Bootstrap business Baldwin Custom Woodworking transforms diseased trees into handmade heirloom woodworks.
Peel back the bark on millions of trees throughout the Western United States, and you’ll find the telltale signs of beetle infestation: a criss-crossing network of narrow channels that emboss otherwise smooth wood. Since the late 1990s, more than 60 million acres of forest in the West have experienced tree die-offs resulting from an unprecedented mountain pine beetle epidemic. Although mountain pine beetles are native to the region, two decades of warming temperatures and drought have weakened trees, giving the insects a foothold.
While entire mountainsides turn from green to rusty red and then to gray — the characteristic palette progression of a forest in beetle-borne decline — elm, ash, and walnut trees are also being attacked by pests and removed at increasing rates in communities such as Denver, Boulder, and Fort Collins. One Colorado woodworker has been working to give new life to the pest-pocked trees removed from urban forests in northern Colorado.
Ryan Baldwin owns and operates Baldwin Custom Woodworking, a small sawmill and woodworking shop on the outskirts of Fort Collins. Since 2008, he and his wife, Cara, have built the custom furniture company by salvaging the area’s damaged trees and transforming that salvaged wood into milled lumber for building projects and elegant custom furniture, cabinetry, and other products.
“Nine times out of 10, wood is coming to us because the tree is diseased or dying,” explains Ryan, adding that despite the havoc beetles wreak on the local ecology, the color and texture of the trees’ interior wood can remain largely unharmed. The human impact tends to be more noticeable: Because 90 percent of the wood coming into Ryan’s shop is from the immediate Fort Collins area — much of it from within city limits — interesting items, such as nails, barbedwire, and even bullets, can be found inside. And unlike farmed lumber, the rough-cut slabs Baldwin and his four-person crew work with are rarely straight with uniform grain.
“We have local student groups come out [for tours], and when you ask where wood comes from, the students respond with ‘Home Depot’ or ‘Lowe’s,’” Ryan says. “What we’re doing is sort of this throwback to half a century ago when there was a small sawmill in nearly every community. We’ve seen that disappear during the past 50 years, causing people to become disconnected from their lumber, their trees.”
This disconnect may be allaying somewhat. In recent years, Ryan has seen resurgent demand for locally sourced materials, thanks in part to the construction community’s growing aspiration to meet LEED building standards.
Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, is a rating system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council to certify building projects that comply with a stringent list of requirements pertaining to water efficiency, energy performance, and other measures. Points are awarded for reusing on-site materials — and this is where Ryan and his crew come in. The cities of Fort Collins and nearby Loveland, Colorado State University, and local firms have all tapped Ryan to incorporate urban wood into their building designs. “The builder receives credits toward LEED for reusing material, and the building occupants have an incredible story to tell about their staircase or other features,” Cara says.
Homeowners make up the remaining portion of customers who commission finished products. For many, the idea storm that occurs before a piece goes into production can last many times longer than the three to five weeks it will take Baldwin’s crew to make the piece. Visitors to the workshop are often struck with inspiration as they peruse possibilities for tables and chairs, countertops and stools, or bar tops with live edges — a trending request.
“People walking through a lumberyard may have trouble imagining what the end result might be,” Cara says. “But walking through the workshop, seeing other finished products, they get creative. In this way, the workshop is complementary to the lumberyard and vice versa.”
The Baldwins contend that building the custom furniture is the fun part — building the business is the hard part. As seasoned entrepreneurs know, the bootstrap businessperson wears many hats. Ryan is the shop mechanic, the janitor, the roof repairperson, the salesperson, the accounts manager. He taught himself QuickBooks, invoicing, payroll, and taxes. “He doesn’t give himself the full credit for not only designing and building the furniture but also for running the business,” Cara says.
Cara’s background is in journalism and marketing, and, like her husband, she has used her skill set to support the business’ journey by creating the custom furniture company’s marketing materials, writing email-based newsletters, and photographing pieces for the website. “In the early days, I dragged studio lights out to the garage and put up a black background to shoot studio photos of Ryan’s work,” she says. “Now, we have adopted more of a rustic look.”
“She makes really great cutting boards,” Ryan adds.
The pro bono nature of Cara’s contributions underpinned the business’ early viability. “As much as I helped behind the scenes, I’m not an employee and have maintained a full-time job outside of the business. It would have been tough to not have that outside paycheck coming,” she says. “It let Ryan jump headfirst into this.”
Ryan has been a do-it-yourselfer since the age of 6, when he began repairing chains on chainsaws and fixing lawn mowers. He gained some design background in school, which helped him to understand proportions and sizing — important skills for making furniture. And he stands by resources from The Taunton Press, publisher of Fine Woodworking and Fine Homebuilding magazines, for their ideas, tool guides, and product reviews. Home improvement shows also had a place in Ryan’s education. “I am a total nerd for ‘This Old House’ and ‘New Yankee Workshop’ and shows like that,” Ryan says.
He began woodworking as a profession in his garage with homeowner-grade tools: a table saw, miter saw, router, planer, and joiner. These worked well for producing custom furniture while eliminating the need for outside financing. “Many shops will start up with a lot of expensive equipment. For me, getting the tools I needed was organic — if I did a project where I needed a certain tool, then I added it,” he says.
However, two large investments in equipment allowed Baldwin Custom Woodworking to greatly expand its milling component to about 50 percent of total business. First was the addition of a Wood-Mizer brand portable sawmill, which allowed the crew to quickly mill raw logs into lumber. The second was the addition of two kilns.
Freshly milled lumber can require up to a year of drying time. By kiln-drying milled slabs, Ryan is able to dry lumber in as little as three weeks. The kiln allows him to work with contractors and homeowners who are just months away from completing a project. “If you had to wait one or two years for your material to dry, those opportunities just wouldn’t exist.”
Although Ryan would like to add more equipment (such as a larger planer), he cannot justify the space needed to house it. To deal with these limitations, he collaborates with other local sawmills and woodworkers. For example, he has access to a planer from a company that manufactures doors. “Leaning on other contractors is key. If you don’t need a large piece of equipment every day of the week, then you need to find someone who will let you use it once a week or a few times a month,” Ryan says.
If you want to start your own woodworking business, the Baldwins warn that you can’t be afraid of cozying up to seeming competitors in your community. Although other sawmills are located in Fort Collins, each has developed a niche around the wood they work with — Baldwin Custom Woodworking is milling ash, three varieties of elm, walnut, maple, and less common species, including catalpa, hackberry, mulberry, and apple, while its potential competition is dealing more in pine and fir. “We have all ended up helping each other rather than hurting,” Ryan says.
They also advise to supplement self-teaching with apprenticeships and classes to learn both how to work with wood and how to run a business. Finally, be sure to seek out adequate space. A lumber operation — even a relatively small one — needs enough land to accommodate 20 to 30 trees waiting to be milled, room to process this volume efficiently, and the ability to store the lumber.
Looking ahead, no material shortage is in sight for Ryan’s team. The mountain pine beetle epidemic shows signs of subsiding for now, but another pest — the emerald ash borer, an invasive beetle from Asia that feeds on ash trees — is moving in to take its place. “This means that over the next 2 to 10 years, we will have ash coming in,” Ryan explains.
For the Baldwins, the business boom brought on by these pests is bittersweet, knowing that it coincides with a bust for local trees. “I got into this because I really love trees,” Ryan says. “It’s sad to see them die like this, but I’m happy to know I’m doing something good to give them new life.”
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