“If people collect lighthouses, I have something unique, made of natural wood to add to their collection. If they come here and show interest in my lighthouses, I can help them get started as a collector. What I like to do is produce the product and have people enjoy it.” Dave Middleton shared these comments with me in the last moments of my visit to his roadside store and factory Lakeshore Myrtlewood. We were standing in room dedicated solely to the lighthouses he created. This is his signature piece – a lighthouse tooled from myrtlewood with a working beacon light powered by an intricate electrical circuit board. The light appears to rotate from behind a leaded glass prism. They looked so real.
Dave took me behind the scenes to show me how he transforms raw wood into masterpieces.
Myrtlewood is a slow growing broadleaf evergreen found only in a limited area along the rugged Oregon coast. There’s an example of a young myrtlewood tree growing outside the Lakeshore’s showroom door. The glossy green leafs look much like a bay leaf and can be used in cooking just as a bay leaf, but it’s the wood that’s of value to artisans. This tree is small, maybe only planted a few decades ago by Dave’s estimate. Commercially grown myrtlewood trees take 100 to 150 to reach a marketable size. Myrtlewood is highly desirable because it is a rare and the fine grain and colors varying from light tan to golden brown give the wood an appealing look. Dave described the waves in the wood grain as having a shimmery, iridescence to it when shaped, polished and crafted to a Myrtlewood product.
From factory to showroom, one myrtlewood piece – bowl, vase or lighthouse - can take a year’s time. But in truth, it starts with a log over one hundred years old.
Once a year, a logging truck delivers the 20’ to 30’ long cuts of myrtlewood to Dave dropping the supply right in the lot behind the showroom, near the wood working shop. Dave makes his first cut of the logs right there reducing the logs into 7’ to 8’ lengths manageable to be moved by a forklift. When he makes his cuts, Dave explained he is looking at the logs for “color and figure,” knots, signs of high sap and weather cracks, all cues that will help him decide their future use. He’ll stack these logs and protect them from blowing sand under a plastic tarp. “Sand,” explained Dave, “Embedded in the bark will take the edge of a sawmill blade.” Dave brings in a portable sawmill to slice the logs into the thickness he needs for his products. They look like pieces of rough lumber until he planes them to bring out the color and variety of this high grade wood. Dave will leave a “rustic edge” – the bark – on some of the lumber to give the “more showy” myrtlewood products like vases a natural effect. The lumber will dry in a tent like structure before its next drying process in the one of the two kilns.
Dave showed me inside one of his drying kilns. The shelves held stacks of roughed out bowls. A thermostat monitored the room temperature and a humidifier sucked the moisture from the myrtlewood. In the roughly two-month drying process, as much as 150 to 100 gallons of water can be extracted from the wooden bowls, blocks for lighthouses, and vases held within the kiln.
When these items are finished drying, they are moved to the holding room. There’s a freezer in the holding room and it’s not for ice cream treats. The burl wood bases of the lighthouses will go into the freezer to kill bugs that inhabit it. After chilling out in the freezer, the items set with the bowls and wooden blocks on holding room shelves. As Dave needs inventory, he puts the finishing touches on these items in his wood and paint shop.
High on a shelf in the corner of the wood shop sets one of Dave’s lighthouses. “The lighthouse is my creation.” There’s pride in his voice as Dave continues, “Nobody else thought to make these from myrtlewood.” In 13 years of crafting these specialty pieces, Dave has sold over 2,500 lighthouses. His lighthouses are a local memento of a visit to the nearby Heceta Lighthouse or a custom showpiece to add to a serious collector’s array. Prices start at $250 for a small lighthouse. A large one can go for as much as $395.
“I’m going to show you how I make the lighthouse top today.” Dave words were a bit muffled from behind a hooded protective facial shield. He attached a square block of myrtlewood on to the lathe. Over the whine of the engine, he gave commentary. “The wood moves at 3,200 RPMs. I am a little bit rusty at this. My wife does a better job on the tops of the lighthouses.”
Rusty? Was he kidding? From the shaving of wood flying, I could see the cap of the lighthouse with a thin spindle top emerge. “I hope the top doesn’t snap off, I made it fairly thin,” he said above the noise. It didn’t snap off, not even when he used sandpaper to smooth the minuscule ridges. I didn’t time him, but I think it took him five minutes to turn the block of wood into the lighthouse top. Side-by-side, it was unimaginable that a block of wood could be transformed to such a shapely cap. In his paint room free of the wood dust, Dave sprayed a lacquer coat on the lighthouse top and set it to dry among the bowls and serving trays.
Making myrtlewood items and running a retail store full of the products was a business plan absent from Dave’s original list of what he wanted to do when he grew up. His father-in-law gave encouragement and worked with Dave to buy a myrtlewood business in Gold Beach, Oregon back in 1981. Dave retained the previous business owner for six months in order to learn how to make myrtlewood products. He learned well and added his own creativity to the craft. Year later, the skill he learned as young man is still something Dave told me he loves and enjoys. A long time ago, Dave sold the Gold Beach location and took on the Lakeshore one. He guessed that there might be only nine myrtlewood factories on the coast these days making art products.
September 9, 2008
Oregon Coast Myrtlewood, Inc.
Dave & Denise Middleton
83530 Highway 101 South
Florence, OR 97439