Friday, October 19, 2012
If You Don't Like This Furniture, Just Throw It in the Barbecue
FREDERICKSBURG, Texas—People in the Lone Star State have long cursed the gnarled mesquite shrub as a pest on par with the mosquito, good for little except adding smoky flavor to barbecue.
It is thorny, forever thirsty and just plain unsightly. Ranchers hate it—they are losing the battle to eradicate mesquite to clear range for cattle.
But a hardy band of woodworkers has higher aspirations for mesquite: turning the twisted trees into objets d'art. And after two tool-busting decades spent carving misshapen mesquite trunks into rocking horses, golf clubs and tables, they have achieved a bit of fortune and fame.
The Texas Mesquite Art Festival, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last weekend, drew 9,500 visitors eager to see what a stubborn person can make out of a warped "trash tree."
"Deep down inside, it says something about us as Texans," says Roger Ellison, 66 years old, a furniture maker from San Angelo, Texas. "We're fiercely independent, rugged and maybe a little hardheaded. People look at that wood and kind of see themselves."
Unlike walnut, cherry or oak, mesquite trees rarely grow in one direction for long, so coming up with a straight piece of lumber to work with is part of the challenge. Finding wood often means sorting through ranchers' piles of moldering brush.
The heartwood from the tree's core is so tough that cutting tools quickly go dull. And the wood is usually so pocked with imperfections, from splits in the grain to worm holes, that woodworkers have to add embellishments to close the gaps. Some fill splits with an epoxy created to repair cracked bowling balls. Woodworkers say it takes at least twice as long to make furniture from mesquite as other traditional woods.
Yet the finished pieces have a rustic beauty that some wealthy Texans find hard to pass up. Elaborate mesquite works, such as pool tables with turquoise inlays and longhorn carvings, sell for upward of $35,000.
"We call ourselves mesquite bubbas," says Alton Bowman, 67, a wooden artifacts conservator from Flower Mound, near Dallas. He is trying to bring his love of mesquite to the heirloom antiques crowd.
When a wealthy client bought four 1720 Parisian chairs through Sotheby'sBID -3.40% for $80,000 and asked him to fashion replicas, Mr. Bowman carved a copy for himself—out of mesquite. He was peddling it to a bemused onlooker at the festival for $7,500, calling it "one of a kind in the world."
Not everyone is whipping out his wallet for mesquite handiwork. Steve Ellisor of Cypress, near Houston, was intrigued by a polished mesquite bowl he saw at the festival—until he saw its $450 price tag. "It's 'art,' I guess," he says.
One woman who picked up a mesquite-wood vase panicked when it slipped from her hands and fell with a thump. "I think I just bought it!" she told her husband.
She was quickly reassured by Carmen Cox of Coleman, Texas, who was helping her husband, Morris, sell his creations. "You can't do nothing to that, ma'am," Ms. Cox told her.
Rain briefly marred the festival Saturday. But it didn't cow the mesquite woodworkers, some of whom were wearing caps with the slogan "MESQUITE BUILDS CHARACTERs." They hunkered under tents and kept hawking hundreds of mesquite-made wares, everything from Christmas decorations in the shape of Texas and judges' gavels to carved waterfowl and jewel boxes cut from single logs.
"As we say every year it rains, thank God it's mesquite," says Al Carr, the organizer of the Fredericksburg festival, in the middle of Texas Hill Country. "It cleans up nicely and withstands a lot." Mr. Carr's creations include a Victorian-style gliding rocking horse and a guitar for an Austin bluesman.
Mr. Carr teams up with other artists to rent flatbed trailers, forklifts and other heavy equipment to fell big mesquite trees at ranches. From there they take the wood to sawmills, with each artist hand-cutting some of the logs themselves to extract the exact shapes of wood they need for their projects.
Allen Linnen of Magnolia, Texas, scours Craigslist for unwanted woodpiles. "Mesquite is the pig of wood, in the sense that we can find a good use for nearly all of it," he says. "And making furniture, that's like the bacon."
Mesquite is native to Mexico and the border region. But cattle that ate its difficult-to-digest beans left a long trail of droppings that spread the tree through the Southwest, making it ubiquitous. And undesirable—pioneer Texas rancher W.T. Waggoner dubbed mesquite "the devil with roots." The shrub can grow to 30 feet tall or beyond if left unmolested.
Stan Austin, a 58-year-old rancher from Farwell, in the Texas panhandle, used to consider mesquite a plague. But when he fashioned a mesquite rocking chair as a Texas heirloom for his first granddaughter, Rylee, he caught the woodworking craze and discovered a second career.
That first chair took him seven months. Now he carves them in a few weeks, and sells them for thousands to customers as far away as Germany.
"My thought when I saw mesquite used to be: trouble," he says. "Now I see a tree and wonder how many chairs I can get out of it."
Carlos Lerma, a retired law enforcement officer from Brownsville, Texas, on the border, says he and his father make "a couple hundred thousand a year" selling furniture and novelty items, such as decorative wooden U.S. Border Patrol badges.
He recently paid $15 at a saw mill for an unwanted slab he turned into a table. "I got an easy $2,500 profit out of that thing," he says, "a piece of wood some people would have burned to cook a beef brisket."
Write to Miguel Bustillo at firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article appeared October 17, 2012, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: If You Don't Like This Furniture, Just Throw It in the Barbecue.