An Adventure: Ben Shirk’s Sawmill

July 20, 2017

Written by Art Petrosemolo

Bob Collins from Rose Court is a good friend. His wife Bernie was my wife Tina’s first friend here at Garden Spot Village and they remain close. We socialize together, go out to dinner and because Bob is a LOT handier than I am, when I am stuck with something, it’s Bob to the rescue with his tools and expertise.

You probably know Bob if you are a woodworker. He is at the woodshop often and, a metal worker by trade, is at the forefront of the new metal shop that will open soon.

Anyway, I digress! Several times a week, I am out on-the-run doing research for newspaper stories or visiting new friends from the Hoovers of the “succulent plants” farm in New Holland to Ruth Lapp at the “strawberry patch” in Paradise. Many times, I call Bob and say “Are you up for an adventure?” He is always game and we have had some laughs and smiles as we both drop deeper into Lancaster County old order society culture. It has been eye opening.

Well, recently I was finishing up photos for a fall story on woodcrafter Mike Fisher for Garden Spot Village’s Destinations magazine and Mike said, “Do you want to see if Ben Shirk is at the sawmill?” For me, in for a dime, in for a dollar… I’m game for anything.

My reluctance was it was a new adventure and I had not brought Bob along although I am not sure where he would have sat in my small Audi TT.

Ben Shirk in East Earl runs a family sawmill. He turns logs into boards and natural edge slabs and is the source for Fisher’s wood that turns into natural edge tables like the ones he made for Garden Spot.

Ben had recently taken delivery of an expensive, new band saw with all the latest bells and whistles and computer controls. He was so proud of it, he had to show us how it worked as he manipulated all the hydraulics to position a 10-foot log and then proceed, like magic, to turn it into three-inch slabs.

I was sucking sawdust into my mouth it was so wide open. Mike was scratching his chin as he watched his colleague operate the new saw. It was fascinating for both of us. Mike had said to me a number of times that Ben would be a good newspaper story. He was right.

Well, if you ever wondered where good furniture starts – not the pressboard from Ikea or sold off the back of a truck from North Carolina – it starts with good hardwood – walnut, maple, elm, ash among other species. And many times, it does not come from old growth, densely packed forests. Trees grow tall but do not have girth there as they can be starved of sunlight from sister trees that are too close.

The six-foot diameter walnut trunk that arrived at Ben Shirk’s sawmill in early July came from within 15 miles of East Earl. It was a tree that threatened a home if it was hit with lightning or blown over and had to be removed. Many times, homeowners will give away a tree just to get it off their property. I remember the telephone company removing a tree from my New Jersey property that threatened the power lines but they just cut it into big sections and left it. I had to search for someone who needed the wood to burn and was willing to split it and haul it away.

In any case Ben paid the homeowner for the tree because, as he says, “I like to own it so there is no question later with what I do with it.” As a matter of fact, when Ben saw how solid the tree was (no rot) and how valuable it was even before processing, he returned to the owner and gave him – much to the owner’s surprise – additional money.

In any case, this magnificent black walnut tree that had reached for the sky and spread its branches for more than 100 years, will live on now in magnificent furniture.

The regional furniture makers who have heard about the tree are already trying to reserve a six-foot by 17-foot slab when the wood is ready to be worked in 14-16 months after drying.

But Ben isn’t going to be convinced to pre-sell anything. There is a chance that one buyer may take all the 15 or so three-inch slabs or if he decides to sell them singly, they probably will be worth more than $1,000 each in late 2018.

Yes, I brought Bob Collins to Ben’s sawmill to visit the next day and now I’m hard at work on a story on Ben’s sawmill. And for Bob and me, it was just another adventure – one of which I hope will be many more.

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