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Special Section Spring Home & Garden Archives The Altamont Enterprise, April 26, 2012
Get lost in thousands of pieces of fresh wood furniture
Jordan J. Michael
One thing I hate about my house is that it has no interesting furniture. Nothing really stands out. It’s depressing.
So, walking into Keith Armstrong’s wooden furniture mecca in rural Knoxwas a pleasant surprise. I got to see what actual nice, handmade furniture looked (and smelled) like. Armstrong Furniture has two warehouses full of about 3,000 different pieces, plus back-up.
Fresh wood is one of the world’s great smells, but Armstrong, 67, said he can’t sense the aroma anymore after 50 years of working 12-hour days with it.
“It’s like a farmer and cow manure,” he said. “The smell becomes too normal.”
Armstrong has 350,000 trees on 90 acres of land and he’s one of the last saw mills around. When he was a kid, he knew of 13 other saw mills in the area. Times are different now.
“I’m the last man standing,” Armstrong said. “We can’t compete with the big companies.”
That may be true, but Armstrong has unique pieces that the big companies may not have. Some of his tables are held up by an actual tree stump, and coat racks are branches.
“Every piece is different,” Armstrong said. “It’s like God did it.”
However, Armstrong doesn’t attend church, play golf, drink, or smoke. He’s made wood furniture since he was 11 years old, learning from his father, Louis.
“I’ve never not worked,” said Armstrong. “I haven’t had a bad cold in 30 years.”
Most of Armstrong’s creations are made from oak, cherry, and pine. Armstrong said pine isn’t doing so well these days. “The pine trees are choking each other,” he said.
There are a couple of thousand feet of lumber on Armstrong’s property. Tree huggers wouldn’t take too kindly to his business, but the trees grow back. Armstrong is currently using wood from trees he planted with his father 56 years ago.
“The ones I cut are going to rot and die anyways,” Armstrong said. “I cut the worst ones and some of the best trees, and then go back 10 years later. I don’t slash them because they’ll grow back faster.”
A maple tree takes 80 to 100 years to grow.
Oak wood is “hard, pretty, and forgiving,” Armstrong said, but can take some wear and tear before showing true scars. Cherry is beautiful, rich, and must be protected. Pine moves and cracks a little because it’s a softer wood.
“Pine is good, but you might be able to see what you wrote if you press too hard,” said Armstrong. He said he would never want a chair made of pine.
Armstrong makes excellent chairs. Most chairs on the market have four or five stretchers, which hold the legs. His chairs have 10 stretchers. Half of his chairs have a one-piece back, bending not breaking.
“I like making the rustic stuff,” Armstrong said. “It’s the best.”
Years ago, Armstrong wouldn’t have time to eat lunch, seeing 40 customers a day. Now, he’s lucky to see five consumers per day. He routinely loads up his pick-up truck and hits the road to sell to distributors as far away as Vermont and Connecticut.
“Most of my customers have either moved or dropped dead,” Armstrong said. “People don’t want to buy anymore, but I’m having fun just rolling along with this. I still make some money.”
Armstrong’s prices are more than fair for the quality that’s being sold. He creates gorgeous, rare items for one-third of what a large company would sell them for.
For example, Armstrong crafted a mini canoe that can be used for a coffee table. He assembled it right in front of me, sliding a base underneath and topping it with a pane of glass. It was neat.
“I’m selling this for $399 and it’s probably worth $1,400 to $3,000 anywhere else,” Armstrong said. “People will pay that ridiculous amount. I don’t get it.”
He probably should sell it for more, but he won’t.
“I like looking at all this stuff,” said Armstrong, “but I’d rather have someone else own it. Once, I had this one-in-a-million coffee table, but I sold it.”
He looks like an artist at work. But Armstrong doesn’t think of himself as a true artist because he does it for the money.
“I’m super handy,” he said. “I look around at what’s out there in the market and put my own unique spin on it. My challenge is the customer’s benefit.”
Armstrong is making a living off of being creative. And it looks like art to me.
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