The horseman out for a ride was passing Rick Braun's remote Ozark Mountains woodshop and, in a moment of curiosity, decided to find out what was going on inside. Dismounting, he walked into the shop to find Braun at work on a coffee table.
It turned out to be a red-letter day for the fledgling business â€” one that would force Braun to push the envelope of his production skills.
The horseman was John Morris, owner of Bass Pro Shops, the mega-retail operation with landmark sportsman and outdoor stores across the nation. Morris was planning to buy a defunct, 10,000-acre nature resort. The land was adjacent to Braun's.
"He came riding on horseback, by my shop, in the middle of the nowhere â€” and I mean in the middle of nowhere," Braun recalls. "He walked into my little shop. I had this coffee table going and he said, 'I like this. Can you build more of them?'"
Braun told him he could, and Morris said he would send his architect to the shop in about a week. They made an appointment. The architect showed up on the appointed date, looked over the coffee table and asked Braun if he could build tables and chairs to go with it. Braun said he had never built tables and chairs before, but was sure he could do it. The architect said, "OK, then, we need 10 dining room tables and 60 chairs."
"My heart just started beating," Braun says. "I asked him, 'And when do you need those?'" In six weeks, the man responded.
Braun says he gulped, and said, "I can build one table and six chairs in six weeks." He held his breath, wondering if his candor would turn out to be a deal breaker.
"Go ahead and do that," the architect said, "and we will go from there." Braun built the table and chairs and got approval to go ahead with the rest of the order.
"It was not on his time frame, but on mine," Braun laughingly recalls. "I had to hire extra help, but we got it done. I was confident that I could do it, but I made a lot of mistakes. I wished I could have had a mentor. It would have saved a lot of do-overs."
The completed pieces were used in a resort owned by Morris.
A 20-year history
The successful project earned Braun continuing commissions from Morris' company. Now, after 20 years in business, Richard "Rick" Braun's Wood Merchant in Lampe, Mo., accommodates private and corporate clients who commission pieces costing up to $8,000. Inside his 1,000-sq.-ft. shop and design studio, or on the additional 14,000 sq. ft. of outdoor work and storage area, Braun, 52, and his son Shawn Gates, 33, wrestle with monster old-growth timber they transport, section and dry, then custom craft into coffee tables, dining room sets, fireplace mantels, armoires, architectural accents and other furniture. Each piece is made from timber that can be more than 150 years old. In fact, recent work includes tables built for a Hilton Hotel restaurant in Branson, Mo., using wood from a tree documented to have been growing at the time of the American Revolution.
Owners: Richard and Sue Braun
Braun says of the day he met Morris, "It was a good break." But, as in most success stories, Braun's includes some bad breaks and a lot of hard work. The roots of his journey into professional woodworking were planted during a vacation to the Ozarks at a time when he was simply searching for something new to do.
"I was a mailman up in Wisconsin," Braun says. "I enjoyed the job and I liked working outside, but the winters were long."
While vacationing with a buddy in southwestern Missouri, he fell in love with the rural setting. The wooded hills (1,500-2,500 ft. elevation), deep hollows and clear waterways appealed to his love of the outdoors. More importantly, so did the promise of winters more temperate than those back in Wisconsin. The two friends visited Dogwood Canyon Nature Park, then a privately owned 10,000-acre log cabin resort in the wilderness just north of the Arkansas state line.
"We thought, 'This is neat,'" Braun recalls. "Log cabins and a trout stream." A month later, the two moved to the area. Braun found work at the nature park.
"I was sort of the resident hillbilly farmer," he says. "I raised horses, mules and goats. I was also in charge of maintenance and construction."
A payoff in wood
Five years later, the resort filed for bankruptcy. It was a bad situation that Braun resourcefully made the best of. It would also be the start of his woodworking career.
"They owed me two months' back wages and didn't have the money to pay me," Braun says. "They said you can wait for bankruptcy court. I said, 'How about we settle up in timber?'" The resort agreed. Braun hired a man with a Wood-Mizer portable band mill to slab the logs and a crew to help load them.
"My initial plan was to sell the logs to wood buyers," he says. It seemed a convenient way to turn a profit. But the chips did not fall as Braun anticipated. Ready for market, he and his crew loaded the timber onto a truck and drove some 60 miles to Springfield, Mo.
"We put the first load of logs on a three-quarter-ton truck and I drove it," Braun recalls. "On the way up we were so overloaded we blew out two rear tires." Replacing the blown tires, Braun continued on his maiden voyage as a wood merchant.
"We had hundreds and hundreds of dollars worth of walnut logs on the truck," Braun says. He figured the load would easily let him recoup his lost wages, with money to spare for the cost of blown tires, gasoline and paying his crew.
But when he reached the lumberyard, the buyer began scrutinizing the load of timber with a critical eye. He found something wrong with just about every piece.
"He kept pointing out flaws," Braun recalls. "This one has this little knot here, and this one has this crack there. He knocked it down so that we had $60 worth of wood in the back of that truck," Braun says. "We could have sold the load for firewood and made more money. At that point I said I am not selling logs anymore. I thought, somebody is making money using these logs."
Gathering know-how from books and his woodworking friends, Braun began building and selling some traditional-style furniture. During a trip to Colorado, he visited the National Carvers Museum and National Wildlife Museum and saw uses for driftwood, burl and rustic furniture. He came back with a vision of a more upscale, custom version of the rustic furniture he had seen. Through a trial-and-error process, he began to master his craft.
In Missouri, Braun realized he had access to an endless supply of old-growth salvage wood.
"Just about all the wood we use is salvage wood, ready for the burn pile," he says. He collects every species he can. When he started out, a friend told Braun he would need a large variety of inventory to meet customer demand. "I took that to heart," he says. "I didn't want to be known for only doing one type of work, just oak, or something like that. I started collecting everything I could find â€” walnut, cherry, sycamore, butternut, oak. If it was a local wood, I collected it. If my neighbor's tree was about to come down, I was there asking for it.
"It took me a year to learn about drying wood to be able to make a quality product. You figure, well, it can burn, it must be dry." At the Wood Merchant, Braun air-dries his slabbed old-growth timber for a year, then kiln dries it, rotating it out until he gets the desired 6- to 8-percent moisture content.
He is constantly acquiring old-growth timber, searching out new subdivisions or clearances by power companies for right-of-ways and negotiating for the timber. Most of it he gets without cost, but sometimes there is negotiation over legal considerations â€”safety, ownership and insurance issues.
Hauling them home
Transporting the monster logs to his shop has become part of Braun's normal operational process. A recent 200-year-old tree that will become a fireplace mantel for a 10,000-sq.-ft. home was found on a farm. The old tree was about to be taken down and discarded.
"Most of the trees we acquire are big â€” four or five feet or more in diameter; stuff that nobody wants to work with," he says. "It is not prime timber a lumber company wants. [The logs] have cracks, knots and all kinds of flaws. Wire and all sorts or things can be embedded, making it hard to work with." Braun has found bullets and fencing inside trees. That can be hard on tools, particularly chainsaws used to slab the timber.
Braun calls those flaws character. "That's what our clients enjoy seeing in the products we make," he says.
He spends time walking around the timber, studying it from different angles, imagining and planning how he can work around the wood's natural growth. He enjoys walking through the woods and sitting by a fallen tree, or old-growth log. "I can see the beauty inside it. I often wonder about the history, the things that tree has seen. Who might have stood under it, even sat on one of its branches, the history that went on around it."
He and Shawn (who has worked with his dad since he was a kid) have developed their own technique for slabbing some of the monster old-growth logs they bring to the shop.
"We use a two-man chainsaw to slab it," Braun says. "Regular sawmills don't go wide enough. After the slabs dry, they are too wide to go through a planer, so then we set up a jig and run a router over the tops and re-level them after they have warped, or twisted or moved in whatever way they are going to move. After that we air-dry them, then kiln-dry them.
"There are a lot of rustic furniture builders. We have what I call a refined rustic. It's not real rough. It's finished out and not slapped together. We build for people who are looking for quality pieces."
Wood Merchant's custom work for individual clients comes from homeowners living in $500,000 to $1 million-plus residences. Coffee tables are popular items, and cost around $4,000 to build, but the shop custom-creates pieces in a range that varies from around $200 to $8,000. Braun most enjoys working with individuals looking for that one-of-a-kind piece.
"Our corporate work is our bread-and-butter and we are thankful for it," he says, "but it's a lot of fun working with private individuals and creating something they envision for their homes." Part of Braun's process is photographing the start, middle and finish of a piece and giving the photos to the client.
"You go to their home and wind up becoming friends," he says. "They invite you over; they take pictures and introduce you to their friends and relatives."
Along with Shawn, Rick's business partner and general manager is his wife, Susan. Through trial and error, Braun has learned that he and Shawn best work without bringing in additional workers. "I used to hire a crew during peak times," Braun says, "but then had to lay them off when things slowed down. I hated doing that. Our clients that know us don't mind waiting two or three months for a one-of-a kind piece."
He and Shawn spend part of fall attending trade shows, where they pick up orders for custom work. Part of each winter is used to collect and sort their log inventory.
"This winter we had about 200 logs that we needed to move," he says. Then there is always the anticipation of finding and saving that next 200-old-tree from the burn pile, getting it back to his shop, then discovering what unusual 'character trait' nature has designed in the grain.
"It's always an exciting treasure hunt," Braun says.
Contact: Wood Merchant, 49 W. State Hwy. 86 Lampe, MO 65681. Tel: 417-779-5324. www.wood-merchant.com