From firewood to furniture

Kevin Launius/Daily Courier

Delbert Kauffman started his business by making pole fences

Delbert Kauffman went from burning wood to building things with it

By Barbara Hahn
of the Daily Courier
KERBY - The furniture is heavy and sturdy - chairs, couches and tables that perfectly fit the decor of a rustic mountain lodge.

Today, though, they grace the downtown Kerby showroom of Kauffman Wood Products. Owner Delbert Kauffman and his workers have been crafting the furniture as well as other log and pole items for nearly three decades in the Illinois Valley.

Kauffman Wood Products is much like many small businesses in the Illinois Valley - ones that start as one-person operations and grow with time, adding employees and expanding their product line. Kauffman's own adventure in local business began 30 years ago when he provided firewood for friends and neighbors in Takilma.

"I cut firewood for several years and kept trying to do other things that were more lucrative," he said. Fence building was one of these enterprises, and Kauffman's trademark pole and wire fence remains a common fixture around the valley. His massive driveway entry-arches made from curved poles also are a frequent sight.

"Then I bought a team of horses and did horse logging for awhile," he said. "Real quickly it became apparent that in order to make a living, I'd have to travel a lot, stay all week at the logging site and go home on the weekends. But I had six kids and I didn't want to do that."

Kevin Launius/Daily Courier

Helen Kauffman, left, answers questions from customer Linda Noggle at Kauffman Wood Products' showroom

So he explored other avenues for using his basic building material of poles and logs.

"I started making log structures - barns, carports and other buildings," he said. "I've built hundreds of buildings."

At the same time, he also was making the occasional piece of log furniture which often brought rave reviews.

"Everyone said - that's great, you can make a lot of money with that," Kauffman said with a laugh. "You might say that was the extent of my market research."

But as he crafted more furniture, refining shapes and styles as well as the manufacturing process, he began to understand what his customers were looking for.

"There are a lot of people who make log furniture, but not quite of the same quality," he added.

Determining what to build has been a learning process. "We tend to follow the demand and the designs that lend themselves to poles," he said.

The company also focuses on items which can be made efficiently, such as the latest addition to their product line, a wall-mounted rack that holds skis. Other popular items include roomy, rustic chairs, drumtop tables and log beds.

Helping to get the word out about his products is Kauffman's Internet Web site.

"We've been on the Web for about six or seven years," he said. Wholesale and retail customers also learn about his work through trade shows he's attended in cities as wide-ranging as Seattle and Phoenix.

As his business has grown, so has his visibility within the community. For years, Kauffman operated from his home, which eventually posed its own problems. "When I was working at home, I'd have all sorts of people walk into my house without even knocking," he said.

About eight years ago, he rented space at the site of the former Cabax mill in Kerby, into which he moved his manufacturing plant. Then last fall, he and burl artist Harvey Shinerock rented the former Oddfellows Hall on Redwood Highway in Kerby, just a few hundred feet from Kauffman's manufacturing warehouse. They spiffed up the historic building with colorful paint, freshened up the interior and moved in their products for display.

Kevin Launius/Daily Courier

Reggie Wright sorts logs at the Kauffman Wood Products shop.

"We felt like we needed a place where people could see the furniture without going into a noisy, dusty area," he said. Shinerock's burl creations take up the second floor of the building while Kauffman's furniture fills the ground floor showroom.

And while the Illinois Valley may be off the beaten path, Kauffman believes the showroom will still bring in visitors and potential customers.

"A lot of people who come in are locating in the Pacific Northwest, or maybe have a summer home," he said. "This is a viable tourist spot." Doing business in the Illinois Valley has its challenges, although not necessarily any different from those presented elsewhere.

"Because this is a specialty product, we could be doing business anywhere and have the same problems," he said. "Finding qualified help is difficult because we're making an exotic product. It's not like what a carpenter or cabinetmaker does. So for everyone that we hire, we have to do a lot of training."

His staff fluctuates between seven and a dozen workers during the year, depending on the season.

At the same time, being close to the source of his raw materials is one advantage that Kauffman's business location brings. He buys the largest logs from independent loggers and even the local mill, while independent woodcutters supply all the raw poles he needs.

At the same time, he, like other small businesses in the valley, has to tackle the logistics of getting his product to his customers. Most of his items are either sent via United Parcel Service or by truck service.

Because of the logistical difficulties that any manufacturer faces in the Illinois Valley, Kauffman doesn't believe expanding manufacturing opportunities will help boost local employment. Rather, the area's future is in tourism, he says. The Illinois Valley's "greatest attraction is our greatest liability," he says. "Being out of the way, we're harder to find."

That's an attribute that attracts visitors interested in unspoiled natural beauty, he says. There's still good air and water, he adds, and the small number of residents makes for an uncrowded, quieter lifestyle.

Even if increased tourism provides only minimum-wage jobs, he says, this would be better than what's currently at hand.

"I meet a lot of people every week who wish they had even a minimum-wage job," he said.

Kauffman suggests the community tackle an even larger problem. In particular, locals should just stop berating the area, and he especially condemns those who urge youngsters not to get "stuck" in the Illinois Valley. "No one puts it out to the kids that this is a great place," Kauffman said.

"The biggest improvement in my mind would be to improve our attitude," he continued. "A lot of people feel like they have to suffer to be in the Illinois Valley and a lot of people set themselves up to suffer."

Yet there are also many people who are creating quality products, making a nice living and enjoying life in the Illinois Valley. Kauffman cites local basket makers, glassblowers and potters as evidence of the talent that flourishes locally. "There's a spirit of enterprise and creativity and from that spirit you can invent products and things that give us the values of what living in the Illinois Valley means," he says.

Back home