Photo by Jill Moore
Most of the wood Wendell Dietz uses is longleaf pine and cypress—that’s at least a century old.
Old saw marks and dirt and stuff
“Square nails. That’s the cutoff,” says Wendell Dietz. He is describing the kind—and more specifically the age—of the wood he likes to work with. Square nails, the kind made by shearing tapered strips from a sheet of steel, were common in house manufacture until about 1910, so anything still standing that has them must necessarily have been built more than a century ago. But Dietz, a furniture maker who lives in St. Francisville, isn’t interested in the houses still standing. For decades he has traveled the region in search of dilapidated, abandoned and unwanted buildings, salvaging the wood to build handmade furniture that bequeaths the wood’s weathered beauty (square nail holes included) to a whole new setting.
Most of the wood Dietz seeks is longleaf pine and cypress—two species whose forests covered great swathes of the southeast when European settlers began to build here in the eighteenth century. “The wood I use is at least a hundred years old, and much of that would have been cut from old-growth trees that were two- or three hundred years old,” explains Dietz in his St. Francisville workshop, where long wall racks hold stacks of beams and boards so weathered, split and blackened, they seem almost fossilized. “After Katrina I got a lot of houses out of New Orleans,” says Dietz, noting that many of the Crescent City’s older structures were built from longleaf pine as opposed to softer cypress. Dietz pulls down a sample: a twelve-inch-thick wall board—a slab of longleaf pine, its surface still marked with the telltale swirl pattern of the saw used to mill it more than a century ago. The top end of this board, which would have been nailed vertically to an interior or exterior wall from the ground up into the attic, is uncut: jagged with the original axe-strokes that felled the tree still visible. “This end [of the board] was in the attic,” explains Dietz. “So they never bothered to square it off—to finish it.”
This is the stuff that Dietz loves. He builds furniture pieces—tables and chairs and sideboards—that celebrate the wood’s former life rather than obscuring it. “The goal is always to preserve the wood’s character,” he explains. He doesn’t use a plane much, instead relying on the sander because “I don’t want to take out all the old saw marks and dirt and stuff.” He recalls having once gotten his hands on some pine bargeboard—the wood used to build barges upon which merchandise was floated down the Mississippi in the eighteenth- and nineteenth centuries. Typically, once the barges reached New Orleans they were dismantled and the wood used to build houses and other buildings. These particular boards, which had large holes in them from where they had been fastened together for the barge, were among those that ended up being used to build a house. “The house’s occupants had plugged the holes with corncobs,” explained Dietz. “And a hundred-some years later they were still in there! I used the wood in a table, and left the corncobs in there—just glued them in place. It came out great.”
In his workshop, Dietz builds benches and sideboards and especially tables. “I love building tables,” he says, “because they really present the wood at its best, puts it out there to see.” Most of them are made using the slow-growing, longleaf pine common to early Louisiana buildings. “It’s hard as a brick,” he says. “Because of the tight grain it cuts nice; machines nice. It doesn’t move like new wood. You’ve got to have really good, hard wood for tables, because softer wood marks too easy.”
It’s a painstaking process. Dietz estimates that, between matching lengths of wood, (grain for grain, all from the same building), building the complex and super-strong mortise-and-tenon or splined joints, and finishing the surfaces, a typical table may involve upwards of fifty hours’ labor.
For a man crazy about old wood, the prospect of throwing anything away just doesn’t cut it. So lately Dietz has taken to fashioning canoe paddles from ‘drops’—off cuts—left over from the building process. Made primarily from cypress, Dietz shapes Algonquin and otter tail-style paddles, waxes them to a golden, glowing finish, and sells them to folks keen to hold a smaller-sized slice of Louisiana’s timber history in their hands.
Wendell Dietz sells pieces at each year’s Yellow Leaf Art Festival in St. Francisville. Occasionally he will make pieces to order, too. Reach him at email@example.com.