BILLINGS — On a recent afternoon in his home garage, leaned over his latest creation, an end table made out of a Russian olive tree, and sanded the piece one last time.
He rubbed the gritty paper up and down one of the four legs, then felt the result with his hand. Satisfied, he straightened up and took another look at the soon-to-be-sold table.
To take what’s considered in many locales a noxious weed and turn it into a piece of furniture, almost a work of art, “that to me is the coolest part,” said Bishop, 26, a bachelor who lives in the far West End of Billings.
He’s come a long way with his woodworking since he made his first coffee table in January 2012. Bishop had just graduated with an engineering degree from Montana Tech.
“I moved (to Billings) and realized I didn’t have any furniture to my name,” he said, sitting at a dining room table inside his house.
The baseball cap Bishop wears bears the embroidered name of his business, “River Bottom Restoration Furniture,” on the front and “Handcrafted noxious furniture” on the back.
Hired as a mechanical engineer for Common Ground Industries in Laurel, Bishop looked on Craigslist to find inexpensive coffee tables or end tables.
“I’m kind of a cheap guy and I thought, ‘I can build something better than that,’” he said.
He built his first coffee table out of pine and liked the way it turned out. The idea for Russian olive pieces didn’t come until late last year.
That’s when Bishop decided he wanted to make furniture with wood from his family’s farm, situated 30 miles east of Brady in north-central Montana. In addition to farming, his parents, Todd and Tedi Bishop, are teachers and his dad also is also an engineer.
The 1,300-acre farm grows wheat and barley, and lots of trees.
“We have all these big long tree rows that my grandpa put in back in the 1940s,” Bishop said. “The only thing that would grow there is caragana and Russian olive and also the green ash.”
So last Christmas, Bishop and his father cut down some of the Russian olives and took them to a sawmill. The trees were milled (cut into slices) and then individually planed (where a thin layer is removed), which brings out the wood’s patterns and colors.
“After I saw what it looked like from the planing, I realized I wanted to do something with this wood,” he said.
So Bishop built a very small coffee table and then posted a photo of it on Facebook. The response was immediate, he said, with lots of people asking how they could get one like it.
Bishop had made the table just for himself. But the online reaction got him to wondering if he could find some bigger trees.
In the spring he reached out to people in the Yellowstone Valley area, and was able to make contact with a man near Hardin who gave him access to a stand of Russian olives.
It was a chore cutting down the trees with his chain saw and lugging the logs back to his pickup. Bishop took the wood to a sawmill in South Billings, where the wood was milled, and ended up with enough wood to make a dining room table.
He and his father found another excellent specimen of Russian olive while they were on a canoe trip down a Montana river. They pulled over to the shore and hiked up a hill to see the tree that was 6 feet in diameter.
The pair got permission to cut down the tree, rolled it down to the river and hauled it out, thanks to a friend with a speedboat. Then Bishop turned it into a live-edge dining room table. which he quickly sold.
A live edge, he explained, means the table contains all the jagged edges from the burls that grow outside the tree, and that gives it a very natural look. The legs of this particular table were made of logs from the same tree.
“The struggle for me is finding 6-foot portions that are absolutely straight that I can do something with,” Bishop said. “This tree that was so special and rare had 9-foot sections that were absolutely, perfectly straight.
That’s one reason not many people work with Russian olive, he said. The trees grow “all over the place” and make it difficult to find the lengths of wood needed for a table.
Bishop pulls out a beautiful bowl that his father turned from a Russian olive burl. That’s more typical of how craftsmen use the tree.
“I find that I really love to work on this wood,” he said. “But with the wild grains inside of it, it dries unnaturally, it warps, it turns and it’s very difficult to work with.”
The challenge, he said, makes it “even more satisfying.”
“It’s all wonky to start with,” Bishop said. “But you keep working at it, keep working at it and eventually it gets to be smooth and really beautiful.”
He made one live-edge dining room table and one straight-edge as proof of concept. Then he searched the Internet and couldn’t find anyone else who made Russian olive furniture as a business.
Around July, Bishop created a Facebook page to display and sell his pieces. He went from 300 likes to 2,500 in three months and sold all that he posted on the page.
As much interest as Bishop has gotten in his finished products, he has also received requests to cut down Russian olive trees.
“I just don’t have the equipment yet to do that,” Bishop said. “Hopefully someday I’ll be in the position to say ‘I’ll come eradicate them and then make you something beautiful.’ That’s the dream.”
Russian olives have been declared a noxious weed in at least one Montana county. It holds that same status in all or parts of Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.
In riparian areas, Bishop said, Russian olives suck up all the moisture in the land, which makes it difficult to graze. Growing up on a farm, he’s particularly sensitive to the problems the trees can pose.
To take a tree that can damage the environment and turn it into a thing of beauty “means a lot to me,” Bishop said.
He’s sold probably 10 tables since he began the business. The first dining table he sold went to a woman in Jordan who lives on a ranch.
“She told me she’d never seen cowboys comment on a piece of furniture ever,” Bishop said. “But they sat down at the table and they just couldn’t believe what it was and just how unique it is.”
Back in the garage, Bishop pulled out several lengths of wood and laid them side by side on two wooden sawhorses to demonstrate how he begins to put together a table.
He measured the pieces, totaling nearly 3 feet in width and 6 feet in length. He examined the grain to determine the pattern he wants.
“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle,” Bishop said. “I look at each piece to see how they’re going to fit together.”
To make the table’s joints stronger and bring the pieces to the same height, he places small oval pieces of wood, called biscuit joiners, into divots he cuts into two adjoining pieces.
“It takes a lot of extra work, but people have been willing to pay me more for it,” Bishop said.
The first live-edge dining table he made took him a little over a month. That’s a challenge for a man who holds a day job, spends his evenings working on furniture and helps his father on the farm.
Although he enjoys his work as an engineer, his eventual goal is to get back to the farm where he can work the land and build furniture. There, he finds a peacefulness that helps him focus on his next piece.
One of his favorites is a coffee table that uses tree limbs for the legs.
“After it was milled it screamed to me to be a coffee table,” Bishop said. “I spent three weeks deciding what to do for legs and finally decided on branches. It took me another week to figure out how to put the branches together as legs.”
It will be auctioned off and the money will go to the Montana Farmers Union education fund, an organization Bishop has been part of.
“I’m excited to see what it goes for,” he said. “I hope it does well for them.”
He has sought advice on how to work with wood, joining the Yellowstone Woodturners to take advantage of the members’ expertise. He also frequently seeks advice from his father who “has been invaluable to me,” Bishop said, both in designing and making the furniture.
“I keep trying to evolve my designs so they’re different,” he said. “I don’t want to build something over and over again.”
And while he enjoys his successes, Bishop said the best way he has learned is by failing and trying again.
“I’m excited to see what my mind will try to wrap around next because I have so many different ideas,” he said.