The Hardwood Crusader

Posted by Renee Magyar on June 3, 2014

Rod Jacobs has chosen a mission off the beaten timber path


When we think of a Northwest forest, evergreens such as pine, fir, and cedar easily spring to mind.  But the Northwest is also home to hardwoods – broadleaf, deciduous trees like maple, ash, and oak.  These trees are  overshadowed by their conifer cousins in the consciousness of many people.  And Big Timber – the Northwest’s cornerstone industry – has often ignored hardwoods or relegated them to the chipper. Slow-growing and unusual in their shapes, sizes, and colors, they require individual attention and defy the high speed production that characterizes mechanized milling in the modern age.

Rod Jacobs, founder of Unique Woods and member of Sustainable Northwest's FSC Chain of Custody, sees something in hardwoods that many of his compatriots do not see: pure beauty.  Maple, madrone, myrtlewood, and other hardwoods offer unique coloration and grain patterns. Even within species, “no two are identical. They’re like snowflakes,” Rod says. This is the kind of wood behind the pieces that end up at the Antique Road Show.

Ironically, over 90% of Rod’s material is slated for pulp. With a keen artist’s eye, he plucks condemned pieces from the chip pile and fashions them into parts for musical instruments and heirloom furniture.  Van Halen played on instruments made from wood rescued by Rod.

“I like finding these nuggets of gold and turning them into things that people pass down for generations.  All from wood destined to become paper bags.”  

One of many beautiful tables that originated at Unique Woods
One of many beautiful tables that originated at Unique Woods

Serendipity got Rod into this business. As a young artist, he dabbled in wood, but found that the best material was scarce.  Where he saw beautiful patterns and colors, others saw wood that was crooked, too long, or too short. Taking matters into his own hands, he bought a sawmill and a kiln, and taught himself how to cut and dry the wood. Thirty-seven years later, he’s a leading provider for companies such as Gibson (guitar-makers), Erickson Woodworking (furniture), and Browning (gunstock).

Rod takes his material from 200-300 year old trees that have already reproduced and are nearing the end of their lives. He persuades foresters and landowners to let hardwood grow and allow natural, mixed forests to flourish.  It may be a waste to turn hardwoods into pallets or paper, but it’s also bad land management.  He wants to see forests return to health and ecosystem balance.

“There’s a lot of misconception about what is valuable. It’s easy to see value in cultivating long, straight logs from 30-year old fir trees. I try to show people that there’s also value and profit in letting hardwoods grow, cutting them at the end of their lifespan, and harvesting them for their artistic value. But it’s a cross-generational, long-term investment. People have to reap economic benefit out of letting these trees grow.”

Rod himself has benefited tremendously from his mission. During timber’s boom and bust in the 1980s and 1990s, and again during the recent recession, many businesses either went under or slashed their operations. But Rod’s niche market has continued to thrive.  Unique Woods is expanding and in the process of purchasing a second sawmill and kiln.  It’s hard to keep up with the orders. “Even when the economy is down, quality still sells,” he says.

We’re proud to support Unique Woods as a member of our FSC Chain of Custody program. If you’re interested in contacting Rod about a project, you can reach him at (541) 337-7030.  For information about becoming a member of our FSC Chain of Custody program, please contact Paul Vanderford.