Oregon has a “banana belt,” a warm landscape along the state’s southern coast, but you won’t find pineapple or mango or papaya growing there. Instead, you’ll find plenty of cedar, fir and even giant redwoods – plus, one particular hardwood variety that grows from south of Reedsport through Northern California and east from the Coast Range Mountains to the I-5 corridor.
Myrtlewood is a distinctly Oregon wood and its shavings really fly when craftsman Ray Martinez carves a block of it. Martinez has been carving myrtlewood for nearly 20 years. He uses steel tools called gouges, scrapers and chisels on his lathe to turn myrtle blocks into fine bowls, plates and even tables!
“It’s a dying art, the turning of myrtle on a lathe – and not many guys do it anymore,” noted the longtime craftsman from his work station at The House of Myrtlewood in Coos Bay. “I started ‘turning’ myrtle about six months into the job but it took me awhile to really perfect my style. I love creating many of the popular items because the wood is so beautiful. I like bringing out the beauty of the wood.”
Finding the “beauty” in the wood has been every carver’s goal ever since House of Myrtlewood opened in Coos Bay in 1929. Back then, they sawed myrtle logs into giant slabs and then into wood blocks that carvers transformed into gift shop goodies for tourists to take home.
“Myrtle is a very hard wood,” noted store manager Stacy Gavette. “So, it is great for cutting boards and other utility uses. It is also beautiful because each piece is a different color. Myrtle can be blonde or dark brown and there’s no staining of it. We don’t want to cover the look of the myrtle because it’s so fantastic on its own.”
You can hike through a myrtlewood grove on your own at Alfred Loeb State Park! An easy trail winds through 40 acres and offers visitors a chance to see and smell something really rare: the largest public-owned old growth myrtle stand in the state.
“It smells like camphor or eucalyptus,” said Park Ranger Jean Phillips. “In fact, if you crush the leaves, it’ll clear out your sinuses real fast – it has that kind of strength! It’s a distinctive and a clean smell that’s unique to our campground.”
Martinez is one of a handful left in Oregon who carves myrtle full-time. He said that the wood is really “wet” when it arrives in the shop because myrtle retains moisture. It must be dried out for nearly three months before he can carve an inch.
In the workshop, under loud leather belts and clanking steel wheels that have run the lathes since the Great Depression, Martinez will turn out dozens of bowls in a day.
He hands each bowl to co-worker Mychal Berry, who finishes the pieces with ever-finer sandpaper and then applies a coat of mineral oil to bring the myrtle to life.
The finished myrtlewood bowl is gorgeous and it’s easy to see why people fall in love with them. After all, each provides the new owner a little piece of Oregon created by local craftsmen who take tremendous pride in their work.