Pilot story and photo
by Peter Rice
Ten miles north of Gold Beach people will find one of the few myrtlewood sawmills in the known universe.
Ron Hanks, a sturdy man with a salt and pepper mustache, oversees the operation, which he says has changed little since Abe Hanks his father started the mill late 1960s.
From time to time, depending on the ebbs and flows of the business, he'll take his truck to an area timber company such as South Coast Lumber and buy up a few logs.
Back at the diesel and electric powered mill, he'll saw the wood into blocks, aided by blades the size of big screen televisions.
Myrtlewood is the ultimate small, niche, mom and pop business. The tree grows only on the Wild Rivers Coast, and there mostly in low-lying areas, rather than the higher inland hills.
Ron Smith, the Norway-based owner of Robo Manufacturing, which supplies raw myrtlewood blocks to shops and installs myrtlewood floors, estimates that the entire industry employs fewer than 100 people at about 40 shops.
Myrtlewood rides piggyback on the rest of the wood-products industry. Timber companies aren't really targeting myrtlewood trees for harvest, Abe Hanks says. They're going after other species, often with the intent of turning them into chips eventually.
"We're operating on a timber that they cannot utilize," he says.
But as long as the companies are out in the woods, they'll take a few myrtlewoods and sell them to the handful of people around southwestern Oregon, northwestern California and a few other points around the West who want to buy them.
The Hanks are one of those clients. They put about 70 trees through the mill every year, slicing the hard-grained wood into blocks of all sizes. Some of the smaller "hobby blocks" are sold to any carver who should happen by their shop across the yard from the mill.
Other blocks, often the bigger ones, are sent off to shops, where carvers turn them into bowls, clocks, animal figurines, shotgun stocks and a myriad of other objects.
Myrtlewood is revered for its grain and color. Added together, the result is an elegantly textured deep brown that has gained a loyal following with the few who know about it.
But the industry is unique not just for the wood, but for where it's headed.
"It's not an industry that's going to ever be very big," said Harvey Johnston, the former owner of Port Orford's Wooden Nickel myrtlewood shop.
Part of the reason for that is the supply of wood.
For one, the product is harvested almost incidentally based on the demands of an entirely different industry. If the price of wood chips is down, reasons Ron Smith, it's less likely timber companies will be out harvesting.
For another, it's not at all clear just how long the supply of harvestable myrtlewood will last, given its limited range and its roughly 100-year road to maturity.
Nobody interviewed for this story was aware of any assessment done to determine just how much is out there. And there doesn't appear to be any centralized industry trade group that might collect such information.
So does anybody know how long the supply will last?
"God," Abe says. "He's the only one I know of. I've talked to him about it but he doesn't answer."
But Abe does say that it's gotten harder over the years to find the wood.
Ron Smith agrees, especially when it comes to larger trees that are essential to making such things as big salad bowls.
"Getting big logs with good color it's hard to come by," he says.
Smith says the future of his business may be in floor installation, since it's possible to make the planks out of smaller second-growth trees.
But while the supply of harvestable myrtlewood is in question, those in the business are quick to point out that the tree isn't going away. Laws protect many trees that are close to rivers and streams.
"A lot of that," Smith says, "you can't even touch."