This month, I interviewed our own fearless leader on the eve of his television debut. Greg Dahl, A.K.A "The Burl Hunter"and I, will be featured on The National Geographic Channel. “Filthy Riches” premiered Easter Sunday. Please tune in Sunday evenings, at 10:00pm eastern time to enjoy a glimpse into the world of hunting for hidden burl treasure.
Zeke: How did you get started as a burl hunter?
The Burl Hunter : I was working as an excavator operator, clearing land for house pads and septic systems. I was piling stumps to be burned when I noticed some large round stumps. I hadn't seen anything like them so I asked my boss what they were. He said they were burls. I had never herd of a burl before but it piqued my interest. So I took one home and cut into it with a chainsaw... I was mesmerized by the beauty I saw. I didn’t know what at first, but I knew I wanted to do something with it. After doing some research and ... since I’ve been a businessman all my life, I saw a viable opportunity.
Zeke: Would you say the television show is an accurate sampling of your daily life?
The Burl Hunter : Yes, to a small degree. Filming a television show is time constrained. There are so many more aspects to harvesting and preparing burls for sale than can be put into a segment of a weekly show. The show is only a snapshot of what I do!
Zeke: As a burl harvester, you ship materials all over the world. As a woodworker, do you ever have a hard time letting the nicer pieces go?
The Burl Hunter: No, I don’t get attached to my projects. I ike others to be able to appreciate them. In my life I get to see and handle wonderful materials every day. If someone is willing to purchase them on my website, I know they will appreciate them. I gain a large amount of satisfaction knowing that there are artisans all over the world who have the same passion I do in enjoying the beauty and diversity of burl.
Zeke: It seems that locating and harvesting burls is the hard part, how would you describe the learning curve on that?
The Burl Hunter: Well... over the years I’ve had to train my eye to spot and assess burls. I used to work in landscaping. I had to grade topsoil before the lawn went in. I had to learn to see all the dips and variations in the soil to make sure the lawn was just right. It’s just a matter of training your eye. Burls are the same way. When I see a burl, I have an educated guess as to what kind of material it will be. Then there’s the question of public or private land, locating the owner, and how accessible it is. I see beautiful burls all the time that I can’t get harvest.
Zeke: Your job looks dangerous, have you ever been seriously hurt?
The Burl Hunter: Yes, definitely. My band saw is my biggest safety concern. I’ve been bit by that thing more than once. The scariest tangle with my ban saw ended with 26 stitches on three fingers but, I felt fortunate just to keep them. Now, I constantly train myself to keep safety foremost on my mind. Be sure to check out this month’s video on band saw safety!
Zeke: What does most of your material get used for?
The Burl Hunter: Different species get used for different things. Most of my box elder gets sold as reel seats for fly rods, but a lot of my larger burls get sold as high end solid guitar billets. We also cater A LOT to wood turner’s , everything from pen blanks to hollow form vases. I also sell highly figured furniture wood, construction grade burl cluster log columns, and we’re moving into vacuum impregnation on a larger scale. Did I mention kiln drying as well? Really, there is no limitation to what an artisan can do with our burls. We strive to give our costumers a large selection of wood to choose from to meet their creative needs.
Zeke: WOW! ...Busy guy, so how much material do you ship in a year?
The Burl Hunter: This is just a guess, but probably around 100,000 pounds. We ship all over the world. Burls are sent to South Africa, Germany, France, Greece, Australia, South Korea and the Netherlands to name a few.
Zeke: Do you ever miss having a 9 to 5 job?
The Burl Hunter: Tried it... it kills me. I’d rather work twenty hours a day for myself than eight for someone else.
Zeke: I recently read an article about burl poachers in the California Redwoods. Does that kind of activity make your work harder?
The Burl Hunter:
Yes. I think it casts suspicion over the whole industry. Burls aren’t common to most people. If they read about or hear that there are people who are poaching burls, then you have to educate them on the difference between an ethical harvester and someone without ethics. As an ethical harvester, I don’t mind taking down a live tree if it needs to come down for another reason. Most of my harvests are either dead, dying or hazard trees. It’s harder work with more waste, but I’d rather do that than cut down a healthy tree for money.
Zeke: Do you run into a lot of unethical people?
The Burl Hunter:
Sometimes, although what I have discovered working with burls is that most woodworkers are just great people. Since I started this, people have taken me under their wing, shared their trade secrets, taught me, and have been patient while I learned about the burl business. I have had the privilege of meeting some of the kindest people in the world in this industry.
Zeke: I noticed a sticker on your truck that says “ Heaven Come Down” . What does that mean?
The Burl Hunter:
I’ve been a worship leader as long as I’ve been a businessman. When I lead worship that’s what I hope will happen. I hope that people will have a little taste of heaven.
Zeke: As a recovering atheist myself, I have to ask. Does your faith play a large part in what you do?
The Burl Hunter:
It's always exciting to watch God work on my behalf. I always seem to come across the right people at the right time that teach me the next step or open the next door. I see burls the same way I see the redemptive nature of God. Burls are caused by genetic deformity, disease, or injury, out of that comes the most beautiful material in the world in my opinion.
That’s God in my life. He took something hurt and diseased... and He made my life beautiful. I have a beautiful wife, great kids and a lot of good friends. Life is good!
Zeke: What’s next for The Burl Hunter?
The Burl Hunter:
Well, I would love to do a second season of “ Filthy Riches". I would also love to do more educating. As I learn something new, I post youtube videos so that everyone else can learn as I do. What I love about being in this business is, that there is always more you can learn and pass on. I thrive on helping others in any area I can.
More immediately I’m headed for the western Rockies looking for box elder burl... so any land owners out there give me a call. I’m always on the hunt.
The burl business is diverse and colorful. It is full of dreamers and poachers, artists and salesmen, craftsmen and sharks. Then there are a few like Greg. Greg is multi-faceted and difficult to quantify in only thirteen questions. I’ve known Greg for a few years now and even though I am distinctly not religious, I felt that I had to include the faith questions because it is such an integral part of who he is. It is palpable when you’re around him. I find it refreshing. He always seems to be confident that he will get where he’s going.
I remember when this latest adventure started... we were running his mill one day and he off-handedly asked me if I would do a T.V. show with him. I made a mental note that he might be slightly delusional and muttered a ” yeah sure”. Now here I am writing an interview for the debut. These days, I don’t ever doubt Greg’s trajectory and I’m more careful about what I agree to. Greg is on a mission and he makes it happen every day. There is a lot to learn from him. Everything we do is about balance and equilibrium with our environment and the market. We need the ethical ones, the ones that help others up, the ones that keep the balance on the positive side of the gauge.
If nothing else, he’s fun to watch.