Jerry Nelson: Larry the lumber guy

Jerry Nelson
Special to the Farm Forum

I have known Larry Ust since forever. Larry grew up on a neighborhood farm, coached 4-H softball for our two sons and delivered our mail for 25 years.

“I would still be a mail carrier if I hadn’t broken my arm and suffered some nerve damage,” Larry told me recently. “I really enjoyed that job.”

One might not think that placing mail in rural mailboxes would have a social aspect. But that’s not how Larry operates. He would hand-deliver the mail to older residents and chat with them for a few minutes. My widowed mother greatly appreciated Larry’s visits. His daily wellness checks were a comfort to elderly rural residents and their families.

A few years ago, I began to notice that piles of logs were accumulating on Larry’s acreage. It seems that Larry, who has always been a skilled craftsman and has tackled numerous building and remodeling jobs, had embarked upon yet another career. The new sawmill in his backyard confirmed my suspicions: Larry had become a sawyer.

Most people might look at a tree and see leaves and branches and twigs. Larry looks at a tree and sees tables and benches and fireplace mantels.

“You don’t know what a tree wants to be until you cut it open,” Larry said. “If you listen, the tree will tell you.”

None of the logs that are piled on Larry’s acreage were cut down for the express purpose of producing lumber.

“All of the trees were taken down by a storm or had to be cleared out to make room for something,” he said. “In this part of the world, wood dries at the rate of about an inch per year. A big log will never dry completely, so it has to be milled into lumber. The best time to mill a log is the day you cut it down. The second-best day is the day you get at it.”

Ask Larry about his favorite kind of wood and you will get a variety of answers.

“I really like walnut,” he said. “But I also like the aromatic red cedar that grows in this area. Russian olive is extremely interesting, and I’ve seen some awfully nice ash come out of the sawmill.”

Most people would want lumber that’s easy to tool, with a straight grain and no knots. Larry prefers gnarly, twisted wood that’s riddled with burls and cracks and worm holes.

“I just love what other people might call defects,” Larry said. “It’s the defects that sets a piece of wood apart and makes it unique.”

An interesting technique that Larry has been using involves injecting colored epoxy filler into some of the cracks and holes in pieces of wood that are destined to become a tabletop or a bar. He has also experimented with placing a ribbon of blue epoxy down the middle of a tabletop.

“I call those my river tables because the swirled blue epoxy looks like a river,” he said. “I took the first one that I made to the Folk Arts Festival and sold it before the festival even opened. The person who bought the table said that it spoke to him and that he had to have it.”

“Larry really enjoys the social aspect of his woodworking business,” said Doris, Larry’s wife of 46 years.

Larry is putting the finishing touches on a new home that he recently built for Doris and himself. The day that I spoke to him, Larry was sanding western red cedar planks that would soon become the surface of their deck.

“Isn’t this some pretty wood?” said Larry for the umpteenth time that day. “This came from a 60-year-old utility pole. It’s going to have a second life as part of our deck.”

Larry and Doris have a six-year-old granddaughter who likes to come to their place to visit.

“One day our granddaughter was ‘helping’ me by peeling the bark off a log with a small pry bar,” Larry said. “She looked at me and said, ‘Grandpa, we need to make me a bench from this log.’ I said ‘Absolutely!’ and set the log aside. The next time she visits, I’ll let her ‘help’ me make her bench. I’ll have her sign the seat of the bench, then I’ll rout out her signature and seal it with clear coat. Hopefully, it will create a memory that will last for many years.”

Larry, like each of his furniture creations, is one-of-a-kind.

“I don’t tally the number of board feet that comes out of my sawmill,” Larry said. “What’s important to me is the amount of pleasure that I get from making things that give other people enjoyment.”

Jerry Nelson
Larry Ust.