WINCHESTER, Va. – On a beautiful Monday morning, when most people were just arriving at the office, three retired colonels came together ready to spend the day outside.
Retired Col. Ronald Light, former commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Middle East District, and owner of Lighthouse Woodworking, has been building furniture since 1995. The two-story, three-car garage at his family’s home in Boyce, Va., is his woodworking workshop and furniture showroom.
Light, a self-taught woodworker, said it didn’t take him long to realize that it would be more cost effective to mill his own wood rather than purchasing it. Many of his logs come from neighbors who have had a tree fall in their yard. He removes them for free and uses them for wood in his furniture.
Retired Lt. Col. Russell (Rusty) Sears, who was deputy commander at the District under Light and his successor Col. Jon Christensen, stayed on active duty until 2013. Sears, owner of Red Jake Farm and Mill, recently purchased his own portable sawmill, and began milling logs for Light April 6. The portable sawmill is on wheels, and can be towed behind a pickup truck.
Though the pair has logged trees together since 2011, they always hired a sawyer to mill the logs. This was the first time they have used Sears’ new machine
Currently a pursuing a master’s degree in construction management from Louisiana State University, Sears also raises chickens and turkeys and makes his own wines at his farm in addition to his sawmill business.
“Everything in its season,” he said. “What I liked about the Army was being outside most of the time and now I choose work that allows me to be outside.”
Retired Col. Mark Loring, Light’s longtime friend, was there to help out. A PhD student studying public policy at George Mason University, Loring also serves on Winchester’s city planning commission. He moved his family to Winchester nearly a year and a half ago after visiting Winchester to attend Light’s daughter’s wedding.
Light said he sees milling logs as opening a present because “you never know what it’s going to look like inside.”
The first step of milling is to turn the log into a cant, or trim it until the sides are flat. The cant is then sliced into boards. The thickness, measured by quarter inches, is determined by the intended purpose for the wood.
“Most furniture is made with ¾,” Light said. “So we cut 4/4 to leave room for drying and smoothing the wood.
“After the log is milled, the wood must be dried before it can be used to make furniture,” Light said. “For every inch of thickness, the wood must dry for one year.”
Behind Light’s woodworking shop, there are piles of wood in various stages of the drying process. And in the driveway, around a dozen logs waited to be milled.
The pieces cut off to make the sides of the log flat will go to Light’s neighbor to build a playhouse. The sawdust created in the milling process was scooped up and saved for bedding for Sears’ chickens and turkeys. They try to make sure nothing is wasted, just as in the furniture making process. Light uses small pieces of leftover wood to make cutting boards and challenge coin racks, to minimize waste.
“After we retired, we both wanted a break, to do what we wanted to do,” said Light, who has made woodworking a career since his retirement from the Army in 2011. “But at the same time, it’s a risk. Going into business for yourself is a bet.”
Light thinks the business relationship works because of the relationship he and Sears developed while working together at MED. The two are “friends first and business colleagues second,” he said.
On the other hand, though he works 9-5 six days a week, “a fun day is doing this,” Light said.
Sears agreed. “The old saying ‘if you do what you like, you’ll never have to work a day in your life’ is true.”