A log may look like nothing special, but it can be transformed into a beautiful piece of furniture. Jerry Cottrell has done it many times.
The 71-year-old moved to Mount Olive about four years ago to be closer to family, and began experimenting with cedar logs — turning them into porch swings and benches. Today, he has his own furniture business, Mount Olive Cedar, out of his home.
Cottrell actually began creating furniture from wood while he was a student in college, working with This End Up, a crate-style furniture company. After it closed, he ventured into another career.
“I graduated college in ornamental horticulture, so I started a landscape-size plant nursery,” he said. “Then the housing market crashed and there was no market for landscape plants. So I liquidated the nursery.
“We have grandkids between Mount Olive and Faison, so we decided to move from Henderson to Mount Olive to get close to them.”
The house that the Cottrells moved into in Mount Olive has a workshop in the back, and that’s when Cottrell started making porch swings out of treated lumber to sell, something to make a living on, he said. Then he got into cedar.
“I found a good source for it,” Cottrell said. “I was hauling logs out of Franklin County and cutting them up at Southern Machine mill. Then I would bring them back here. And that’s what I still do. Flowers Timber about 12 miles from here cuts lumber and has helped me get wood, too.”
Cottrell started out doing just a few pieces of furniture, but has done more and more over the past year. And he’s doing a lot of custom work.
One big thing he’s made is a sink counter.
“Freddie Ellis has a smokehouse, he likes to cook,” Cottrell said. “I’ve done a lot of items for him, including a sink counter with an epoxy top. I also did a table for his smokehouse. He mounted two grills on it.”
He made an engraved bench for another customer. He said he can engrave anything on a piece of furniture he makes.
Porch swings have been, and continue to be, big sellers.
“It’s just me making my cedar furniture,” Cottrell said. “My wife Mary helps me move it from the workshop to the front yard. I enjoy building.”
But the best part to Cottrell is designing a piece of furniture.
“When someone comes to me with a project to build, I get it in my mind and sketch it out,” he said. “I don’t go by plans, I just make up my own. I picture it in my mind. Sometimes my mind doesn’t get all the dimensions just right, so it’s a little trial and error.”
Because Cottrell doesn’t use plans, every piece he makes is different.
Last year, he made four benches to put in downtown Mount Olive right before the Pickle Festival and engraved “welcome to Mount Olive” on them. He said after sitting in the sun for a year, they started looking a little ratty, so he took them to his workshop, took the boards off, resanded them and put waterseal on them. They were ready in time for this year’s Pickle Festival.
Cottrell also made an Oriental tea table for a customer.
“This Chinese lady knocked on my door with her husband,” he said. “She described what she wanted. They eat sitting on the floor with their legs crossed. She said she wanted it this high and this wide with rounds legs. I made it for her.”
The biggest thing Cottrell has made was a bed swing, the smallest was a pistol box. He has also made Adirondack bar stools and coffee tables.
He starts by cutting a log up, taking the wood to his workshop and cutting it to length with his saw. He cleans the edges up and sands the wood. Once he has all the parts ready for a piece of furniture, he assembles them, using a little bit of glue, but mostly by screwing the pieces together.
It takes three days for the epoxy to cure on a piece of furniture, and the temperature has to be above 75 degrees.
“I use gas logs in my shop for heat, with curtains to make the curing area,” he said. “When I’m curing epoxy, I can’t do a lot of sawing because sawdust gets all over the place. And I’ve got to keep the flies out so they don’t get on it. One bug landing on a table before it’s cured will ruin it. Then I have to sand it down and put another coat of epoxy on it
Cottrell said he would like to start making river coffee tables.
“It’s an epoxied coffee table that looks like it has a river running through the middle of it,” he said. “You split a slab in half and actually fill in between with epoxy that’s dyed to look like water.”
When Cottrell started making wood furniture as a college student, he had no idea it would turn into his own cedar furniture business.