Burl master

Albert De Silva

PHOTO BY Rachel bush

For the last 20 years, Albert De Silva has been on the hunt for good burls. A growth or anomaly that forms at the base of a tree, a burl’s interior is valued for its spectacular wooden patterns that, once veneered, are mainly used to design car dashboards, furniture and craft pieces. Although De Silva has traveled throughout the States in search of a good tree, he primarily does business around Northern California, and is drawn to Chico for the “variety of walnut orchards.” Last Spring, he got his (first) 15 minutes of fame when he was featured on National Geographic’s reality show Filthy Riches, which spotlights people who make their living harvesting various natural resources. To find out more about De Silva’s work, visit burlboyz.com

How do you find burls?

Twenty years ago you could see burls sitting on the top of the ground. Now that’s more scarce because there are fewer orchards. You have to make an educated guess if a property has a good burl. When orchard trees are deteriorating, that’s a good candidate for buying a burl. When a farmer agrees to sell their tree, we take a pull truck or back hoe to get the tree out. Sometimes we use a helicopter.

How much can you make?

You can sell a medium- to low-grade burl for a $1.50 a pound. High-end burls can sometimes sell for $3 to $4 a pound. And the burls can weigh several thousand pounds. With the costs involved, you sometimes break even. Sometimes you make money, but the burl business isn’t a glamorous job. You can make money if you work at it every day, but you have to do it every day.

Whom do you sell to?

Eurogroup is a big buyer, in Spain. I also work with Phil Aldridge and Ivan Hoath at Westgate Urban Hardwoods in Durham. I extract the burls and they turn the pieces into table slabs and walnut floorings to be sold elsewhere.

Tell me about your experience on Filthy Riches

I got a phone call from Half Yard Productions. Someone from Oregon Burls had referred me, and they asked if it was OK to do a Skype interview. First I went out and bought the equipment to use Skype, set it up, and did the interview. The next day I got a call from National Geographic and they asked if wanted to be on the show. I said, “Absolutely,” and the next day a film crew was there. I took them to Chico to scout out a potential burl. I didn’t think I was going to get that burl, but I did. We made $5,000 off that tree, and it ended up being one of our best episodes. We did eight shows, some in Napa, Utah and Oregon. The show also had [segments] with people working with eels, ginseng, mushrooms and bloodworms, and I did the burls. After the show would air, my phone would ring off the hook … I’d get people calling from all over the States telling me about their unique types of wood.

What’s your favorite type of burl?

I like maple because a good maple burl is hard to find. But walnut is always beautiful, too.