From the rustic log to a wow-worthy piece in your living room, these prairie lumberjacks, saw millers and custom furniture makers have succeeded as modern-day makers and suppliers by harnessing the character in wood.
The showroom floor of Buffalo Coulee Wood Products is located within a weathered round metal Quonset building south of Grand Forks in the middle of the flat-horizon ag land of the Red River Valley where nearly every major timber stand was placed—or left—with an ag-purpose in mind. The tall sliding doors of the Quonset require both hands and leg power to move. The concrete floors could use another round of sweeping, even if they’ll never get clean. Except for a pair of single pane windows above the doors, there is no major source of light unless the doors are left open. Despite the weathered and worked condition of the setting, it is impossible not to venture into and get lost in the soft-lit space, moving in awe while trying to touch all of the wood products milled, accumulated and on display.
In 2017, Jared Johnson and Matt Weaver, each certified arborists with years of experience working in the timber and wood health industry, acted on a hunch and organized their Quonset-protected showroom. Less than one year later, the duo has created a growing following of talented furniture-makers, custom-home builders, designers and others drawn to the raw—and rare—beauty of a Buffalo live edge slab. With expansion plans already underway, Johnson and Weaver believe they have tapped into a growing market on the northern plains that demands rough-cut hardwood products.
Live Edge And Everything Else
Stacked in groups tall enough to sit on, the showroom is full of milled tree slabs from Kansas, North Carolina, Minnesota and North Dakota. The slabs are created through the milling process and feature the outer bark layer and inner wood grain patterns that could double as a fine-art painting. The slabs are used for high-end coffee tables, shelves, bookcases, tables and even countertops and kitchen islands. Each slab is unique and features meandering grain lines that ebb and flow across the width of the slab. Some are enhanced by age or environment. Others have animal- or insect-induced character. The slabs are the main attraction of Buffalo Coulee, but Weaver and Johnson also sell hardwood dimensional lumber, cross-cut circular slabs and nearly every other portion of a tree. They’ve even stocked ship-lap and barnwood siding. “We want quality and we want unique,” Johnson says. To get what they want, the team travels as far as Kansas or North Carolina to acquire hardwood logs or pre-slabbed pieces ready for sale. According to Johnson, the diversity of timber in places like Kansas or North Carolina allows their North Dakota showroom to feature some of the most sought-after and unique pieces in the country.
Available at the time of our visit were slabs and other pieces of Ash, Oak, Elm, Sycamore, Red Cedar, Pecan, Hackberry, Honey and even Osage Orange, the hardest and hottest burning wood product currently grown in the U.S. Johnson picked up the Osage Orange in Kansas. The tree was struck by lightning and portions of the faint-orange wood grain reveals the incident. Like all of the wood products the team offers, Weaver says the Osage is often used for a particular purpose. In the case of the hardest, hottest burning wood, bowmakers seek out the product.
The difference between the wood products available at Buffalo and large lumber yards is linked to selection and type. While most major suppliers are looking to source consistent pieces due to the product pricing abilities that consistency allows, Buffalo is able to provide different or custom dimensions with the type of character that makes you want to buy the wood piece without even knowing what you’ll do with it.
Each slab or piece is priced individually and most can be custom cut. As certified arborists and full-fledged timber gurus now in the business of selling beautiful wood, the pair is constantly looking for, bringing in or finding ways to keep their showroom fresh with new product. When you visit, be prepared for sawdust, the aroma of fresh cut wood and long and entertaining yet informative answers about any wood-slab related question you bring up. Johnson and Weaver know their stuff.
Johnson and Weaver are both affiliated with sawmilling clubs, Facebook groups devoted to timber products and work in the industry every day. After living in Kansas and working at a lumbermill in North Carolina, Johnson moved to North Dakota to continue his career as an arborist. From the move, he was left with a collection of hardwood lumber he stored in his garage rafters. On a whim, he posted the products for sale on Facebook and within an hour, he was sold out. Shortly after the sale, Johnson and Weaver began exploring the market for hardwood lumber in the region and learned it was undersupplied and needy in demand.
Through a former lumberjack contact in North Carolina, Johnson thought he had secured a large order of hardwood and slab material that he and Weaver could resell from the Quonset. Prior to their trip south, they learned the hardwood had already been sold, along with any milling equipment they thought they might be able to pick up as well. “That didn’t stop us,” Weaver says, “because we had a vision and we knew we had to see it through.”
The team acquired a sawmill to cut fresh logs into slabs onsite at the Quonset. They also took a loan from an uncle, a Chevy Tahoe and a car trailer to Wichita, Kansas, to buy some slabs that would allow them to fill their showroom. To help them navigate their business operations and strategy planning, the team utilized the SCORE group from Grand Forks. Johnson says their time with the SCORE team was crucial to their early success. Less than one month after returning from Kansas, the pair says they made their money back and then some. Now, when they aren’t organizing their vast array of product, the team is building a solar-powered kiln and gas-powered kiln to allow them to dry slabs milled locally more quickly (every inch of thickness on a slab requires roughly one-year of natural drying time).
Home design, and outdoor shows have helped the pair grow their Buffalo brand and kept their orders constant. Along with an expanded variety and a dedicated room to build their own slab-based products, Johnson says he hopes in the future he’ll be able to leave the Chevy Tahoe at home for a wood-hauling semi.
Milling Unique Moments
Running their sawmill and opening a new log is their favorite part of the job. As they describe the milling procedures, their eyes fill with energy and their hand gestures increase. “You never know,” Weaver says as he talks about the process of opening up a log for the first time, “what will happen.” Starting with an untouched log that could have come from a backyard, tree grove or large timber stand located anywhere they are willing to drive too, the team rolls a log onto the mill using the same hand tools that lumberjacks and millers from a century ago used. The dimensions are set to make a board the desired thickness. Safety orders are said. One last eye glance for reassurance is shared between the two before they begin. Then, the mill engine starts, the blade vibrates, the first cut sends fresh clouds of dust into the air and in less than five minutes, the history of the log is exposed for a new life. Like a pair of treasure seekers standing above a freshly exposed hole, Johnson and Weaver stop their duties and walk to the edge of the log after the first slab is cut to lean over and see for the first time what they’ve revealed.
“It’s been exciting,” Johnson says, “to take a love for something and do it for a living.” G
To see how slabs turn into sold pieces, check out the digital issue for the full story.
// To view the full story, check out the digital issue here
PHOTOS BY: 918 PHOTOGRAPHY