasonable saw that was not high-tech. He found an ad for a custom made band saw in Montana that had been built for a specific year-long project and was available. Sight unseen, Shirk pulled a trailer to Montana and bought the saw for $14,000. It immediately allowed him to work on much larger logs yielding wide slabs that he knew furniture makers wanted.

“We still use it, Shirk says, “and will need it for the big walnut log we recently bought but the saw is a bear (what he calls an exercise machine) to operate.”

Shirk likes to describe the big walnut as a “killer log,” and possibly the most valuable he has ever owned. The anticipation of truly unique slabs from it has some of Shirk’s regular customers begging him to take deposits on wood that will not be available for 12 to 14 months.

“The tree is about 100 years old,” Shirk says, “and was healthy but threatened a home not 15 miles from here.” When Shirk inspected the tree, he had a feeling it was going to be an exceptional log. He paid the homeowner and arranged with him for the tree to be carefully taken down.

“As soon as the six-foot base was cut and I could see it was solid and there was no smell (Ben says trees with rot and issues give off a distinctive odor), I knew we had some exceptional wood.” The log will yield more than a dozen 17-foot slabs of up to five feet in width that will sell for a premium price.

Shirk’s sawmill may have flown under the radar for years but today more and more craftsman are finding his single, home telephone number — Shirk is old school with no Internet presence or mobile phone — and making their way to his sales room. He describes their first visit, smiling, “like watching a kid in a candy store.”

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