CRAFTSMAN DWAINE MCNEIL spends years drying out 200-year-old
whiskey barrels, and hours sanding off the charcoal coatings. He keeps some
2,000 oak barrels on his 40-acre property, and in his store and workshop in
nearby Redvers, Saskatchewan, a tidy town close to the United States border.
He loves sanding, watching the grain emerge from the rare,
quarter-cut white oak. The oak comes from England and Tennessee, a state where
distiller Jack Daniels owns a forest to ensure adequate wood for liquor
McNeil buys barrels in various states of disrepair from
distillers. "The rougher the shape they're in, the more perfect they are
for building furniture," he says.
He transforms the old, liquor-scented barrels into
furnishings, including saloon tables, deacon's benches, planters and magazine
racks. His buyers range from collectors to people who want distinctive pieces
for their homes.
The former farmer, antique restorer and cabinetmaker spent
years developing designs using old oak barrels that might otherwise have been
His quilt rack is sturdy enough to double as a saddle stand.
The project takes about an afternoon to complete.
McNeil sells his work through trade shows, at his store, and
via the internet. (His site is at www.oakbarrelart.50megs.com.) Although he
raised prices by 60 percent within the last year to reflect increased costs,
the orders keep rolling in. Recently, a large American buyer has expressed
interest. McNeil is struggling to keep up with the demand. He has help from
local students in handcrafting each piece of furniture.
"It's definitely art," he says. "It's not
something easily mass produced." Generally, his products are placed in the
artisan section of trade shows.
Regardless of where this initiative takes him, McNeil says
he is happy with his rural lifestyle and his 30-year love affair with wood.