Woodworker Carving Out a Second Career

By: Eric Sandbulte, The Brookings Register

In a quiet shed out in rural Volga, Larry Ust is right at home among the piles of lumber awaiting his attention.

Out here, away from hustle and bustle, he can pluck away at a piece of pine or saw some cedar down to size in relative comfort. Planks of wood of all shapes and sizes are lined up against the workshop wall, more than enough material for any project he could dream up.

The shed is well insulated, a bit warm, but not uncomfortable in the hot South Dakota sun and humid air. Occasionally, he’ll turn on a fan and that keeps him cool enough to do his work.

“Don’t even think about how warm it is. You just keep doing what you’re doing and all of a sudden, half the day is over and you got to go home,” he said.

Since retiring, Ust has been able to dedicate himself more to woodworking, a hobby that he says has gotten a little out of control.

“My wife thinks I probably spend too much time out here,” he said.

Ust got his start in woodworking through construction work with Rick Severson, whom he credits for teaching him so much. On the job, he worked on a lot of remodeling projects and home building.

Then for the next 25 years, Ust was a mail carrier, driving about 90 miles on his rural route around Volga. He enjoyed the chance to see people along his route, but he’s also happy for a change in pace.

Besides construction, he liked to make things such as furniture for himself and family. Bookcases, small tables: that kind of thing.

As a retiree, he has the chance to get into this hobby more than ever. So he had the chance to buy a sawmill, something he always wanted to own.

“I thought (a sawmill) looked pretty cool: Take a tree and make lumber and see what’s inside of it,” he said.

He bought one with a friend of his.

“We can cut up to a 28-inch (diameter) log, 17-foot long. Anything from making beams down to cutting almost like veneer, cut like 1/16-inch thick if you want to,” he said.

The logs that are stacked around his workshop are all saved wood, wood that would have been thrown out or burned otherwise.

“All local source trees. Some were from groves that just needed to be cleaned up, some from town that they were taking down for whatever reason that would be going to the burning pile otherwise. It’s mostly just stuff people want to get rid of. So we’ve never taken any trees down just to take a tree down,” Ust said.

People around town know he puts it to good use and give him a call. Right now, he isn’t looking for any more, however.

Most of his stockpile consists of cedar, walnut, ash and pine. If he had to choose which variety of wood was his favorite to work with, it’d be cedar because of the scent.

How the interior of the log looks dictates what it’ll be used for; he has to be flexible with whatever he finds.

There are some things you can look for before you start cutting. If boards are needed, then a straight log is required.

“Some of the logs have a lot of curves in them and the boards are going to want to keep curving once they’re cut. There’s a lot of stress in it, and that will pull a board one way or the other,” he explained.

But otherwise, it’s usually a matter of cutting a log open and seeing what it is he has to work with.

Once he has a project in mind, it’s time to go through what he has cut to find the right pieces.

“Depending on how rustic you want to go with it, that kind of defines what pieces of wood you’re going to use,” he said. Pointing to slabs of wood in the midst of being turned into a bed, he added, “Like the stuff up there, that’s relatively rustic with a live edge, but that’s what that one needs to be. I like the rustic look.”

Wood with a “live edge” refers to the natural edge of the wood under the bark after it has been cut.

There aren’t any plans that he follows, since, as he said, he prefers to wing it. At most, he works off a sketch of what he wants to do.

Typically, he works on multiple projects at once so that he has something to do while he waits for glue to set on piece, for example. At the moment, there are five projects at various stages he’s working on, including a table, a nightstand and a bar top. Hand tools and power tools each have their place in these projects.

“It’s nice sometimes to use hand tools. I use them more now than I ever thought I would,” he said. But he’s not going to use only hand tools any time soon: “Power tools are a wonderful thing.”

What he most enjoys about woodworking is the process itself, “from taking a tree down to taking a piece of furniture out the door, watching it go from a log that would have been burned up to something that’s usable.”

And soon those usables might stop being just a hobby and become a small business once he gets a tax license to be able to sell things. Once he starts making some money, he’d like to get a dry kiln to help dry the wood. Until then, the old-fashioned way (air-drying) will have to do.

Regardless of whatever new tools he gets or whatever changes come about once he transitions into a small business, one thing that won’t change is the care and attention to detail that he builds into each project he undertakes.

Contact Eric Sandbulte at esandbulte@brookingsregister.com.

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