There was a time when stores selling wood products proliferated along the Redwood Highway. They were attached to woodshops where the store owner and his employees kept busy making the products being sold. That’s how it was in the early 1970s when Bernie Korbly left Indiana and came to Southern Humboldt.
”There aren’t many left,” he says of the wood shops that used to be. “When I started out here, there were a bunch of little old guys with woodworking shops right in their stores, and now, I’m the little old guy in the woodworking store. It’s kind of comical and I find it ironic in a way.”
Korbly, now in his sixties, remembers each of those little old guys. They are the mentors he looks back to with gratitude for helping him on his path to being a good woodworker.
”I’ve had real good mentors,” he says, “old guys who kinda took to me back in the day when I was young and new up here. Charlie Emrick was my primary mentor. He owned and operated The Jewel Box, which is now Sylvandale. It was a wood shop at that time.
”Clint Wiley had a tremendous influence on me, too. He had a shop south of Phillipsville. Art Johnson who had a shop in Garberville had an impact on me, too. He taught me how to turn and really got me going. And I’ve been doing it ever since.
”I’ve milled with all those fellows, too, a little bit with Clint and a lot with Charlie. They taught me how to mill so I bought a mill and I’ve been milling salvage. That’s always felt good to me.”
The opportunity to buy something from the person who made it has become increasingly rare in the U.S., especially when that something is made of our chief indigenous tree – coast redwood. Most everything Korbly makes these days is made of redwood. The Korbly shop is nicely situated on the Avenue of the Giants in Miranda, across the road from South Fork High School, a location with plenty of redwoods all around.
”I buy all my wood in salvage situations,” he says, “like excavations for homes or roads or reforestation. I’ve bought 80% of my wood out of burn piles. It’s all real local. I’ve focused my life in these senior years on redwood.”
The yard in front of and surrounding Korbly’s shop is already home to a good number of ancient redwood stumps. Those chunky stumps, butts and burls weigh more than a grand piano. Moving them from one place to another is an expensive proposition. Even to move them ten miles, he says, can cost $200. But it’s worth it, he says, for the wonder of the wood. They are left over from logging operations that took place long ago in the logging heyday. They may be 100 years old, he says, and buried in sand all the time, but the wood is still good.
”There’s lots of wood out there,” he says. “I just recently looked at two big stumps just dug out of the ground and these people were going to burn them up. But it’s beautiful, old-growth redwood and we can make things out of it. It’s fun, you know. I feel like I’m at the ground floor of something. I get these big chunks of wood and they almost look ugly – full of dirt and all gray – but they’re very, very beautiful pieces of wood. It’s like cracking nuggets. As soon as you start slicing them, they’re just gorgeous inside. It’s really exciting and exhilarating to slice these things up and see what’s in them. I’m still excited by this.”
Korbly has two apprentices to whom he is passing on the knowledge he received from Charlie Emrick, Art Johnson, and Clint Wiley.
”They’re young guys,” he says. “One of then has been with me a while and the other one is kind of fresh. I have to have help. There’s too much going on, way too much work, and a lot of the work is heavy work.”
Over the years, he’s been a mentor for a few of the younger set of woodworkers.
”For several of them, I was their starting place,” he says, “and that’s always made me feel good.”
Korbly says all woodworkers find their own path.
”None of the guys I’ve mentored who have gone out on their own are following my path. They’re in different areas of woodworking. One specializes in doors and one does cutting boards and small cabinets. Every woodworker has his own way. I’ve settled into this way a long time ago and this is my way. I’m going to stay focused on it and this is what I’m going to do the rest of my woodworking days. One of the things that motivates me is how much there is to learn. I feel like I’m just now getting competent. I’ve reached a reasonable good competency level in my skills and in my work. The best is yet to come.”
For Korbly, work is important and improving in his craft in all its aspects is important.
”I’m getting more fanatical about curing wood,” he says. “I have moisture meters, things that tell me the moisture content of wood. I don’t guess. But we’re always trying to put methodology in buildings and rooms to help us cure the wood. Dry wood is stable. We have a curing area and a curing barn and we’re always trying to update our curing methods. But essentially, all woods cure by the inch. There’s all kinds of literature out there about this – charts, scales and documents. I’ve been milling 38 years and I’ve kept track of curing rates. I’ve got my own book on that and it’s kind of cool. The old guys I learned from knew it took a year to a year and a half per inch of thickness to dry the wood after you cut it. They all had it down. My configuration years later is that the old guys knew what they were talking about.”
”We’re curing wood for the future,” he says. “The six year slab stuff could be eight to nine years away from being dry enough to work.”
The demand for expertly turned and shaped bowls, platters, clocks, tables, boxes and other handmade items is growing, Korbly says.
”We have a lot of work,” he says. “We’re delivering work four years out. We’ve got a four-year work list, with deposits from buyers all over the world. We’ve had an Internet site for a couple of years and we’re going to start adding email service for the first time. One of my sons is taking care of the email for me. I have the website so people can see what we’re doing and to help people who are traveling locate me. Somebody taking a trip out this way might look on the Internet and build an itinerary. And they might say, hey let’s stop by this Korbly guy’s place.
”Already, we’re having an amazing year. We’ve had a lot of people from Europe late winter and early spring, a lot more than I’ve seen in years. I think we’re going to have a very good year. I’m not being an optimistic fool. I think the money’s no good in Europe or Canada and so Americans are going to stay home and feel safer and the other people on earth are coming to America because of the exchange rate. I’m looking for this summer to be a very good summer.”
Korbly’s wood shop is open every day during the height of the tourist season and open six days a week in the late fall and early spring. Winter, however, it’s only by chance that you will find the shop open. Korbly himself, however, tries to stay open all the time.
”I feel like I’ve been blessed with a world of work,” Korbly says, “being able to make a living in this area. I’ve made a good living and made lots of friends. Life is an ongoing reality and the only changing factor is change itself. I try to keep myself open to that.”