The Myrtlewood Master

Carver's skills keep rare product in high demand

The Myrtlewood Master 

 BY:GARRET JAROS 

For the Headlight-Herald
©Headlight-Herald
January 2, 200
 

 Stanfill displays two of his 12-inch myrtlewood bowls. He's one of only three people left on the country who turns such bowls. One of these sold before every leaving the lathe and the other sold minutes after touching the showroom shelf.

 

 GARIBALDI - When Richard Stanfill left a successful career as a junior executive at Freightliner Trucking and moved his wife and five daughters to Netarts - and no job - he says any doubt about an occupation never interfered with his vision for the future.

One visit to the log-strewn Netart's beach was all the then-37-year-old, accustomed to managing millions of dollars of inventory and purchasing, needed for inspiration.

That was 35 years ago.

"I was sitting on the beach, and I was an inventory specialist and all the inventory was free," recalls the 72-year-old master woodcarver, laughing. "So with free inventory, I stood a chance of making some money, didn't I?

"And I was so well trained by such a great corporation that it didn't make any difference what I did the rest of my life. I was going to be successful."

Now, in a shop best described as a beaver's Shangri-La, Stanfill demonstrates how to shave a last-of-its-kind myrtlewood bowl on his perfectly tuned 1920 Porter lathe. Wearing a bib of wood chips and a fedora, he works his homemade chisel against the flesh of a bowl with hands steady as a surgeon's.

"Don't mind my shop," he says with an all-encompassing wave at the forest of wood around him. "I'm a wood man. When you come in, I'm deep in wood. Most customers who come in here say, 'I've found the motherload.'"

His daughters phrase it a bit differently.

"My children say if I don't get rid of all this wood before I die, they'll dig me up and kill me. And they're serious.

"But what a fun occupation, huh?"

Stanfill says he didn't truly know what he was looking at that day on the Netarts beach because he knew nothing about wood. But that didn't stop him from opening the Netarts Table Factory and learning everything there was to know about his new crop.

Now he can ID a tree from 100 yards and use words such as ribbon, flame, fiddleback, bird'seye and quilt to describe the finer qualities of wood.

"The highest-valued burl from a redwood tree is called lace," he says with a gleam in his eyes. "When you see a full-lace redwood, you just say, 'Wow!' because it's taken so many hundreds of years crushed under so much weight to make wood like no other."

To the uninitiated, burl is a dome-shaped growth on the trunk of a tree that resembles a wart. The rich grains of a tree are only enhanced in its burl.

A myrtlewood burl bowl generally remains fewer than 48 hours on Stanfill's and wife Patricia's showroom floor in Garibaldi. And competition to get the now-rare wood is fierce.

"The trouble with getting hold of a full-burl bowl is that foreign companies are paying 35 cents per pound, soaking wet," he explains.

Conservation

The big issue in today's myrtlewood industry is availability.

When forests are clear-cut, herbicides are sprayed to kill off any plants and any trees that might compete with incoming fir crops being planted.

When Oregon logging reached its zenith in the 1970s and '80s, Stanfill appealed to then-Gov. Vic Atiyeh. "I discussed with him the value of myrtlewood and alder. They had no inclination that one day those alder and other trees would be a highly-valued industry product.

"It doesn't mean they were wrong, it just means they weren't steering the ship too good."

Now he struggles to compete with those in foreign countries for what little myrtlewood is available for the few remaining manufacturers. Europeans haven't seen natural-wood bowls for years, Stanfill says, because they don't have trees free of creosote, turpentine and kerosene.

Myrtlewood is nontoxic. Its leaves can be used for cooking and its oils for perfumes.

It favors growing along the southern Oregon coast, but strays inland as much as 40 miles.

The tree's seeds don't usually germinate outside its home range, but they can be grown in a nursery and transplanted to northern Oregon.

Myrtlewood grows quickly, Stanfill says ... but not quickly enough for his needs. "I prefer a tree with tight growth rings, ideally between 400 and 800 years old."

Myrtlewood manufacturers rarely go out and cut a tree anymore.

Rather, they are supplied by trees from highway rights-of-way, development, timber harvests and, more recently, from old homesteads where people are selling the timber before they sell the farm, Stanfill says. "Which is the new way of not leaving much for tomorrow," he adds.

"It's happening all over the state. And I never was able to convince the governor to be patient and wait for the market to arrive. To this day, forestry management doesn't begin without a spray can of herbicide.

"In 40 or 50 years, a single myrtlewood tree will be a rare find."

The craft

Stanfill can turn out a rough bowl, ready for the drying rack, in the time it takes to smoke a cigarette. And he can carve a salmon in wood in less time than it takes to bake a potato.

But that's not what he tells people.

"Everyone asks me, 'How many bowls do you make in a day? And I tell them it's not how many I make a day, it's how many I need this year.

"The bowl doesn't start with me going to work each day, it starts with me up a canyon in southern Oregon, sometimes in the mud and rain," he says. "But you get 'em when you get 'em."

As for increasing his volume, he dismisses the Internet as just so much work he can't handle, and passes off any notion of hiring help.

"For me to take the time to teach somebody with my machinery and tooling, generally speaking, if I do a superb job, he wouldn't need me anymore."

Stanfill's focus as a woodcrafter has transitioned over the years from general projects, to carving, and finally bowl making.

"I'm a bowl man," he says proudly. "I'm a master woodcarver, but I prefer myrtlewood over wood carving."

Stanfill is one of perhaps three people in the country who still "shave turn" one-piece, 24-inch bowls. Still, he modestly acknowledges the craftsmanship of others.

"If you graded turners, I'm a real poor turner," he says. "I'm a commercial turner. But I get a hell of a lot done. I deal in volume, while others deal in creation.

"So while I get a lot of bowls out, they may do just one. But their talents are unbelievable."

Stanfill's skill and his pursuit of perfection are best exemplified in his early days as a carver.

He'd suffered a bout with rheumatic fever that left him with doctor's orders not to work for two years. However, the doctor did agree to let Stanfill carve.

"So I was carving a ram out of a redwood block, and I said to myself, 'What a waste of time. If I'm going to put that much time into carving, I should do it with my best wood and deny myself the right to make any mistakes. And that would separate me from a beginner, and make me a professional.'"

Starting over

The Stanfills opened a string of businesses along the Oregon coast over the years. They even tried their hand at a restaurant and bar in Florence. At one point the couple had 25 employees.

But as their businesses came and went, the pair kept their myrtlewood shop and showroom in Tillamook, next to the Trask River across from KTIL Radio. They had opened the shop two years after starting the Netarts Table Factory.

Although Stanfill's beaver dam of a shop still fills the back of the building in Tillamook, they closed the showroom and opened a new store and shop in Garibaldi - The Myrtlewood Factory outlet - two years ago.

"We stayed here long enough to become an antique while the world ran off and left us behind," Stanfill says with a laugh, standing in his dust-filled Tillamook shop. "That's a fact."

They also stayed long enough to lose everything, wiped out by the flood of 1996.

"We had no flood insurance and lost everything we owned," Stanfill says. "So we bawled like everybody else.

"It was a long time rebuilding the business, and it didn't come without a lot of hard work and struggle."

They closed the Tillamook shop two years ago and came up with the "brilliant, gambling idea of opening a shop in Garibaldi."

It took the last of their retirement savings and the City of Garibaldi's support, but that gamble has paid off.

"The penalty for success is no days off," says Stanfill. "But when you overcome a major disaster and then step forward ... it all ties back to the initial education that I received while in management at Freightliner.

"And," he adds, not as an afterthought but for emphasis, "My wife has pulled the wagon with me."

Patricia is a natural at managing the Garibaldi store, greeting each customer with an easy smile, asking where they're from, insisting they sign the guestbook when she hears they live in North Carolina or Kentucky or wherever.

Stanfill says he couldn't be happier, insists he's having far too much fun to hang up his chisels and retire quietly to his hobbies.

"Every person my age should begin to have fun for the remainder of their life," he says. "And if they're having fun, there's nothing wrong with it.

"If you do what you love, with great family and great friends, it doesn't get any better than that."