Functional Art

Elkhart woodworker turns discarded trees
into high-end furnishings

As published in The Marketplace Magazine Nov-Dec. 2018

Elkhart, IND — Discovering the potential of wood has been a lifelong interest for Matt Thomas.

He did woodworking with his father, Steve, a tri-vocational pastor who also works as an arborist and co-ordinator of Mennonite Men during his childhood. He also volunteered at a friend’s sawmill, growing to love milling wood in the process. Matt Thomas dog and wood for Nov MarketplaceMatt Thomas and his dog Myla with logs outside the Elko Hardwoods workshop

As a sculpture and art student at Goshen College, he showed his woodworking for his senior project. “It was a hit, I really enjoyed it.”

When he graduated from college half a dozen years ago, it seemed only natural to try to make a living creating furniture from tree trunks.

“I knew I wanted to do this,” said Thomas, co-owner of Elko Hardwoods. “I bought a sawmill. I picked up tools over the years, and I’ve just kind of grown with this.”

His younger brother, Jeremy, who is a successful options trader in Chicago, is also co-owner of Elko. Jeremy helped to finance both the workshop building and the Chicago showroom. “He’s kind of more the business side of things.”

Elko sold through a website early on. Matt Thomas eventually realized that “with high-end furniture, it’s hard to sell without being able to see it, feel it.”

The company opened a retail location in the south side of Chicago in 2017. The store has a 2,500-square- foot showroom with 20 pieces on display at a time.

About 75 per cent of Elko’s sales are custom orders. Most come from middle-aged, higher-income customers who live in lofts in downtown Chicago. “We have an idea of the size they want, the wood they want, and we’ll build a base for that.”client choosing custom table slabs Elko HardwoodsElko customers choose the wood slabs for their new table

Pricing depends on tree size and species. Most jobs range from $2,000 to $15,000. A large conference table might cost $20,000.

“I feel like there’s kind of a movement towards quality handmade things,” he said. “I think there’s a growing appreciation for it.”

The trend to using “live edge” wood in furniture started on the west coast. Most of Elko’s work has been residential. Thomas is trying to enter commercial spaces, providing conference or restaurant tables. “It would eventually be nice to do fewer one-off projects.”

Wood supply isn’t a challenge. “Most of the mills in this area can’t cut over three feet in diameter, or it’s just not worth their while. It’s just too much work for the yield.”

Thomas is working in an untapped market for larger logs. An ideal tree for his use is between three to four feet in diameter.

Half of the logs come from sweat equity, helping to take down a tree or just picking it up and hauling it away.

Elko gets a mixture of “hazard trees” — trees that are too close to a building or fell in a storm — and others that were damaged by insects. They often get called by tree trimmers who want a trunk removed quickly, usually in the spring and the fall.

“They get paid to take down trees, and they just want to get rid of the logs.”

Some of the bigger walnut trees come from Amish sawmills in the area. Thomas will buy trees that are too big for their use.

Wood is sourced from within 50 miles of the Goshen-Elkhart area, from a dozen different suppliers. Many tree-trimmers are aware of Elko and will call if they have wood they think Thomas could use. In other cases, he keeps an eye out for trees that have been damaged by a storm.

He most commonly works with black walnut, a species for which he typically must pay. Soft and hard maple, ash, sycamore, elm, white and red oak, and cherry logs all make their way into Elko’s products.table from slabs chosen by client Elko HardwoodsThis table was made from wood chosen by Elko clients in the earlier photo

In addition to his main 10,000-square-foot workshop, Thomas has a 5,000-square-foot barn where he and co-worker Luke Graber take green wood to cure.
After logs are cut into slabs, they need to air dry for two to three years, “about a year per inch (of depth).”

They have a kiln at their main workshop and run the wood through the kiln after it has dried.
Slabs are flattened to deal with any warping that developed during the drying process. “From there, it’s just a lot of sanding, polishing. We do all our own finishing here, we make the bases.”

One large tree may provide 10 slabs that could end up being used for conference tables.

This summer, Elko had an inventory of about 2,000 different slabs in all different stages of drying. Some clients come to the workshop to pick out the slab of wood they want to see turned into a table.

Working with salvaged wood means coping with splits or defects. A log without any commercial value because it won’t yield much clear lumber becomes a beautiful piece once holes are filled with resin and butterfly keys to help hold it together. “It’s kind of a niche. We’re looking for the stuff that bigger sawmills don’t even want.”

Thomas and Graber usually work on five to 10 tables at a time. Each table they produce is a result of 20-30 hours labor over a month.

Elko had several employees, but one left to take a teaching job. Finding replacements is difficult because many businesses in nearby Goshen are also looking for staff.

Low unemployment in the county due to a booming recreational vehicle sector makes for good opportunities for workers. That poses challenges for a small firm such as Elko, which can’t afford to match wages being offered by the RV firms.

Thomas enjoys working on large single-slab dining tables, which retain the tree’s original size and beauty. “I kind of like to think of it as functional art. I think it has some art in it. It takes some design aspects, but it’s even better when you are able to use it.”

He shows a visitor a work in progress, a slab of soft maple treated with an ebonized stain. Most wood just gets a clear sealer, but they like to stain soft maple.

The tree, which was four feet wide, was formerly at the home of people from his church before it fell on their garage during a storm. Thomas worked with the insurance company to obtain the log.

One walnut slab was originally five feet in diameter, likely over 100 years old. “It’s fun working with trees that have been around for a long time.”

Peter Miller is impressed with Thomas’ approach. Miller, sales operations manager at FarmLead, an online grain marketplace, did consulting for Elko in its early days.

Miller, who lives in Chicago, is impressed by Elko’s commitment to quality craftmanship and innovative design. “I have stumbled across Elko furniture in offices and restaurants across Chicago,” he said.

“They are quickly developing a reputation as one of the city’s premiere furniture designers.”

Elko has had orders from California, Texas and Colorado. “People are starting to find us online.”

When Thomas moved into his current workshop several years ago, he thought it would never fill up. “Now we’re kind of bursting at the seams.’’ ◆

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