By Mark Fernquest
It’s a bright and cloudy spring day in West County. I’m waiting for my neighbor, Marc Lepp, 68, to pick me up. He lives just down the road. He has a sawmill set up nearby and wants to give me a tour.
I’m intrigued to find out about this project with which he and two of his friends are involved. Lepp pulls up in a ’91 Toyota minivan, which has the distinct vibe of a well-used utility vehicle, and we set off. First stop, his house, to hook up a customized, multipurpose trailer that is heavily laden with several large logs. Then we move on down the road.
As a child, Lepp lived in several parts of the country before attending college in Washington and ending up in Sonoma County in 1979. Now he’s a retired general contractor with mechanical aptitude and a creative urge. He bought his gas sawmill two years ago and began milling scavenged wood with it, along the way adding two partners to the strictly-for-fun venture. Now it’s a project the three of them engage in during their spare time.
The lumber is utilized in numerous ways by Lepp. “I started making benches, wood chairs and picnic tables from the get-go, with the wood that can handle it—redwood, doug fir,” he says. “I am also a welder and a mechanic, and I have made ‘rocking wood benches,’ using leaf springs from pickup trucks as legs. I have built saunas, and I make practically all my buildable lumber.”
He recently made an arrangement with the owner at the Hidden Forest Nursery in Sebastopol, and his “rocking wood benches” and cutting boards are for sale there.
We drive for a few minutes down Sebastopol’s rural back roads, then pull down a long, shaded dirt driveway and park. Eric Spillman, 62, is waiting for us at the mill itself. In fact, it’s his land. After a brief introduction, the two men get to work giving me a demonstration.
The mill is portable—small by commercial standards. In fact, the mill and Lepp’s trailer are both 10 feet 3 inches long, limiting all logs to that length. The milling process is made as simple as possible by virtue of the fact that Lepp’s custom trailer and parking spot allow the two men to almost effortlessly roll heavy logs up over the lip of the trailer bed using cant hooks and then roll them down the hill, directly onto the mill. They then position each log according to its size and shape, cut its sides off and cut individual boards to the desired thickness.
They end up with beautiful slabs of wood, as well as fully milled lumber, including 2x4s and 2x6s. Drying lumber from trees of all types is stacked around us in carefully laid-out piles. Wood sticks, called “stickers,” act as spacers between the planks, which are covered and left to dry for one year per inch of thickness.
Originally from Oregon, Spillman is now a 30-year resident of Sonoma County, where he runs a local branding and design firm called Sevenfold Creative. In his spare time, he enjoys designing and building leisure/entertainment areas like saunas, sleeping quarters and furnishings, using the lumber he and Lepp mill. “The beauty of a mobile mill,” he says, “is that you can reverse-engineer things, using what you have access to to create things, as well as say goodbye to standard lumber dimensions.”
We say farewell as he and Lepp drop plywood sides onto the lumber trailer so that Lepp can pick up a load of manure from a local chicken farmer later. Then Lepp drives home, dropping me off along the way.
The third “partner” in the venture, Ryan Dauss, 42, is another neighbor of mine. I stop by his place to say hello as I make my way down the long driveway on which we both live. A Hoosier by birth, Dauss arrived in Sonoma County in 2010 while driving to Oregon, and never left. A builder by trade, he sometimes scouts and hauls wood with Lepp. The planks they mill become oiled tabletops and bar tops adorning his expansive deck and garden, making for luxurious dinners with family and friends—dinners his wife, Mckenzie, cooks up.
My interest in this grass-roots milling project begins with my own creative upcycling process, which includes riveting rusty bits of scavenged metal onto 50-year-old leather ammunition pouches and vintage welding jackets, turning them into Mad Max-style costume pieces. I also engage in one-off artistic projects, such as carving a pair of sandals out of a junked trailer tire, and emptying a vintage transistor radio of its components and selling it as a woman’s clutch. Recently, I built several post-apocalyptic faux-weapons out of rusty old barb-wire-wrapped cultivator claws, using hand-cut sticks for handles. The kicker: They are still fully functional hand cultivators.
But beyond upcycling—that is, giving life to old materials or downed logs—I am intrigued by how the creative process for Lepp, Spillman, Dauss and me spreads wide, to encompass other materials, other projects, other people and places, and how it weaves itself into the greater community, often in the shadow of “commerce.” Lepp salvages fallen wood from people who need it hauled away, and he, Spillman and Dauss mill it and repurpose it into lumber to build with, but there’s more.
Take Spillman. Two tiny homes are parked on his land. When I inquired about them, he told me, “I’ve always fantasized about ducking out of modern life to live remotely and build things from what is available on-site. I’m currently building an off-the-grid set of mobile cabins to ‘drag and drop’ in possibly rural Montana or Wyoming, with the idea of relocating every couple years. The large one for lounging, sleeping and eating; the smaller for bathing, bathroom and utilities. These guys are wood siding inside and out.”
A man after my own heart.
And Dauss is a master gleaner and craftsman who plies Craigslist, flea markets and roadsides for free and inexpensive materials with which to build functional art. His two latest creations—“Betty,” a vardo tiny-home-on-wheels, and a strikingly creative camper shell called “The Transformer” that sits on the back of his Toyota Tacoma—lay squarely in his driveway. Both campers are built primarily out of scavenged materials.
Betty, sheathed in wood, corrugated rusted metal and copper—and sporting a porthole and a fiberglass roof—has a nautical-steampunk look. Her elegant interior includes a tiny bathroom with composting toilet and shower, a kitchen sink and propane stove, a backup wood-burning stove, a convertible dinette and a sleeping platform with accompanying bay window.
The Transformer is smaller, and somehow more eye-catching. Its exterior is composed of a dizzying array of materials, including copper and brass sheeting, brass portholes and fixtures, wood with a Shou Sugi Ban finish, colored glass and a faux-grass rooftop deck. The exquisite skill with which Dauss hand-cut the different materials—in mirror-image, for both sides as it were—is not lost on me. The layers of meticulously hand-shaped wood and metal are fastened together with copper nails, hinges, screws, bolts, welds and rivets.
The Transformer, with fold-up sides and slide-out interior drawers, functions as both a camper and a work truck. People stop to ask questions and take photos wherever Dauss drives it. What camper will he dream up next?
And Lepp himself doesn’t just sell his milled-wood wares; he made 30 cutting boards last Christmas and handed them out as gifts, investing in his friends, so to speak. Then there’s his son, Isak, who recently transformed a vintage camping trailer into a portable sauna up in Portland. Even my own wasteland pouches get sold, traded or gifted to friends and strangers at post-apocalyptic festivals in the desert Southwest.
These silent undercurrents flow beneath the mainstream in a place where trade often replaces money, creativity is the moving force, and where friendship is the basis for organic community. So, where does value lie?
Marc Lepp 707.292.1575 [email protected]
Hidden Forest Nursery, 3970 Azalea Lane, Sebastopol. 707.823.6832. www.hiddenforestnursery.com
Ryan Dauss, Builder instagram.com/Wagontales_withbetty [email protected]