Woodworker Kent family prunes forest


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For more information about the Watershed Agricultural Council, visit www.nycwatershed.org. The Olendorfs will exhibit their furniture at the sixth annual Mountain Culture Festival in Hunter, N.Y., on July 9 and 10. More information about the festival can be found at www.catskillmtn.org.

(Original publication: May 16, 2005)

KENT — A brush fire last month blackened about 10 acres in Kent's northeast corner, a disconcerting occurrence for any property owner — but even more so for a natural-wood furniture maker who could see the flames from his workshop.

"I could hear voices on a loudspeaker. I could see the fire over here and the firemen over there," Kent resident Bill Olendorf said Friday while standing outside his garage, which contains piles of dry tree branches.

Firefighters eventually extinguished the blaze, protecting the neighborhood and, in a larger sense, what Olendorf and his daughter, Barbara Olendorf, consider to be their storeroom. The two depend on the forests blanketing New York City's watershed for their raw materials. A sapling plucked from Kent could be used in a chair, or a branch cut from the Catskills could become a stool.

It's a hobby that has grown into a business in the past year and one that promotes healthy forests on the hills, mountains and valleys surrounding New York City's reservoirs. The Olendorfs received a grant last year from the Watershed Agricultural Council, a nonprofit organization seeking to manage farms and forests in accordance with clean-water principles. They will celebrate their one-year anniversary next month as TWIGZ Natural Furniture.

Olendorf, 63, a former home builder, said the council's involvement expanded their inventory of potential supplies.

"They turned us on to the fact that a lot of trees are weeds to the guys who want to grow high-quality timber," Olendorf said.

They aren't interested in the taller trees that constitute a forest. The two target the sapling-sized pieces and the less economically desired species. Removing those, such as striped maple and yew, allows more profitable trees to grow. Well-managed forests, rather than shopping centers, are the city's preferred land use for protecting water quality.

"The sort of push for that is that a working forest helps protect the watershed," said Collin Miller, a forestry specialist with the agricultural council. "It's just like weeding a garden. They're weeding the forest of the scraggly stuff."

Since 2000, the council has awarded about $2.25 million to 65 companies that are part of the "secondary" timber industry in the watershed, such as furniture makers, sculptors and bowl makers.

Bill and Barbara Olendorf split their time between the garage beneath their home on Lake Dutchess and a larger workshop in Dover in Dutchess County. Their home is steps, or rather strokes, from Dutchess. A swimming float anchored in the lake sits just over the county line.

They gave up other careers — Barbara, 37, was a restaurant consultant — for the furniture business, which, in Kent, shares space with a washer and dryer, some golf clubs and other usual garage paraphernalia.

"He sort of retired from Wall Street and I retired with him," Barbara Olendorf said. "It was always kind of a hobby, dad-time."

Most items are done on commission. On Friday, the two were assembling a stool to be used as a model for an upcoming crafts show. Be it a bed, a chair or a lamp, the pieces look more woodland than living room. A tree's knots, twists and forks are incorporated into the finished product.

A chair takes about three days, and larger pieces, such as a crib, take about a week. Prices range from about $600 for a chair to about $4,440 for a double bed. Materials come from treks through the woods, although they occasionally leave notes on an interesting-looking tree in someone's yard. The trees themselves sometimes suggest their end use.

"It really helps to have a partner," Bill Olendorf said. "Barbara's very good at walking around in the woods and saying, 'That's a table.'"

Wood is harvested (after getting a landowner's permission), peeled of its bark and allowed to dry. The yew being used Friday for the stool was collected last year in Delaware County. Bill Olendorf was aligning the legs and drilling holes where his daughter's support pieces would be inserted.

"(Mistakes) become kindling," Bill Olendorf said.

"You go find another stick," said his daughter.


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Monday, May 16, 2005