Feed the tree
Joshua Rutherford sees potential in the scraps of dead wood the rest of us discard. With his Honoring Fallen Trees project, Rutherford fashions reclaimed wood into dramatic, utilitarian-chic pieces: wine racks, bike holders, bookshelves, etc. The Davis-based father of two just launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund his new venture. Rutherford, a former real-estate agent, talked to SN&R about the drama of salvaged wood, his favorite trees and the sanctity of fingers.
The economy was bad, and things just started changing in my personal life—I was going through a divorce and moving [to Davis], and the [real-estate] market had changed, so I just went with my passion. I wish I'd been doing it all along.
What jump-started the switch?
I came across this pile of black walnut logs that the county had cut down. I managed to salvage about six of the larger logs and then got connected with a sawmill operator who had a nice shop he needed someone to occupy.
Define “logs”—I’m thinking fireplace size, but obviously if there’s a sawmill involved …
They were about 6 to 10 feet long and about 18 to 24 inches in diameter—too big for four or five guys to carry. We had to have the right equipment and chainsaws.
When did you start working with wood?
In the late '90s, in college in Washington. I went into this gallery in Bellingham and fell in love with the furniture they had there. I'd already been working with wood—I was self-taught—but when I went in there, I left knowing that I wanted to be an apprentice. I started the next day with an artist who was displaying at the gallery and apprenticed with him for three years. My family has always been into interior design and home construction, and I've always been around tools. In high school, I started making furniture, but this just took it to the next level.
So why did you pursue real estate instead of furniture?
When I graduated, I didn't feel like I had a strong enough business, so I went into real estate. But one of the big lessons I eventually learned was learning about myself—my own emotions and passions. It was learning about who I am, and that I needed to be doing what I love—for [the sake] of my passion and my family. Woodworking was a no-brainer. I'll do it for the rest of my life, barring any really bad injuries.
Injuries? Um, what kind of injuries?
Most woodworkers have injuries—most have lost at least a finger. My teacher had three missing fingers. So far, I'm lucky I still have all of my fingers.
Favorite thing to create?
If it was up to me, I'd do wall sculptures all the time. I love making larger, dramatic pieces like dining-room tables and large [kitchen] island tops—stuff you look at and think, “How did it come together? The scale is massive.” But I love anything I'm creating. I'm just happy to do it.
Why salvaged wood?
[Previously], I got lumber from tree farms—African mahogany, cherry and maple. It came premilled, presurfaced and ready to start cutting out parts. The difference now is that all the woods are local, and we mill it ourselves. There's a big transformation that comes from knowing what goes from turning a board into a [finished piece].
What’s your favorite wood?
I love the Claro black walnut—it becomes a deep, dark color, and the browns in the wood are just incredible. It machines really well, and it smells fabulous. It has the whole package.
Sacramento is the City of Trees: Does that make it a good region for your work?
I'm blessed to be here. There are so many local hardwoods, like the Claro black walnut, which only grows in Northern California and southern Oregon. There are a lot of other local woods that look amazing but are difficult to work with, like the black locust. It's extremely hard and oily and difficult to cut.
As your business grows, how will it change?
I may eventually do things to speed up the finish, to speed up the production, but every part is handmade, and they'll always be handmade.
So no production-line assembly?
Definitely not. This is about the soul of the tree. When we mill a tree into lumber, we're basically getting the story of the tree—it's all over the grain of the wood; you can look at the history and the life it had and had to endure to get to where it was in the life cycle. A lot of times, I'll look at that and use different parts of the tree depending on where it's going in the piece. If there's a really dramatic part of the wood that clearly had a big impact on the tree's life, it may play a part in what I make.