West Berkeley artisans create furniture, art
The sight of giant redwood trees felled and sliced into logs can raise the hackles of a lot of people, especially in Berkeley.
Woodworker Jim Parodi knows this well. At Artisan’s Burlwood Furniture, at 910 Ashby and San Pablo avenues, large logs and stumps are often piled by the roadside awaiting carving or finishing into furniture.
“People see the logs and they get real upset,” Parodi says. “They just don’t get it.”
All of Parodi’s redwood comes from street trees – sequoias removed by farmers, homeowners, or local businesses from their properties. It’s wood that would otherwise go into the landfill or into the fireplace, Parodi says. And it’s not exactly prime lumber, either. He recently received two trees from the UC Berkeley campus that were rotting from the center out.
“We pulled nine fourteen-inch nails out of the last tree we cut,” he says. “Mills won’t touch something like that.”
But for Parodi, 49, and his associates, the wood is a treasure, yielding rich veneers, swirls, and lovely grains that make for unique works of art.
While it’s the chainsaw-carved bears and Indians that first catch the eye of the passer-by, Parodi actually does not do any carving himself. The popular statues are the work of two carvers, Ken Brown and Mark Colp, independent contractors who sell their work through Parodi’s shop. Parodi is strictly a furniture maker, and his medium of choice is burlwood – the curiously curled and swirled woodgrain that results when a tree suffers an injury or infection.
Cutting slabs of wood from old stumps, Parodi fashions table tops, chairs, and benches that have a wild, organic appearance. A coffee table ebbs and curls in a sort of amoeba-like shape. A redwood bench embraces the sitter with graceful rootlike structures that flare out around the back. A large bed looks as though it might take flight, with irregular head and foot boards that seem to grow out of the base.
Since redwood forests are unique to the Pacific Coast, Parodi is in an ideal location. Living right in the wood belt, he supplies blocks of redwood to many other craftsmen. And his own work draws customers from all over the world. The recent addition of a website (www.artisanburlwood.com) has helped the business grow. “People say to me, ‘I never ever dreamed I would buy a burlwood table; I always hated them.’ But when they come in and see it done right...”
Most visitors will first pass through rows of carved wooden statues before they get to the burlwood furniture in the showroom. Ken Brown, a burly man with flowing blond hair and beard, makes many of the smaller carvings that attract tourists and other customers. After carving, he uses a small blowtorch to blacken the nose and add details to a bear figure. Bears are especially popular (this is Cal country, after all), but he also carves squirrels, birds, horses, and more. One of his works, a pelican, is headed for Germany this week. The distinctive red-and-yellow hues of the wood make different patterns on each sculpture. Sometimes he’ll stain the wood, to make a black bear, for instance – other times the statues are left to their natural color, darkened only slightly by a weatherproof finish.
A man and a woman arrive with a pickup truck to claim a six-foot bear carving made by Mark Colp. The bear, standing erect on its hind legs like a totem pole, will be the main feature of a garden. The woman looks a bit wistfully at some of the smaller, cuddly-looking bears on display. “I’d rather he’d bought something more that size,” she admits.
Another customer comes in, attracted by the pelican. She loves pelicans, she tells Parodi. She’s got them all over her house. He takes her order and tells her it will be ready in a week.
The statuary may attract walk-ins, but the burlwood is doing a brisk business as well. Many customers come in to admire the table tops and coffee-table bases. Parodi’s furniture ships around the country and around the world.
Parodi is eco-conscious, emphasizing that his business is Audubon Society-approved. “I believe that when the forests are gone, we’ll follow.” He notes that the collapse of Mayan civilization in Mexico came about at least in part because of their slash-and-burn agricultural practices. But he doesn’t want to be hypocritical. “I can live off a tree for three years,” he says. “So it’s easy for me to throw stones at glass houses. I don’t want to be self-righteous about it.” When it comes to protecting old-growth forests, he notes, California is a lot better than many parts of the world.
An Alameda native, Parodi has been working in wood since he was nine years old. He opened his first burlwood shop in Alameda in 1971 and moved the business to Berkeley in 1978. In that time, he’s seen competition dwindle away to almost nonexistent. “It was very popular at one time,” he says of woodworking, “But it’s hard to make a living. There used to be burl shops all over the place. Now I think the nearest one is in Santa Cruz.” During lean times, Parodi has finished furniture, worked odd jobs, and performed as a guitarist, including gigs with the 1980s local bar band The Procrastinators.
He’s weathered good times and bad, windfalls and financial setbacks. He has overcome health problems that threatened his livelihood. He is, astonishingly, allergic to sawdust (he gets around this by wearing a special mask when cutting or sanding) and he has minor problems with carpal tunnel syndrome. He combats this with a strict health regimen, eating only certain foods, exercising, and lifting weights every day.
“A lot of my friends are starting to retire,” he reflects. “I never even thought of retiring. It’s not like I’m sitting all day at a desk job, just waiting to get enough money so I can quit.”
After all the years of good and bad, watching others drop out of woodworking for more comfortable jobs, Parodi has no regrets. His long persistence has paid off. Today, he says, he has more work than he can handle. The customers find him.
“This is the kind of business where the harder you work, the more it will bless you.”