Sawmill and kiln owner enjoys keeping it local

Monday, December 30, 2019 - 08:29
  • Ron Wehrli opened Eagle River Sawmill & Kiln in 2018 and has slowly gained a growing market of discerning builders, fine woodworkers, and furniture makers from across the state. (Photo by Melissa DeVaughn)
  • Jacob Skelton, 16, left, is a student at Eagle River High School, and his brother, Wyatt, 17, right, is studying carpentry at King Tech High in Anchorage. Wehrli met the brothers’ parents and they worked it out so the brothers could gain valuable hands-on experience and woodworking skills at the Sawmill. (Photo by Melissa DeVaughn)
  • Ron Wehrli opened Eagle River Sawmill & Kiln in 2018 and has slowly gained a growing market of discerning builders, fine woodworkers, and furniture makers from across the state. (Photo by Melissa DeVaughn)

EAGLE RIVER — When Ron Wehrli opened Eagle River Sawmill & Kiln in June of 2018, he had a newly constructed kiln and a sawmill he bought because after years of working in the construction industry, he liked the idea of having his own tools. Other than that, he had no clear idea of what he was getting into.

“I didn’t really know what the heck I was doing,” said Wehrli, who has since molded his business to meet the needs of a niche market of builders, fine-woodworking craftsmen and hobbyists who appreciate the potential in a raw chunk of wood. He offers custom log milling and wood drying, and sells live-edge planks, sliced burls, and epoxy resins and colorants used for creating one-of-a-kind furniture pieces that are often the focal point of a room.

“This business just gives me a reason to keep showing up,” said Wehrli, whose saw-dusted blue jeans and weathered Walls work-jacket speak to the hours he spends working with wood. “This is a hobby that’s become a business, so I can’t complain.”

Entering Wehrli’s shop, the scent of fresh wood shavings prevails.Slabs of thick spruce, birch and cottonwood that have been dried in Wehrli’s kiln and put through his planer lean against the walls – from locally sourced spruce and birch to a small sampling of exotic hardwoods he’s brought in as well. No two pieces are the same – these slabs often become coffee tables, shelves, headboards – you name it.

The popularity of live-edge furniture is exploding, he said, because customers are craving furniture with character. Big-box stores market made-in-China, mass-produced furniture that doesn’t last. But live-edge wood can be the beginnings of an heirloom treasure, and often has meaningful stories to tell.

“There are people who have brought me in logs that had sentimental value because their dog used it as a shade tree,” he said. “They want something special.”

Wehrli’s is not the only sawmill in Alaska, but his proximity to Anchorage is convenient and his enthusiasm with each customer refreshing.

“My customers understand that I can work with them to create what they are envisioning,” he said.

Some know exactly what they need and head straight to his supply shelf, where he sells epoxies and colorants to customize each piece. Others have a vague idea of what they’d like but not the first clue how to get started. It is heartening to see customers’ ideas take shape, he said.

Earlier in the day, for example, he said an older couple came in to discuss a project idea they had. They perused the slabs available, took some notes and left. A few hours later, they called with some more questions. By late afternoon, they were back in to purchase what they needed. Watching those ideas hatch is fun, Wehrli said, and part of why he enjoys coming to work every day.

“I’d love to add some seating out front here, and make it a place where people can hang out,” he said. “I like that this could be a place where ideas are made.”

On a recent Friday, Kristyne Montero wandered into the store and took a deep, appreciative breath; Montero said she had no idea the mill existed until now.

“I could hang out here just for the smell,” she said, smiling and looking around. She had just come from the Revive Home Market, an adjoining small business that shares building space with the Sawmill and also specializes in marketing home décor with character. Revive upcycles and repurposes existing furniture pieces, while the sawmill offers ideas for those who want to start from scratch. No two pieces are the same, at either location. “Just stepping in here gets the creative juices flowing,” Montero added.

Justin Phillips, owner of Trustworthy Hardware across the street, said the addition of the sawmill has simplified projects for local woodworkers. Now, instead of directing customers to online sites or out-of-town locations, he can keep them doing business locally.

“There’s been many a time we’ve sent people over there, especially for things like resins that they need for their projects,” Phillips said. “We try to keep it local and help each other out.”

As Wehrli spoke with a young couple who has just walked in to check out the wood, brothers Wyatt and Jacob Skelton helped clean up the back of the shop, where wood shavings were piled up by the sander. The two work at the mill every week, learning valuable skills that could one day lead to gainful employment.

“I’ve learned rough carpentry and how to build things,” said Wyatt, 17, who is also studying carpentry at King Tech High. “(Wehrli) has taught us how to use the kiln and the sawmill too.”

“It’s just something that we wanted to do,” added, Jacob, 16, a student at Eagle River High.

Wehrli is hopeful that his business will continue to grow. He has received calls and visits from customers from Fairbanks, Valdez, Bethel, Nome, Kenai and beyond, as well as a steady stream of locals. On his wish list is a sawmill that can accommodate logs over 34 inches in diameter, which would broaden the range of products he can offer.

For now, though, he said he is thankful to be part of a small and supportive business community.

“From the Trustworthy store to the VFW to Spenard Builders, the support has been great,” he said. “I’m just a small shop in a small town and I like it that way.”

Eagle River Sawmill & Kiln is located at 17141 N. Eagle River Loop Road, next to the Elks Club and in the same building as Revive Home Market. (907-575-4557, online at eagleriversawmill.com and on Facebook)

Melissa DeVaughn is an Eagle River freelance writer and the former editor of the Alaska Star. She works as the head track coach at Chugiak High.

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