A Chat with Dan
When you meet Dan, you might first notice that he’s a big guy, and second that he’s very often smiling, and--it has to be said--he has a terrific smile; wide, toothy, and 100% genuine. After that, you might go on to notice his habitual plaid flannel shirt, often dusted with particles of wood, his baggy grease-stained work jeans, his enormous muddy boots. His plaid shirts often have blue in them, and that’s because I pick them out to match his eyes. You might also notice his glasses which are surprisingly trendy compared to the rest of his presentation, and again, that’s because I picked them out. But if you’ve gotten as far as to notice these details you are a keen observer, because most people have long since been diverted by what he’s been saying to you. Dan has a wealth of wood-related wisdom, and more than anything he loves to share it.
I recently sat down with Dan to talk about the origins of Ogonek Custom Hardwoods, and where it is heading today. Our conversation is below.
Leah: Tell me the story of Ogonek Custom Hardwoods.
Dan: In the late 60s early 70s Dad bought 2 tree farm properties. In ‘72 he set up a checking account for the properties and the family started selling firewood off of them. He began developing the properties and having forestry inspections. The inspectors cited a heavy wood load and recommended he cut some trees down and let them lay and rot. Many of those trees were walnut. Dad thought there had to be a better way. He started looking into sawmills and learned about Woodmizer portable sawmills. In 1985, on the way to a medical conference he stopped in Indianapolis to look at them, and on the way home he stopped at Woodmizer again and bought one.
Leah: In 1998, after completing your history degree at John Carroll University, you took on the business, which had employed you and your brothers on-and-off during school breaks for years. How did you acquire the skills for this type of business?
Dan: Tenacity and hard knocks. The first job I did took me three days. I charged the customer $185, and he gave me a $15 tip.
One thing I’m not is a mechanic. The sawmill kept making this awful screeching noise and started cutting slower and slower. Dad sent me to a sawmill maintenance class at Woodmizer where I learned that the belts were so loose they were almost coming off. I started paying more attention to the machine after that.
Leah: What do you like about this kind of work?
Dan: I enjoy the physical work. Still do. If I don’t do the physical work for a few days I start to get listless and feel like I’m not meeting my purpose.
Leah: Why timber framing?
Dan: A timber frame has strength, durability, longevity. It carries on the tradition of hands-on labor as we continue to do all our joints mainly by hand. We have some power tools, but no CNC. These structures stand, not forever, but for a long time.
Leah: Understandable how that would appeal to a history major. When people are considering building a timber frame, what questions do they ask you?
Dan: How much does it cost? Timber frames are not cheap, they are a custom-built home. Many people are often comparing it to a stick frame that has a 50-year lifespan instead of centuries. Probably because that’s what they’re familiar with. But I think that might be changing for some, as people start to look more at sustainability.
In timber framing, you have to frame to the plan. You can’t stretch or fudge the plan. If the plan calls for a 10-foot timber, I bring a ten foot timber to the site with the joints already cut and ready to fit together. If the foundation is off a half-inch, that timber won’t fit. You can’t modify anything or fudge a half-inch here or there. Spending 2 million dollars on a stick frame house doesn’t mean you got anything better. Maybe you got some high-end fixtures, but you didn’t get plumb and straight walls.
Leah: Why do people ultimately decide to go for it and build a timber frame?
Dan: Aesthetics. Craftsmanship that’s hard to find now. Superior insulation values, depending on how you enclose it. Open spaces. Feeling closer to nature, a connection to the land. We often use trees from the customer’s own property.
Leah: You’ve built timber frames of all sizes. Now you are focusing on smaller frames. Why small timber frames?
Dan: We’re trying to bring strong sustainable building practices within reach of smaller budgets. It’s the idea behind our Modern Modular design, where we can set up simple, repeatable joinery patterns that reduce the labor costs and time. Regardless of size, we can duplicate the module efficiently and erection is quicker.
Leah: What are the moments that make you say, “this is why I do this”?
Dan: Any time we are starting or finishing a new frame. When I see the customer enjoying their frame. Any time a customer points to a beam and can say “That tree came from right over there.” Sometimes I don’t know who enjoys that feeling more, myself or the customer.
Leah: You and I have been married for almost 18 years. I’ve been witness to the journey you’ve been on this whole time toward building this business. And I know you pretty well. I have a theory about this next question, but I want to hear your theory before I tell you mine. Why do people want you to build their timber frame houses?
Dan: I don’t know, I really don’t. Maybe I have an open and honest face.
Leah : I think people want you to build their frames because of the time you take to envision the future with them. To paint a word picture of their frame, how you will bring it to life, and the care you and your team will take to do that. I think people feel like their dreams are in careful, steady, loving hands. And I also think it’s no coincidence that many customers end up as long-term friends.