All In The Family: Conewango Valley Business Thrives
Lenny Armstrong has worked in the lumber business for most of his adult life.
It runs deep in the roots of his family, beginning with his wife, Lisa. Many years ago, her great-grandfather and great-uncle founded Studd and Whipple, a lumber business in Conewango Valley. Throughout the years her father, mother, two uncles and grandfather were employed there, as well as Lenny, Lisa and Lisa’s brother, Greg Emley. After forty years of ownership, the saw mill was acquired by Maddox Table Company, who owned it briefly before selling to Crawford Furniture Company.
Armstrong began selling kiln-dried lumber out of his garage in 1997.
“Primarily, we sold to the Amish shops and hobbyists,” says the entrepreneur.
He rented a building in Cherry Creek for five years, where he expanded the business. Nine years ago, he bought property which was located next to the former Studd and Whipple and on the land that was once Lisa’s parents’ dairy farm. It was here that he launched Custom Country Woods LLC. At that time, he started selling molding, flooring and tongue and groove pine and became a distributor for Johnson’s Pine, a prefinished line.
“With every business, you are always looking to expand,” he says.
Over the years, he has rehabbed all of the buildings and added new metal siding and roofing and insulation. His brother-in-law continues to work with him as well as two of Armstrongs’ sons, Kyle and Landon. Lisa does the office work and takes care of the couple’s two grandchildren, which may be the next generation to work at Custom Country Woods.
“We have the best varieties of hardwood in this region, but not necessarily the best quality, so we buy semi loads wherever we have to in order to get the best quality,” says Armstrong. “Black walnut and white oak come from Indiana.”
About eight years ago, when the couple was in a store in Prescott, Arizona, they saw a few pieces of furniture constructed from live edge wood. Live edge is when the original shape of the edge of the tree is not sawed off, leaving a natural look. It sometimes includes the bark, but this does not work for all varieties of trees.
“I thought live edge was cool and I told my wife I was going to make a kitchen table,” he says.
The wood for the table was chosen and saved, but when customers saw it, they wanted to buy it. Soon the mill was sawing and selling live edge lumber.
Each end of the wood is cut off and flitch savers are put into the freshly cut ends to minimize splitting. The ends are then coated with Anchor Seal, a waxy substance that further helps eliminate checking and splits that could develop as the wood dries. The slabs are stacked on stickers for about one year. The stickers facilitate even drying. The species, thickness and age of the logs determines the amount of time they are left when drying naturally.
“Letting nature do its job gently removes the moisture from the slabs,” says the businessowner.
The drying process is finished off in the kiln and after removal, the boards are surfaced which makes them flat.
All logs are pressure washed before they are moved inside a building and they are scanned with metal detectors to find any metal that may have been attached to them or that they may have grown around. Recently, a brick was found inside a log.
When the owner was shopping for equipment, he made sure to buy a saw that could cut large logs. His set-up can handle logs up to 22-feet long by 70-inches wide. Although they sell custom cuts and rough boards, their live edge business has really taken off and they have shipped all over the US.
“A dealer in Colorado takes 40 or 50 slabs at a time. Other customers come from Alaska, Florida, New York City and all over the US,” Armstrong states. “What makes us stand out is that we cut big slabs, kiln dry and flatten. One last thing that makes us a little different from the average slab guy, is the last thing we do that a lot of people don’t, we run our kiln through a heat treatment cycle that kills invasive insects that are damaging our trees. I made sure when I bought my kiln that it went high enough to run high treatment cycles.”
The mill currently has about 1,700 live edge slabs. Nearly 600 of them in varying sizes and species, are displayed in the climate-controlled showroom and ready to be used for whatever the buyer dreams. The smaller pieces may be appropriate for a clock or a small table top. Larger slabs, some very large, can be used for dining room tables or commercial and residential countertops.
Each building is neat and well-organized, including the sawmill, which is surprising for this type of business. American black walnut is the number one seller, with spalted maple taking second place. Spalting is a unique coloration and pattern that forms when fungi grows in the wood.
“We get a little spalted beech and sycamore, but primarily maple.”
The business owner is very knowledgeable about his product. Many professionals, as well as novice woodworkers come to Custom Country Woods for their wide variety of high-quality hardwoods. They are known for the finest quality of exotic lumber, as well. Wood varieties may include, but are not limited to cherry, beech, sycamore, spalted maple, curly spalted chestnut, walnut, ash, maple, scotch elm, African mahogany and hickory.
The days of customers looking for the perfect piece with no blemishes or knots is gone. Many look for crevices and splits with the thought of filling those openings with neutral or brightly-colored epoxy, creating a one of a kind piece. The Armstrongs have a barn door in their home made of live edge with an epoxy river running through the middle. They are happy to recommend a craftsman who does expert epoxy work and soon their business will sell epoxy for do-it-yourselfers.
“When I first started doing these slabs, people wanted no holes. Now they want them with holes to put epoxy in.”
The Armstrongs middle son, Corey, is in a nursing program in Erie, Pennsylvania.
Greg Emley’s son lives in Nashville, Tennesee, where Custom Country Woods may soon have a second location.
Custom Country Woods is located at 63 Bentley Hill Road in Conewango, New York. Some of the beautiful wood slab specimens can be viewed on their Facebook page.
The family has submitted a few of their favorite recipes.
Chicken Wing Soup
1/2 large onion, diced
1 T butter
1 can cream chicken soup
1 can cream celery soup
8 oz cream cheese, cubed
14 oz chicken broth
1/4 -1/2 c Frank’s red hot sauce
2 1/2 c milk
1 T ranch dressing powder
2 1/2 lbs cooked, cubed chicken
Blue cheese crumbles for garnish
In a large soup pan, sauté onion in butter until soft. Add all other ingredients, except blue cheese crumbles, to pan and simmer on low heat until the cream cheese is melted, stirring often. Garnish with blue cheese crumbles when serving.
32 oz frozen hash brown potatoes, thawed
2 c shredded cheddar cheese
1 can cream of chicken soup
1 c sour cream
1/2 c margarine or butter
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 medium onion, diced
2 c corn flakes, crushed
1/4 c butter or margarine, melted
Grease a 13 x 9 pan. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, combine all ingredients except topping ingredients. Spoon into baking dish. In a small bowl, combine topping ingredients. Sprinkle over potatoes. Bake for 45 minutes or until bubbly. Makes about 12 servings.
3 c rice
2 1/2 c water
2-13.66 fl oz cans coconut milk
3 yellow cooking onions
6 tsp minced garlic
16 oz bag frozen sliced carrots
2-15.5 Oz cans black eyed peas
3 T Adobo
Combine rice, water and coconut milk in saucepan. Bring to a full boil then reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer until liquid is absorbed. Saute garlic and onions in skillet with oil. When onions are soft, add carrots, black eyed peas and Adobo. Once fully heated and cooked, add to rice and stir it all together.