Out of the Woodwork

Bitterroot craftsmen \non timber’s cutting edge


Paul Dumond’s house is a museum of wood, a shrine to wood. Dumond is a custom furniture maker who specializes in salvaged materials and “natural edges,” meaning that the edge of, say, a tabletop or armrest was probably once the sapwood and outer bark of the tree, too. And he’s got a lexicon for wood grain, texture and artifact to rival the kennings of the Icelandic skalds.

Bird’s-eye maple. Curly maple. Bug-holed oak. Fiddleback ash. The island in Dumond’s kitchen is topped with a thick slab of black walnut cut lengthwise from the crotch of the tree, bark and all. The top of his dining table is crafted from just two wide slabs of warm red cherry, trussed across natural fissures in the wood by ebony “bow-ties.” Its shape is a woozy trapezoid that requires a doubletake to figure out and a long gaze to appreciate.

And that’s just a small part of the downstairs. In the upstairs rec room, a sycamore bookshelf slinks along the wall in a low stack of gracile Gaudi curves with a grain that looks like rattlesnake hide crossed with ocelot fur. Corners of the spalted maple coffee table resemble fudge-revel ice cream, banded with black ripples of aesthetically pleasing rot. Australian lacewood proves to be the “Magic Eye picture” of wood grains: Stare into the grain long enough and you’re sure an image of a sailboat will appear.

Just down the road from Dumond’s Florence home, logging trucks still spill down the valley off the Eastside Highway. Not as often as they used to, but often enough to remind you that extractive industry still exists in the Bitterroot. Statewide, logging harvests on federal lands in Montana peaked in the late 1960s, though oddly enough the number of Montanans working in the forest products industry didn’t reach its zenith until 10 years later. The relationship between trees, jobs and real income isn’t always easy to grasp, but it seems clear that the economic flagships of the resurgent Bitterroot economy aren’t the logging operations or the mills anymore, but the “value-added” businesses: the framers, chinkers and log home manufacturers.

Wood products have traditionally been the base of the Bitterroot economy, but the trend toward value-added business represents an encouraging reversal of the traditional picture. Instead of cutting down its resource base, selling raw logs and lumber out of state and then buying back finished goods—the old colonial pattern—these days the trend in the Bitterroot is toward manufacturing finished wood products and exporting them at prices reflecting craftsmanship instead of commodity.

And then there are artisans like Paul Dumond, whose way with a chunk of wood can command almost as much per piece as some Bitterroot loggers used to earn in a year. Dumond is one of four local artists and craftsmen we talked to this week about life after logging in the Bitterroot. Along with a chainsaw artist, a totem-pole carver and a maker of custom bows, Dumond and his exquisite furniture contribute to a diverse parquetry of creativity and prosperity coming out of the woodwork.

Hitting the mark with Trails End Bows

“You can’t do that with a compound bow,” clucks Dale Dye, brushing the wet snow from his trousers. He’s just been lying on his back in his slushy driveway, taking aim and loosing an arrow over his head at a painted burlap target 25 yards away. It hits the mark with a satisfying thwack. Even upside-down like this, he’s a formidable marksman—perhaps not quite as formidable as the legendary Howard Hill, an archer who Dye says could break an aspirin mid-air and routinely shot apples off people’s heads, but still pretty good.

Our tour of the Trails End archery works comes to an end with a product demo by the bowyer himself. Having walked us through the proper technique—hand open rather than closed, bowstring drawn back to his cheek—Dye favors us with a trick shot. It makes quite an impression. Then we inspect the mark and find a quiver’s worth of arrows bristling in a tight thicket around a bull’s-eye smaller than a dinner plate. One of nine bull’s-eyes painted on the burlap, actually—the center “square” in a tic-tac-toe game Dye likes to play with his grandson.

“The cat gets a lot of ’em,” Dye quips modestly—talking about the games.

Really, though, you get the feeling Dye wins these games exactly as often as he feels like winning. Either that or his grandson is pretty handy with a bow himself.

A former Ravalli County sheriff, Dye retired from law enforcement in 1987 and became a part-time bowyer with a full-time demand for his product. One of roughly half a dozen bowyers and fletchers (that’s someone who makes arrows) in the Bitterroot, Dye has been pursuing his craft for 23 years now. Back when he first developed an interest in traditional archery, he recalls, you couldn’t just go out and buy the kind of bow he makes.

“You couldn’t buy a traditional bow,” Dye explains. “They were all compounds. You could get one custom-made, but I just decided to make my own. I bought every book on archery I could find. I figured I could make something that was better than anything on the market, and cheaper. Plus, it’s a challenge.”

Dye is big on challenge, as both a craftsman and sportsman. By the time he started making bows, he had already decided that hunting game with a high-powered rifle was too easy.

“With a rifle, you’re talking about a range of 400 yards down to zero. With a recurve bow, your shots have to be under 35 yards. You have to know your quarry. You have to know the wind. You have to have everything in your favor.”

“Traditional” denotes two basic types of bow besides the compound bow, which uses a system of cables and eccentric wheels for mechanical advantage. The longbow is made of one long wooden stave, sometimes two staves joined at the handle, and when strung has the familiar D-shape of the plastic toy that comes with suction-cup arrows. It’s probably what most people think about when they think about bows. The second main type of traditional bow is the recurve bow—Dye’s specialty. Despite a few modern innovations, Trails End recurve bows closely resemble the type favored by Attila the Hun, whose crack mounted archers helped in no small part to expand his territory from the modern Germany as far east as the Caspian Sea.

The bowyer’s craft comes complete with a colorful anatomical vocabulary. The limbs of the bow are the flexible parts above and below the handle that store energy when the bow is drawn and release it when the arrow is loosed. The nock is the cut at the tip of each limb where the bowstring is anchored, and the belly of the bow is the part closest to the archer. The tips of a recurve bow point forward from its belly, which Dye says usually leads the uninitiated to heft his unstrung bows backwards.

Dye begins building a bow by selecting woods that combine flexibility, strength and shock resistance. For the limbs, he favors yew, osage orange, ash, red elm and/or hickory, plus a mystery material he refers to as “medicine wood”—a closely guarded secret. For handles, Dye likes to use exotic hardwoods with percussive names like bocote and cocobolo.

For the actual construction, Dye starts by sandwiching thin strips of limb-wood into an open D-shaped form. Very thin strips: Each piece of limb-wood laminate is tapered imperceptibly but precisely toward the tip of the bow, a thousandth and a half of an inch thinner per inch of length. By comparison, a sheet of notebook paper is two to three thousands of an inch thick.

“If I’m off by a thousandth,” Dye warns, “it’ll throw me off by a pound of draw weight.” Draw weight is the measure of force required to draw a bow to full arrow length. Dye’s bows test between 30 and 80 pounds, around 55 on average.

Once layers of wood, epoxy and fiberglass are stacked in the form, Dye ties them down and “bakes” the bow, form and all, for 12 hours in a special oven at low heat to harden the epoxy. A length of high-pressure hose inserted between the two halves of the form is inflated to drive out air pockets.

After the baking, Dye starts shaping each limb, cuts the nocks, strings the bow, tests the draw weight and starts shaping the handle. When the bowstring lines up perfectly across the limbs from nock to nock, he cuts a string groove in each limb and begins sanding, applying finish, sanding some more, adding more finish.

Each bow takes 25 to 30 hours of work spread out over a week, and at any given time Dye has two or three bows in various stages of completion. He used to make eight a month, working 12-hour days, seven days a week. Currently he makes about 35 a year and still can’t keep up with the demand.

“I started out actively marketing them,” he says, “but now I’m one and a half to two years behind on my delivery. Plus I’m getting older, slowing down and cutting back.”

With a price tag of $800 to $1,200, Trails End bows are definitely not for the novice toxophilite. Each one comes with detailed care instructions and Dye’s personal guarantee: “I’m confident your bow is sound—I have shot it.” He also assumes that his customers will know more about care and maintenance than “the beginner [who] goes down to Kmart or an archery store and buys a ready-made bow.

“Every once in a while,” Dye reveals, “you’ll get an idiot who buys one of your bows, abuses it and ruins it, and then sends it back and tells you that you’ve got a shitty product. But I guess that can’t be helped.”

Most customers find satisfaction. Then again, not all of Dye’s customers put his bows through their hunting paces, either. Trails End bows are things of beauty—particularly in the handles, which reveal an intricate mosaic of inlays and interlocking parts in cross section. Though he’s sold bows to customers in all 50 states and seven foreign countries, most of Dye’s handiwork goes—perhaps not surprisingly—to buyers from that fabled province of discretionary income: “back East.” At last word, one New York collector owned 45 of his bows.

“I don’t know what his reason is,” Dye shrugs. “But I’m glad he does.”

When the Sawdust settles

Don Rutledge will tell you that he’s “the original Montana chainsaw artist.” Even if he’s not—and it’s hard to get to the bottom of claims like this—you really want him to be. He’s just the guy you’d expect to glimpse through a curtain of wood-chips, carving away at a ponderosa log by the side of the road, a bear of a fellow who laughs frequently, always monotone, and is fond of touching your arm to kind of seal a moment with you. He still has traces of a Texas accent that has gone feral after more than 20 years in Western Montana.

Rutledge lives with his wife Lorraine in a labyrinth of green and white metal on the mini-storage lot where his gallery used to be. There’s an enormous wooden bear on one side of his driveway and a howling coyote on the other. The bear claws at a salmon molting flakes of blue paint and split up the middle by repeated freeze-thaw-freeze. Both sculptures are pockmarked with woodpecker holes in the head, neck and haunches. Don Rutledge thinks that’s just great.

“We’ve got little birds living in there,” he says. “Ha ha ha.”

He talks about the importance of service—even to birds—and how the best way to get rich is to spend oneself. He’ll replace a sculpture if a customer is dissatisfied for any reason—even if that reason is that the customer’s naughty dog has chewed off one of the sculpture’s ears. Rutledge is also very hard of hearing and often leans inches from your face to hear you better. Some of that’s from his military service, but mostly it’s all the time he’s spend around blatting chainsaws. “Twenty years of everyday carving,” he muses, “and it’ll get to you.”

Combat veteran, experimental aircraft pilot, ranch hand, rodeo rider (bulls and saddle broncs), boxing trainer, youth guidance counselor, chainsaw sculptor—you name it and Rutledge has probably had a go. He’s mostly retired from chainsaw sculpture these days, having developed an unfortunate allergy to sawdust. He also razed his Hamilton gallery four years ago to make room for the storage units. His new passion is oil painting and he keeps a spartan studio in Unit 73, walls bare white except for one work in progress, and empty aside from a palette and an array of brushes laid out on a propane grill. Time practically stands still when he’s painting, Rutledge says—eight or nine hours will pass in Unit 73 and barely feel like one.

He talks about his chainsaw art in the past tense. Don Rutledge bears and coyotes dot yards and open fields in the Bitterroot and grace regal hotel lobbies as far away as Taiwan. He even has three pieces registered with the Smithsonian Institute. But most of what he has on hand right now can fit, and not especially snugly, into one small unit a few doors down from his painting studio.

“I guess it was just one of those periods that I’m done with now,” he says. “Well, mostly done. I still do a piece every now and then, but this is what we have right now.”

He gestures at the few dozen owls, coyotes and bears on the floor and shelves. “I don’t know if I’m going to expand on it and put up a nice gallery again, or of I’m just going to go to my paintings and partially retire.”

At its peak, Rutledge Gallery employed 14 people, had its own log yard and logging trucks for hauling raw materials around, and brought in an astonishing amount of money. It used to take Rutledge and his carvers two days to complete a bear sculpture about 4 feet tall, roughing it out the first day and finishing the details the next. His tool of choice was a GB Titanium Carver, a saw with a blade about as big as a good-sized zucchini, tapered to a tip you could almost call delicate. He used to have to special-order his carving saws from a custom manufacturer in Oregon, he says, but now you can get one almost anywhere with a decent chainsaw selection. There are more chainsaw carvers in Western Montana these days.

But back when he started out, Rutledge says, most people didn’t even know there was such a thing as a carving chainsaw, or chainsaw carving. He didn’t know himself until he saw a man do it in Idaho, and then the words “I can do that” escaped his lips involuntarily.

“It just came out through my mouth,” Rutledge laughs. “Ha ha ha. Like it was beyond me somehow. And it kind of embarrassed me. There were a lot of people standing around.”

Fired by this new passion, Rutledge hit the road, barnstorming his way across Wyoming, New Mexico and California.

“I tell you what I did,” he says. “For one whole year I traveled all over in a van with a trailer pulled behind it. I went out and stood on the road so people could see me working. I put a lot of energy into my work so they could see I was really having fun out there carving. I really put on a show. I think anybody can be anything they want as long as they’re a showman, by having lots of energy and by moving half a step faster than they’d normally move. That’s what I did, and people stopped. Chips flying—that was a real attention-getter.”

Rutledge digs a box of old pictures out of yet another storage cubicle. Among them are autographed photos from his celebrity customers: Polly Bergen (“You kids probably wouldn’t remember her,” he teases, “but she was really popular about a hundred years ago.”), Brandon Lee, Hoyt Axton, Robert Wagner, former Mrs. Montana USA Donna Hefty (a woodcarver herself!), and a famous quarterback whose name Rutledge can’t recall. It takes him awhile to remember David Hasselhoff’s name, too. Before Rutledge finds the autographed photo, we manage to guess his identity from this description: “That curly-haired guy at the beach, with all those girls.” Robert Wagner’s identity we divine from these clues: “You know, the little English guy who does all the wild stuff, Doctor So-and-So, and he’s got a little guy like this with him. Well, one of his advisors. He’s real popular.”

He’s still disappointed that Wagner never sent a photo to add to his collection, but the real prize is a snapshot of Rutledge and his stepsons posing with Richard Kiel, the actor who played the steel-dentured assassin Jaws in the James Bond movies Moonraker and The Spy Who Loved Me. Kiel towers over the 6’ 4” Rutledge, his hand like a bouquet of bratwursts draped over the artist’s shoulder. Kiel was one of Don’s favorite customers. Somewhere in one of these boxes, he says, he’s got a tracing of the actor’s massive mitt, big enough to wrap around a softball and play guess-which-hand.

Around the time Don Rutledge started carving animals with a chainsaw, a friend and fellow hobbyist told him that he wanted to go into business himself, but only after he got all set up with his own studio.

“And 25 years later,” Rutledge says, “he’s still waiting. If you’ve got a passion, get on it. Don’t wait.”

Pillars of the community

“My father always used to say,” explains George Gulli, Jr., “that the problem with modern makers of totemic art is that they want to do their own thing. When you want the approval of the culture you’re borrowing from, you have to work with their traditions.”

Gulli is the “Son” in George Gulli & Son Woodcarving, and respect for native tradition is itself a family tradition. He’s even reluctant to use the term “totem pole.”

“It’s, oh, what do you call it,” he hesitates, searching for the word. “It’s doggerel.”

The term is, in fact, a misnomer. The practice of carving columns out of red cedar originated among the Tlingit, Tsimshian and Haida of southeastern Alaska and northern British Columbia, eventually spreading south as far as Washington. Columns were carved for a variety of spiritual, functional and decorative purposes, but none of these groups ever called their handiwork totem poles. In the language of the Haida, the term is qua’a’aang, which literally means “man stands up straight.” In other languages, explains Gulli, the term for “totem pole” is simply “carved column.”

Ankle deep in sawdust and tailed around his Victor workshop by a sawdust-colored dog, Gulli shakes his head ruefully as he recalls the controversy surrounding the opening of a California theme park in 1976. One of the park’s Disneyland-type attractions featured dozens of columns carved by his father, George Sr., and was protested by self-styled cultural watchdogs who took vigorous issue with his cultural credentials.

“They said since he was of Italian descent,” Gulli sighs, “he didn’t have the right or the authority to do what he was doing.”

Hoping to put the issue to rest, the park’s parent corporation flew in a representative of the Northwest coastal tribes, Mace, a man chosen for his unimpeachable authority on issues of authenticity in carved heraldic columns. The upshot, Gulli recalls, is that his father went to work the following Monday wondering if he still had a job and was told that Mace had both given his approval and bestowed his consent for George Sr. to practice his art anywhere in the world.

Contrary to popular belief, an individual totem pole cannot necessarily be “read like a book,” even by experts in Northwest native art. Interpretation of the carved figures is bound up in personal familiarity with the kin group that commissioned it. For the Gulli family, the story starts with George Jr.’s grandfather, an immigrant stonecutter who found plenty of work in headstones and high-rises in a booming 1920s New York City. The crash of 1929 eventually sent him packing to California in what his grandson says must have been “a real Grapes of Wrath-type situation.”

His son, George Jr.’s father, was “fascinated by what his father could do with a stone,” but went into the trucking business instead, eventually working his way up to dispatcher. But he still had carving in his blood. One night, a tree blew down in the truckyard. No one knew what to do with it, George Jr. recalls, until an uncle interested in native art suggested that George Sr. try his hand at making a totem pole. George Sr. did, and was evidently intrigued by the results. So was his son.

“He used the crudest tools,” marvels Gulli. “I don’t think he had any better than a couple of Stanley chisels. But I’m sitting there watching him, and being just amazed when an arm came out of the wood, then a face. I was fascinated. I was hooked.”

And later, it seems, somewhat embarrassed. George Jr. was a freshman in high school when his father got the notion to turn a 100-foot section of Douglas fir into the world’s largest totem pole (it ended up being merely the third-largest in the western United States—but still).

“I just wanted to be a normal kid,” he laughs, “and my dad put all these totem poles in our front yard. One of my teachers even brought it up at school. But my father was not scared to do anything.”

George Sr. submitted his portfolio to park administrators, and from 1974 to 1976, he completed 56 carved columns for the park in Santa Clara and another in Illinois, now a Six Flags. Last George Jr. heard, the columns in Santa Clara had been painted over in “children’s colors” by the management, which neglected to track down the artist who could have restored them properly.

Color is just as much a part of tradition as the carving itself, says George Jr., with inappropriate choice of paint as much a tip-off to cheap imitation as alien motifs like “crossword puzzles” gouged into the wood. Coastal tribes sometimes used vegetable dyes, but more frequently pigments derived from minerals and mixed with seal or fish oil. Blacks were derived from charcoal, reds from clay rich in iron oxides. To achieve durable blues, native carvers pulverized nodules of copper ore gathered from streambeds. The paints themselves, Gulli says, were often manufactured one mouthful at a time by artisans who chewed cedar bark with salmon eggs and then mixed each masticated bolus with the dry media. The carving was traditionally done with copper and stone implements and knives of sharpened abalone shell. The resulting relief was very shallow, and designs fairly basic.

The arrival of white explorers and traders in the late 18th century had a profound effect on heraldic art, both in quality and quantity. Iron tools made carving more efficient. Ship’s carpenters traded copper sheathing to the tribes, who oxidized it to the desired degree of verdigris by treating it with seawater. An enriched material culture resulted in bigger, more ambitious columns. And more of them: As wealth increased, more families had the means to commission carved columns from village artisans—once a very expensive undertaking. The boom went bust in 1884, when the Canadian government passed a law outlawing the potlatch ceremony of wealth redistribution, for which carved columns were often created and exchanged. For nearly 75 years, until the potlatch law was repealed in 1951, most of the columns carved by coastal tribes were miniatures sold to tourists.

George Gulli Sr. moved the family and the business from California to the Bitterroot in 1981. At that time, George Jr.—having gotten over his embarrassment—began apprenticing with his father. He’s been carving columns for 22 years now and finishes around 35 pieces a year. He says that if he checked his books, he could confirm that George Gulli & Son Woodcarving has sold carved columns to customers in all 50 states and a number of other countries. But, in fact, he’s not much of a book-checker. Or an advertiser—his business is strictly word-of-mouth.

“It’s not really a mainstream business,” he says, clearly savoring the understatement. “It’s like building stagecoaches.”

George Sr. passed away in 2000. George Jr. has kept the business name intact; if his own son decides to follow in his footsteps, he’ll simply add an s to Son. Hard at work on an 8-foot section of tamarack trunk ultimately bound for Florida, he seems touched by a pleasant melancholy, keenly aware of the twin traditions pressing on him.

“My father paved the way for me,” he says. “He deserves all the credit. He read quite a bit and taught me quite a bit, especially how important it was to get colors and shapes right. [Northwest coast tribes] had very distinct traditional ways of carving beaks and feathers, even elbows and knees. I keep my Northwest true and don’t cheapen it.

“It’s peace of mind for me,” he adds, rubbing sawdust from the corner of one eye. “It’s one thing to make it and be successful. But the big thing is to be happy.”

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