Sometimes, a disaster creates new growth. The 2007-2008 drought in Central Texas killed many large trees that couldn’t survive with the reduced rainfall. Brandon Berdoll began logging those dead specimens and founded Berdoll Sawmill near Bastrop in 2009. Yellow pine is commercially farmed in the Piney Woods in East Texas, but commercial plantations or managed forests for hardwoods are near-nonexistent in the state. Access to the Texas pecan, walnut, mesquite, bois d’arc, and escarpment cherry sold by Berdoll is not found in a traditional supply chain but through the relationships built during the 50 years that Berdoll’s family has lived in the region. The trees are scouted out in backyards, farms, and along roadsides.
“I don’t personally like to take down a healthy, living tree when you can find a tree that’s already coming down. Every day, they are getting just mulched up or put in a pile and burned. A go-to technique for land owners clearing land is to pile brush underneath the trunk and light it on fire.” Berdoll only cuts trees that either die naturally or are being taken down as casualties of new power lines, oil and gas pipelines, roads and bridges, farmers clearing fields, or natural events such as windstorms or floods. In seven years of business, the company has built a unique stockpile composed of Texas logs of unusually large width — approximately 3 ft to 5 ft. Most of his logs come from within 100 miles of Austin. Many of the trees are 150–200 years old and have grown to a large diameter in low-rainfall Central Texas. The local landscape, with its high-alkaline soils, rocky terrain, and sporadic rainfall, does not provide ideal growing conditions for old-growth trees. For example, the walnut sold in batches by lumber wholesalers to architects and contractors often comes from Pennsylvania and Indiana.
“I know lots of pecan farmers in the area, so when they clear new trees or have trees that have died, I get called. A friend has a land-clearing business, and he’ll call me and say that they are about to clear 100 acres in New Braunfels, ‘so come get the trees if you want them or we’ll grind them up,’” says Berdoll. He often finds large trees along streams, where the constant moisture leads to larger growth. Bottomland forests in the seasonal wash areas in the prairie — “pecan bottoms” — are good sources for specimen pecans. Instead of grinding the wood or burning it and releasing carbon, Berdoll logs the trees, and the wood will be sustainably used.
Texas furniture maker Louis Fry, who designs and builds high-end furniture, is a client and says: “Brandon has created a model for how to harvest these Texas woods commercially. A lot of people have band saws and can cut up fallen trees, but they don’t have a way to mill or flatten these slabs. Even when you’ve made it into lumber, it has to be properly dried. People think they can get a portable sawmill and cut up a bunch of dead trees.”
Berdoll has a degree in construction science from Texas A&M and set up his business with a full onsite process — milling, drying, and surfacing the slabs and lumber. He offers large slabs, lumber, and small-batch specialty flooring. To this end, Berdoll has gone so far as to design and build an extremely large jointer/planer — 100 in. wide — for properly flattening the slabs, which can be up to 20 ft. long and 100 in. wide. “My dad was very mechanical-minded, and he modified machines all the time,” says Berdoll. “He would buy a piece of equipment and change the length of the belt or change the diameter of the pulleys or weld on this or that. As a kid, I was used to helping modify machines.” Fortunate to have a neighbor who was a retired electrical engineer from MIT,
Berdoll showed him the basic design and concept of what he wanted to build, and the neighbor said it could be done. All the components that he had drawn out had been developed in other industries. The two collaborated and successfully built a precision planer from the ground up, after a year and a half of design and 2,000 hours of fabrication. Berdoll painted the planer shiny “John Deere green,” and it is now the widest machine of its type in the world.
Brandon Berdoll aims to set Berdoll Sawmill apart with its precise monitoring and the care taken in the process. He says, “You may be able to find a product of equal quality somewhere else, but you will not find any one better.” Berdoll’s lumber is currently going into a new retail space for Yeti designed by Drophouse Design along South Congress in Austin. “He keeps the quality level of his lumber really high,” says Christian Klein of Drophouse. “I always know it has been properly dried. The live edge slabs in pecan and walnut are flat, and they are ready to finish-sand. Dealing with him is always a pleasure.” Berdoll crates slabs to protect them during shipping, and Texas clients tend to drive over to pick them up. Eighty percent of Berdoll’s clients are from the Central Texas area.
“If you compare the local Texas pecan with the commercially available pecan — a lot of it comes from Louisiana and Mississippi — it is a good wood, strong. But it doesn’t really have the character of Texas pecan. The local wood has more color, is more beautiful, and is an interesting wood to work with. I’ve been using it for 30 years,” says Fry who has used Texas pecan, mesquite, and walnut for commissions for The University of Texas and advertising firm GSD&M. Texas pecan has more visual character in the wood, due to the fluctuating dry and wet seasons in Texas, than does wood from a region with more consistent rainfall. Berdoll provides these Texas woods to architects, designers, builders, and furniture designers. He is working in the same Bastrop landscape that his family has worked in for 50 years. “The Texas landscape is expressed in the grain,” says Fry. “The struggle to survive gives it more character.”
Erika Huddleston is an artist and designer.