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Jefferson sawmill owner makes the most of his craft with patience and care

JEFFERSON — Few things move quicker than saw blades at Wood Eye Wood Products.

Keith Schoonover, owner of the sawmill that sits on an old dairy farm near Jefferson, can wait months, sometimes years, for his wood to be just right for sale. And if he’s in the middle of cutting timber, he won’t necessarily rush toward his phone every time it rings, he said.

“There are no wood emergencies,” Schoonover said.

The stable routine was one thing that initially drew him to milling. After working for years as a trucker, Schoonover wanted a different job, something that would support a family and allow him to settle down. So in 1989 he started Wood Eye, beginning the operation by taking his portable mill to do demonstrations or on-site sawing.

Over the years, he has built a reputation as someone who likes trees and knows what to do with them. Now, many tree removal companies and other people in the area call Schoonover when they come across a big piece of timber in danger of ending up on the burn pile.

The trees “all are given to me just to haul away,” Schoonover said.

Much of the wood comes from Montgomery County and goes to farmers and furniture makers.

But before Schoonover can sell wood for carpentry, he has to dry the lumber to strengthen it and prevent it from splitting and warping. Additionally, the timber sometimes changes too abruptly from the pale sapwood near the trunk’s surface to the rich-toned heartwood at the center of the tree. The color evens out if the wood rests for a while, Schoonover said.

One piece of walnut stayed buried in sawdust for two years before Schoonover was ready to sell it. Even though large slabs of wood can fetch thousands of dollars, Schoonover struggles through some sales.

He said it’s hard for him to see buyers change the natural shape of the trees.

“Those slabs of maple came from a tree by Harpers Ferry by the river,” Schoonover said about one stack of timber at his mill. Another hunk came from a poplar that stood on the fairway of Manor Country Club in Rockville.

One of his favorite tree trunks was from an English walnut that stood on a hillside next to an Episcopal church on Maryland Avenue in Frederick.

Instead of being sheltered in a stand of trees, the walnut had grown alone, so deep cracks formed between its rings as it twisted in the wind.

Intrigued by the “wind shake” marks and the walnut’s branch pattern, Schoonover flattened part of the wood and made a table that looked like a cross section of the trunk. He said he wants to get more involved in carpentry, particularly by creating furniture that, like the table, preserves the tree form.

Washington Redskins tight end Chris Cooley recently bought three of Schoonover’s tables to put in his Virginia-based art gallery.

Schoonover is humble about his craftsmanship, though. He said his goal is to put God’s work on display.

“I didn’t grow the tree,” he said. “I just get to open it up and show it off.”