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Rural Missouri Magazine
A new life
for old logs

Rick Braun creates furniture from old growth timber rescued from the burn pile

by Bob McEowen

Rick Braun, right, and his son Shawn load a 300-pound slab of sycamore cut from a log rescued from the Branson Landing development. The woodworker from Lampe makes tables, lamps and other home furnishings from old growth lumber reclaimed from construction sites.

The two men are quite a sight for travelers pausing at the intersection of highways 13 and 86 near the southern edge of Table Rock Lake. With their bright orange jumpsuits, hardhats and face shields, they look like something out of a sci-fi movie. It’s their work that gets the most notice, though.

The two wield an enormous chainsaw with a 6-foot cutting bar as they slice slab after slab from a massive log. With each pass they stop to examine the grain and condition of the wood before sliding the 300-pound planks onto a forklift.

Rick Braun and his son, Shawn, craft tables, countertops, fireplace mantles and other home furnishings from century-old timbers gathered from construction sites. The log they slice on this day was cleared to make way for a new shopping and entertainment center in Branson’s historic downtown. Nearly two years of time and effort lie ahead but this lumber will eventually become a treasured centerpiece in a home or business.

“We specialize in salvaged old-growth timbers,” Rick says, explaining that few loggers are interested in old trees that often have cracks, twists and hollow spots in them. “We try to give these big old trees another life by creating furnishings from them.”

Rick polishes a completed coffee table in his workshop near Lampe. The piece, with a walnut top and legs made from cedar roots, sells for about $650.

In recent months Rick has made headlines by utilizing lumber from Branson’s Liberty Tree, a once-stately burr oak that stood in a downtown city park. The 200-year-old tree, which received congressional recognition for its longevity at the time of America’s bicentennial, was a beloved landmark until age and lightning strikes brought its survival into question.

When development delivered the tree its fatal blow, Rick came forward to purchase it — just as he had done with many other logs removed during construction of the Branson Landing project. Today, six large tables Rick built from the tree welcome patrons at the Hilton Hotel’s Liberty Tavern restaurant near the development’s central square.

“A lot of people loved that tree,” Rick says. “Being able to give it a second life is good feeling for me and it is for a lot of people.”

Long before the Liberty Tree came down, Rick had a reputation for crafting artistic furniture and home accents from salvaged timber. Combining driftwood, tree roots and slabs of oak, walnut or sycamore, his unique furnishings are collaborative efforts between nature’s hand and the artist’s interpretative eye.

Driftwood, roots, limbs and “coins” cut from logs make up Rick’s inventory of materials. The artist mixes and matches these elements in often surprising ways.

“I try to keep as natural of form as possible because I think Mother Nature’s creations are much better than man-made features,” Rick says. “You have to be able to see that diamond that’s buried in the rough.”

If old scraps of driftwood and limbs are gems, then Rick’s shop is a veritable diamond mine. The facility, located in a former lumberyard near Lampe, is stacked high with slabs of lumber and twisted roots gathered from streams and lakesides.

The driftwood and other found pieces could become legs on a coffee table or the body of a lamp. Limbs are used as headboards or bed frames. A giant root wad, with embedded gravel still in place, becomes a stunning display for artwork.

“Sometimes when I see a unique piece, I don’t always know where it’s going to go. I just think I’ll build it, somebody will see it and they’re going to know where it’s going to go,” Rick says.

A television table in Rick Braun’s showroom is typical of furniture the southwest Missouri craftsman makes from salvaged old growth timber.

The White River Valley Electric Cooperative member’s products are prominently displayed in some of Branson’s toniest locations, most notably Bass Pro Shops’ Big Cedar Lodge and the Keeter Center at the College of the Ozarks. Rick’s work is also favored by upscale homeowners in and around Branson, where his furniture graces many a lake home and resort retreat.

Steve Jones, a Kansas City-area resident with a vacation home on Table Rock Lake, owns a number of Rick’s creations and has even commissioned tables built with lumber once owned by his father.

“We were involved from the beginning to the end,” says Jones. “We helped select the wood from his kiln and watched the process over the weeks that it took to get it done. I personally found it very interesting.”

Like other customers, Jones says he was won over by the uniqueness of Rick’s furniture.

Rick examines a plank cut from Branson’s Liberty Tree. The wood will eventually become a table top.

“When you get a piece from him, it’s one of a kind,” Jones says. “That appealed to me, and then just the fact that it is natural looking, as opposed to coming out of a factory.”

While not inexpensive, Rick’s furniture is not much higher than quality items found in better furniture stores. Smaller pieces like a coffee table or entryway stand might cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to a couple of thousand, depending on the uniqueness and complexity of the materials. Large dining and conference tables often bring $4,000 or more.

The unique furniture business began 20 years ago when Rick found himself without a job. Originally from Wisconsin, Rick left a career as a postal carrier in 1980 and moved to then-still-sleepy Branson in search of a secluded life in the woods.

Rick bought land adjacent to the original Dogwood Canyon resort and took a job at the property. The enterprise failed and the owners declared bankruptcy. Rick took standing timber as settlement for unpaid back wages and started a new business, The Wood Merchant, with hopes of making his living selling lumber.

When his first load of logs brought just $60 at the sawmill, Rick realized he needed to revise his business plan. While vacationing in Colorado, Rick visited the National Wildlife Museum and was inspired by rustic furniture offered for sale there. “The prices really opened my eyes to the potential,” Rick recalls.

Typical of furniture Rick makes, this dining room table retains the shape Mother Nature created.

With the inspiration from books and guidance from a few artist friends, Rick began making his own furniture from natural materials. Within a year he was asked to produce pieces for Silver Dollar City’s fall carving festival. His big break came through a chance encounter with Johnny Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops. Morris admired Rick’s furniture and sent the architect for Big Cedar Lodge to place an order.

Rick built 10 dining room tables for the lodge. It was the first of many orders and just the boost he needed to get his business off the ground.

“That got us on the map and showed people what we could do,” Rick says, explaining that brass business cards attached to each piece directed lodge guests to his shop. “They had the kind of clientele that didn’t balk at a $650 coffee table. That was the upscale clients that I needed to make it.”

Two decades later, Rick is a juried member of the Missouri Artisans Association and recognized as one of Branson’s premier craftsmen. This reputation preceded him when in 2004 he determined to rescue the timber from Branson’s downtown redevelopment.

Shawn and Rick examine a slap from the Liberty Tree for cracks and other imperfections. Often these surface deformities will be filled stones or acorns and sealed with clear resin.

“There was a front page article in the Springfield News Leader that showed these huge sycamore trees, all being pushed over. They had a big hole dug and a blower blowing air into this deal to burn this stuff up faster,” Rick recalls. “I told my wife that morning, I’m going to buy some trees today.”

Rick initially purchased just 20 of the biggest logs, but the thought of that burn pile was too much to bear. He returned to the site and bought all the remaining trees. It took seven tractor-trailer loads to deliver the timber to his shop. Later when the city fathers finally decided the Liberty Tree could not be saved, Rick was there to claim it as well.

“It’s wonderful that Rick had the vision to salvage the wood and make something out of it that will last,” says Phyllis VanderNaald, secretary/treasurer of the Downtown Branson Main Street Association. “In the form of furniture, they may last even longer than the trees did.”

The two years since purchasing the Branson Landing trees have been busy for Rick and his son. Public interest in his efforts is so great that Stihl chainsaws agreed to sponsor The Wood Merchant and supplied the tools and safety equipment he uses to process the logs. Rick scrambled to finish tables in time for the Landing’s opening and more furniture is still being made from the Liberty Tree.

Rick and Shawn saw a log outside the Wood Merchant's shop near Lampe.

Along with attracting additional business, Rick’s work with the Landing logs has raised local awareness about historic timber. That’s a trend he’s trying to further by contacting cemeteries, historic battlefields and other places where grand old trees stand. His aim, he says, is not to cut the trees but to get the opportunity to use the lumber should they ever come down.

“At some point those trees get old and they die, or you have these ice storms and they come down. Those trees have a lot of history and meaning to a lot of people,” Rick says.

“I feel that an attempt needs to be made to get these trees and do something so that it doesn’t just get cut up and put in a burn pile somewhere.”

For more information, call Rick Braun at (417) 779-5324.

Rural Missouri magazine - April 2014 issue
 
 
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