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Sticking to it

Furniture from the Alaska bush

Posted: Thursday, January 04, 2001

There is no question that Greg Berryman's chairs are unique.

"Where else are you going to get a genuine moose-pruned chair?" he asks.

Berryman, owner of Alaska Twig Furniture Art in Kasilof, prowls local bogs to find the twisted birch he uses to make his chairs.

The branches for his winter work, hundreds of them, stand peeled and drying at the back of a tiny shop built onto his log cabin.

Actually, he said, the shop was supposed to be his kitchen and bathroom, until he started building chairs. He never built the doorway from the cabin, so he enters the shop through a make-do door, just 16 inches wide, through the framing for an outside wall. He turns sideways to fit.

"My biggest problem with this shop is I can't get the chairs through the door. I have to take them out through the window," he said. "If I ever build a chair that won't go through the window, I'm in trouble."

He does not build tables or beds.

It is the moose that give the birch its character, he said, picking a knotty branch from the pile.

"This is one the moose have hacked on for who knows how long -- otherwise, you'd have a straight birch tree," he said.

"Birch is such neat wood. Before you finish it, it's just bone-white. But once you finish it -- the stressed pieces -- something about the stress produces this grain that's pretty much unlike anything you've ever seen."

 

Knots add character to Greg Berryman's chairs, but they complicate the sanding.

Photo by Doug Loshbaugh

There is a shimmer in the grain that changes with the light and complements his sinuous designs.

Berryman worked in a factory building custom bows, and he has seen plenty of exotic woods.

"But I don't think anything beats this birch," he said.

Each chair takes more than 20 hours to build.

 

Berryman picks a twisted birch branch from the stockpile drying in his crowded shop.

Photo by Doug Loshbaugh

"It's not something you can mass-produce, because you're not using dimensional lumber," he said. "You can only do one at a time, because each one is different. There is no way you can make every chair 38 inches high."

That keeps the work interesting, he said.

Berryman tries a branch as a rung in the forked birch back for a chair in progress.

"It's a visual thing," he said.

The branches twist in all directions, and cutting holes for the rung is no easy task. It is impossible simply to drill at right angles to the back.

"A lot of it, you can't really measure," Berryman said. "You just have to hold it up and eyeball it. You have to take your best shot, which is scary, because if you get the hole wrong, you trash the chair."

Some people say the materials are free, he said, but he disagrees.

"It's my car and my gas. I'm the guy that's out there in the mosquito-infested swamp cutting these off. Then, there's days and days of peeling."

He scores the bark with a utility knife, then peels it with a screwdriver.

"Once it's peeled, you have to let it dry," he said. "I've been setting them in the sun during summer, then bringing them in in the fall. I've been thinking about building a solar kiln."

There are endless hours of sanding.

"That's 75 percent of the whole deal," Berryman said. "I'm trying to reduce the sanding time, because it's killing me."

He has adapted power tools for much of the work, but there is no tool for the knots.

"It's really just getting in there by hand and working your fingers to the bone."

The back determines the rest of the chair, he said. Once he has that, he can frame the front legs, then cut the rungs and arm rests that connect them to the back.

"All of your tools are set up for stuff that's square, dimensional lumber. When you have something like this, it's completely different. It's a matter of trying to see if there's a tool out there you can modify or change."

The usual clamps do not fit when Berryman glues the pieces. Instead, he pulls them into place with ratcheted tie-downs designed to hold freight on trucks. He finishes the wood with tung oil.

Berryman used to have an espresso shop at the Soldotna Y. Then, for four summers, he ran a homemade ice cream shop on the

Homer Spit. He built his first chairs only a

year ago.

"I had a couple upstairs in the bedroom. I had a couple downstairs in the living room," he said.

Friends admired them, and he began to think about building more to sell. He sold the ice cream business last spring and put some chairs in a spring arts and crafts fair at the Peninsula Center Mall. However, not many people visited the fair, he said, and those who did just browsed.

The Christmas arts and crafts fair at Kenai Central High School was his first real exposure in the marketplace. He learned a lot about people's preferences. Many liked his plain wooden seats more than his upholstered designs.

"I was pumping those people, asking, 'What do you like about these?' It was a good experience overall, because it helps me know what direction I need to go in building these," he said. "I sold four of six chairs. I got orders for three more. All of a sudden, it's turning into a real business."

Several of Berryman's chairs are on display in an exhibit at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center. He plans to market them to galleries in Anchorage. He has been selling chairs with arms for $300, he said, but he may up the price.

"I've gone on the Internet and checked out the other twig furniture and the prices. I think my chairs would stack up against any of them."



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