August 2006
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Log Furniture Hobby Quickly Turns Profitable

by Ginny Farmer

 
  Phil Osborn’s Hillabee Log Furniture makes bedroom furniture in different styles and sizes. This sweet gum headboard was made using trees that were twisted from the vines that grew around them.
When Phil Osborn of Hackneyville built a cabin on a nearby creek, he thought furnishing it with handmade wood furniture would be the perfect touch. Having experience in woodworking, he decided to learn to make the furniture himself.

At first, he copied the measurements of chairs and tables he had in his existing home on Old Providence Road, which is now also the location of Hillabee Log Furniture. Finding that he had the resources, talent and patience to be a successful wood-furniture maker, he spent three years making furniture as a hobby and opened the business about a year ago.

In the short time his shop has been open, Osborn has already found the business to be more profitable than he had imagined. With the help of his 17-year-old daughter, Kristi, he stays busy filling orders for all types of log furniture. Three months ago, he completed a new building for his shop because he had already outgrown the original building.

Osborn’s biggest sellers are rocking chairs, but he also makes a good deal of bedroom pieces such as bed frames and dressers, and other furniture such as sofas, dining tables, bar stools and armoires.

 
Phil Osborn and his daughter, Kristi, demonstrate how to use the tenon cutter, which is like a giant pencil sharpener.  
"I can make just about any type of furniture for a house," Osborn said.

He’s even made custom queen-size bunk beds, a 225-pound king-size headboard and a footboard with a connected bench.

Osborn’s largest order to date was 20 bunk beds for a youth camp at Lake Martin, but a large percentage of his customers are owners of lake homes looking for a rustic interior décor.

It was when Osborn visited places like Gatlinburg, TN, and noticed the high prices of handmade wood furniture that he realized he could turn his hobby into a full-time job.

"You don’t get rich doing it," Osborn admitted, but because he enjoys what he does, he hopes to be able to support himself in the business for many years to come.

Osborn worked in a cabinet shop for six years, and has had several other jobs, but building furniture has been his most enjoyable occupation.

 
  Osborn demonstrates using the draw knife, which creates the unique skin-peel pattern.
"It can be rough work," he said, but he enjoys the challenges of building furniture, such as figuring out the tilt of a rocking chair. He said he had to build about five or six chairs in the beginning before settling on an angle most people found comfortable.

He sells rocking chairs for about $175 apiece, but makes most of his money off of bed frames, which on average can range in price from $200 to $325. Each bed frame includes custom rails, made by a friend of Osborn’s, which are sturdier than factory-made rails, he said. They are matched to the head and footboards with the addition of a split log, giving each bed a complete wooden look.

Another unique feature found on some of Osborn’s furniture is the lack of metal guides on dresser drawers. Osborn said the all-wood drawers require a little more effort to slide at first, but over time as the wood rubs and polishes itself, they actually become easier to slide and don’t break like metal guides.

"I make everything but the trees," Osborn said. "I like starting on something and seeing how it comes out when I’m finished. I like to try new things. It’s a challenge to see if I can do it."

Making wood furniture is a year-long cycle. Osborn takes about a month to gather the wood in late fall and winter. He hand selects sweet gum, pine and cedar from his 110 acres and his parents’ nearby 80 acres of land, and accumulates any scraps he can get from lumberyards.

It takes three months for the wood to dry completely, and the timing is important for the quality of the furniture. Furniture made using green wood, which has not been dried completely, has weak joints and is less durable. However, wood that dries too quickly can split.

Sweet gum is stronger than pine, Osborn said, so he uses it to make most of the chairs. It’s a lightweight hardwood with a natural twisted grain, which adds to its beauty and strength. Pine is a good wood for dressers and bedroom sets.

Osborn said he thinks people enjoy the rustic look of the furniture he makes. In the springtime, he uses a drawknife to hand-peel the surface of the wood, giving it an unusual marbled design. However, some customers prefer a cleaner look, so he gives them the option of having the wood skip peeled or clean peeled.

The finished furniture is sanded and coated with linseed oil. Osborn said the linseed oil helps preserve the wood and also keeps bugs from ruining it, as well as giving it a golden sheen.

He said the furniture he makes is sturdy enough to last for generations, but he recommends it be kept inside to protect it from the elements.

"I make sure I put it together good and strong," Osborn said. "I use a high-grade glue. It’s not going to come apart."

The furniture is also secured with screws to ensure its stability, even if the glue should break down after many years of use.

Osborn has spent some time trying to sell his furniture at flea markets, and received enough orders to last him five months when he set up at the state fair. However, he is still in the beginning stages of getting his business’s name out and hopes to soon start advertising more, with television commercials reaching Birmingham and Alexander City. He is also planning to sell some furniture on eBay, especially his more unique pieces, such as a headboard made only from wood that became twisted after years of vine growth.

Anyone interested in visiting Hillabee Log Furniture can call and leave a message at (256) 329-0833. More information can also be found at www.hillabeelogfurniture.com.

Ginny Farmer is a freelance writer from Auburn.