Keith Dufour is no stranger to media attention. The Covington furniture maker has appeared on three episodes of the History Channel’s Ax Men series, which features his logger and four other logging companies around the country.
Dufour’s creations include tables, benches and mirrors made from either reclaimed wood he’s retrieved from old homes slated for demolition or ancient sinker logs pulled out of the Bedico swamp west of Madisonville.
Dufour makes his furniture in his free time from his day job as a territory manager for Cephalon, Inc., a biopharmaceutical company. About 10 years ago, he hired an acquaintance to teach him woodworking and began making mirrors from wood salvaged from old homes. “I was always fascinated with architectural salvage,” he says.
Then, in his typical do-it-yourself fashion, he began doing his own demolition work on old vacant homes. “Anything over 100 years old will have big pieces of wood,” he says. “You can’t get anything like that now.” He reclaims wood in the floors, walls, joists and roof sheathing. When he worked on the southshore, he’d drive around New Orleans during his workday between visits to clients and scope out his next project.
Dufour still peruses the demolition list for old homes, but now he’s working with wood that’s even older. About two years ago, when he met logger and History Channel star Shelby Stanga, he added sinker logs to his repertoire.
Between 1890 and 1944, the swamp around Bedico Creek and its bayous was milled extensively. The old-growth trees were felled and floated down the creek to Lake Pontchartrain, where they were then sent to New Orleans to be used in home construction. Dufour says that about 20 percent of these logs sank, and they’ve been sitting in the mud ever since—some for over 100 years. They can be anywhere from 15 to 50 feet below the water’s surface.
The logs, which are typically cypress, have absorbed minerals from the mud in a process that alters the appearance of the wood. The result is a rainbow of colors—yellow, red, blue, green, purple and brown—and a very attractive product.
“It’s the prettiest wood in the country,” Dufour says. “It’s one of a kind.” He recently bought a saw mill, which he keeps near the creek to cut the wood on site. “When we open these [logs], it’s like finding gold inside,” he says.
The logs range in age from 2,000 years old to 5,000-year-old “dinosaurs,” Dufour says. The trees have seen a lot of history, as evidenced by the bullets or arrowheads sometimes found lodged inside. Each of the 12 species of trees represented has different qualities. “They all give you a different look,” he says, but claims cypress is the most attractive. “Cypress is the prettiest wood in the world, and it’s right here in our backyard.”
Dufour says there are probably thousands of sinker logs in the Bedico area. But he won’t specify where. The logs are worth several thousand dollars each and they’re threatened by pirates who retrieve them illegally. Their exact locations are top secret, and Stanga knows where to find the gold.
Stanga, a barrel-chested logger, lives deep in the swamp; his home is accessible only by boat or helicopter. He locates the logs by diving or by using sonar. Or he simply wades through the snake- and alligator-infested water, feeling for logs with his bare feet. He’s been known to wrestle huge snapping turtles out of the water and bite the heads off venomous snakes.
Once he finds a log, Stanga hooks it to a crane on a barge and drags it to shore. Dufour then cuts it based on what he plans to make, and the wood is one step closer to becoming a Keith Dufour creation.
Dufour has done well with his hobby. A dining table he made is on display in staged homes built by Miller Building Co., and he built the fireplace mantle in the 2010 Southern Living Idea House in Covington. Dufour also sells many of his pieces at Interiors and Imports in Mandeville.
The most important thing for Dufour, though, is the quality of the wood and its fascinating history. “I seek out the best wood I can find locally,” he says. “People want something unique with a story. I can tell them where the wood came from and how old it is. It’s got character and a story to tell.”
A story to tell, indeed.