In the Company of Wood

When it comes to wood, Duane Dillow has a talent for making things work. He even managed to turn a rattlesnake-infested piece of property nobody wanted into a success. The result: Rattlesnake Woods, his successful hardwood lumber company.

"Turn left and come to the first street, which is Second Avenue. What happened to First Avenue, I don’t know. I didn’t do it.”

That’s how Duane Dillow talks. This former junior high science teacher and avid woodworker is a very funny guy. In his 50s, tall, lithe and fit as a greyhound, he is draped across a chair on his front porch as I arrive. Duane is watching the sun play in the sprinklers. You have to water the grass here in Cheyenne, Wyo.

The city gets about a foot of precipitation a year, which marks the region on maps as a semiarid zone. That dryness plays havoc with hardwood lumber, which is something Duane knows all about. These days, retired from the blackboard jungle, he spends his time in a different kind of forest. He owns a farm in southern Illinois where he harvests and mills hardwoods, and then transports them back to the base of the Rockies for sale. 

We greet each other amiably. There’s a little history here: We were introduced by a mutual friend, Mark Koons, an extraordinary woodworker who lives an hour north of Cheyenne. Mark is a former student of James Krenov and Sam Maloof, and he’s forging a national reputation of his own with his exquisite chair designs. We chat about Mark and humidity and high school kids as we drive through the suburbs to Duane’s warehouse. I ask him where he got his sense of humor.

“I taught junior high for 30 years,” he says with something that's either a grin or a grimace.

Rattlesnakes and wood

We arrive at the warehouse, a building so new that a carpentry crew is still siding it as we arrive. There’s no signage yet, no evidence that this is the home of Rattlesnake Woods.

The name, like the lumber, came from southern Illinois. His grandfather owned three farms there and two went to family members after the old man’s demise. The third property, a hilly, forested demesne bordering river bottoms, was put up for sale. Nobody in the family wanted Rattlesnake Farm because of the timber rattlers that plagued Grandpa for decades. Duane, chuckling at the memory, says that he “bought the farm”.

The truck pulls off the main highway and wends its way through scattered homes on three-acre lots. The funny thing about this wood warehouse is that the only trees in sight are a handful of transplanted spruce, scattered widely across the sparse suburban setting. Inside the building is a virtual cornucopia of woodworking treasures – 8/4 walnut and cherry in bunks higher than my head; 4/4 rough-cut red oak, poplar, red cedar, sassafras, hard and soft maple, hickory, ash, even honey locust and mulberry. And way back in the northeast corner, as if he were reluctant to advertise its existence, is a pallet of dramatically figured, quartersawn sycamore in 8' lengths. This is where we start our tour, as Duane has a customer waiting who needs 25 board feet of it. Plank after plank is pulled from the bunk and placed against the wall for inspection. I’m swept away by its beauty and feel a sensation of overwhelming greed. I just have to have some of this. But can I afford it?

“The FAS runs $4.00 a board foot,” Duane answers my question. “And the premium is $4.50.” He’ll ship to anywhere, one board or a thousand. Most of the 4/4 stock is S3S (“surfaced on three sides”), then planed to 27/32" to give his customers as much leeway as possible when they reduce it to ¾" finished dimensions. There is little evidence of the Illinois band mill here except in the larger rough-cut stock, where tiny telltale parallel lines can be seen. Duane holds stock in 8', 10' and 12' lengths, except his hickory, which runs to 14'. He takes custom orders, too, for those who have the luxury of time. On his several trips to Illinois each year, he fills orders for quartersawn stock, wide boards, specific species, custom lengths or widths and other requirements.

Harvesting, milling and drying

Back on the farm, he and his partner, Jackie Poole, harvest trees that have attained a girth of 22" and up, depending on the species. Jackie is a lifelong friend and the one responsible for finding most of the trees they harvest. He has worked the region all of his life, and he knows many of the local landowners.

“I call him the log magnet,” Duane says of his partner. “Jackie just went to look at a pond being built, and ended up saving about 4,000 board feet of lumber that would otherwise have been burned. The builder is creating a second pond, too, and guess who will have a crack at that timber!”

“A honey locust” Duane says, getting back to specifics, “is good at 20 inches, but most of the trees we cut are a bit larger. As we cut, we plant. Last year, with a little help from the federal government, we planted 22 acres in hickory, red, black and white oaks, cypress and walnut. This fall, we harvested between 6,000 and 8,000 board feet of mature growth.”

While he harvests the trees himself and drags them out of the forest, he subcontracts the mill work. A small logger he knows (Duane laughs and holds his hand about 4' off the floor) provides a skidder which hauls the logs out of the woods, where they have already been cut 4" to 6" longer than the boards will be. The ends of higher grade logs are sealed to prevent evaporation that might cause checks, and then the harvest is loaded onto Duane’s 20' gooseneck trailer and driven four miles to the mill. Here, a Woodmizer band mill (which is, in effect, a giant bandsaw on wheels with a trailer hitch) rips what will become 4/4 boards to 11/8" thickness, and 5/4 boards to 1 3/8". 

“About 75 percent of the boards are plain-sawn,” Duane says. “And most of the remainder is quartersawn. We take them off the mill and sticker them right there in the yard to let them air-dry.”

He also subcontracts the planing operation, which reduces dry 4/4 lumber to 27/32". And he has the mill “straight-line” one edge, so the final customer can go right to the table saw.

“It makes sense to dry the boards in Illinois,” he says, serious for a minute. “I can get a whole lot more dry lumber than green boards on a semitrailer with weight restrictions. The planing and even the straight-lining reduce the weight, too. Besides, Wyoming is so hot and dry, the lumber would never cure properly. The edges would dry out way before the core, and I’d be dealing with honeycombing and such. It would be like putting it in a kiln with the heat turned full on.”

A few of the boards in the Rattlesnake Woods warehouse have vibrant and unusual coloring. When I ask about it, he tells me that the river bottoms on the farm sometimes introduce mineral deposits that give the lumber a streak of color or luminescence that can really set it apart.

Special delivery and supper

Not all of the stock that leaves Illinois makes it into the warehouse. Big loads travel on a semitrailer, but he hauls smaller ones on the flatbed gooseneck behind his pickup truck. Sometimes he stops along the way. He has one customer in Nebraska whose order is always stacked on the top of the load. After retrieving it, the client usually invites Duane to the family supper, some lively conversation and even a bed for the night. These interludes, he says with a smile, make those long trips worthwhile.

A couple of times every year, Rattlesnake Woods publishes a customer newsletter. The  fall 2005 issue describes both his work and hunting schedules, “probably two weeks in September and as many as three in October, depending on the cooperation of elk, deer and antelope.” Last year’s issue told his customers that he would be “taking one and possibly two large white oaks (28") and one very large red oak (38") which he did. The mill quartersawed all three, along with a large beech and another sycamore and a large red gum, which he sells without the sap wood. Other species this fall include walnut, poplar, ash and cherry. 

“Try me on the cell in November,” he says, “and I’ll know by then what other trees are available.”

All told, Rattlesnake Woods has about 24,000 board feet of hardwoods on hand. Beyond the expected, Duane also sells curly maple, wormy red oak, rustic hickory and some spalted poplar which he markets as paint grade because “the spalt in poplar is not particularly pretty, as it is in maple.” The next time he comes back from Illinois, he’ll be bringing home some natural edged walnut and cherry too, up to 12/4 thick for mantels or resawing.

A few of the more unusual boards find themselves diverted from their warehouse destination. Duane spends some of his retirement from the school district in his workshop, fashioning furniture and jewelry boxes. After showing me several of his projects at home – among them, a figured cherry wardrobe and a walnut chest – we jumped into his big old diesel truck and headed downtown. There, we stopped in at Magnolia Expressions, a gift and furniture store on West Lincolnway which is owned and operated by the Freimuth family. One of the items for sale is a highly figured mulberry jewelry box with ebony accents, which Duane built between trips east last year.

Comfortable in Cheyenne

After leaving the store, we walked several blocks through downtown Cheyenne, which is still a frontier town despite a thin veneer of urbanization. Everywhere one looks, the men are wearing Stetsons and giant belt buckles depicting various rodeo events. The biggest draw in town is not the state Capitol and legislature, or the nearby military base. It’s Frontier Days, a summer extravaganza centered on professional rodeo – bull riding, bareback and saddlebroncs, roping and bull doggin’. I have a hard time keeping up with Duane. The city is a mile high, the air is thin, and he moves awfully fast for a retiree. He’s talking all the time, everything from the plight of veterans to the coming election or the character of Wyoming natives. Where is he getting all this breath?

Lunch is a Chinese buffet that turns out to be a banquet. I lose him for a few minutes while we wait for a table. He has found another school district employee, and they’re swapping stories about the antics of a past pupil or the shortcomings of some new state policy. He looks comfortable in this crowd.

After the fortune cookies, we head back to his home and amble toward the garage. Here, he has had several pipe racks built where he stores a few hundred board feet of the most popular species and cuts. Despite its 60,000 residents, this is a small town with rural ways. Duane says that woodworkers like to stop by the house, sometimes outside regular business hours, and pick up a few boards and a quiet conversation on the front porch. It saves him having to run across town to the warehouse for every small order, and it’s an idyllic way to live. Having helped raise their kids, he likes to catch up on their progress.

John English 

John English has been building furniture and cabinetry for 25 years. He has written or co-authored four woodworking and how-to books, and published hundreds of shop articles. He publishes Woodezine, an online woodworking magazine.

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