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Minnesota brothers branch out into making rustic stick furniture

In this photo taken Sept. 28, 2009, Dave Tomaszewski (left) and brother Don Tomaszewski, of Ivanhoe, Minn., sit in a rustic garden bench and arbor they built from sticks and recycled barn wood in Ivanhoe. Over the last year, they have been working together to make and sell different pieces of furniture and garden decorations. (AP Photo/ Independent of Marshall, Deb Gau)

IVANHOE, Minn. -- You can make a beautiful garden bench from the limbs of an ash tree, Dave Tomaszewski said, but you have to develop an eye for it. He demonstrated by looking up into an ash growing outside his mother Helen's home in Ivanhoe.

"You see the part where that branch turns? That would be good for the back," he said. With enough practice, "You can just look up and say, 'There's a bench. There's an arbor.'''

By now, Dave and his brother, Don Tomaszewski, have had plenty of practice seeing furniture in trees. Both have been making rustic furniture and garden decorations from branches and recycled wood for several years. Last year, they started working together to find materials and build new pieces.

"Nothing is ever the same," Dave Tomaszewski said of their creations.

Dave Tomaszewski said his interest in rustic furniture making started in 1997, when he was living in Michigan.

"I was working with a family I met through a friend," the Rex Robardg family, he said. The Robardgs made furniture to sell at craft fairs and other events. Dave Tomaszewski said he started out by helping to take care of their home and dogs and finding raw material for the furniture. One day, he said, "I started putting some sticks together, and I started making baskets."

After a while, he was working on garden furniture, trellises and even some big projects like gazebos.

Don Tomaszewski said he started later, about 2002, but he had a similar learning experience making branch furniture.

"I was building with a guy in Canby," Don said, and noticed how much people liked some of the furniture he made.

Now, the brothers work together in a shop Dave Tomaszewski rents in Arco, Minn. Once you learn the basics of how branches can fit together, Don Tomaszewski said, "The sky's the limit." But the natural irregularities in the sticks can lead to some odd furniture. One of his favorites was a shelf that tilted, following the shape of the branches from which it was made.

"I didn't know it was gonna be slanted like that when I started," Tomaszewski said, but he liked the way the finished shelves looked.

Sometimes, the brothers use boards and window frames salvaged from old barns in their work.

"This one used to be part of a door," rusty hinges and all, Dave Tomaszewski said of one bench the brothers made. "At first, we were going to take the hinges off, but people said they liked it this way."

The brothers said finding enough wood for building can be tough in southwestern Minnesota, and they often can't harvest it right away.

"You have to keep it green," Don Tomaszewski said.

Otherwise, the tree branches won't be flexible enough to work with.

They also have to get landowners' permission to cut trees.

Sometimes, they get lucky, Don Tomaszewski said, like they did with one landowner who needed some buckthorn removed from his property.

"Willow and ash is the most common," Dave Tomaszewski said of the brothers' building materials. "I started going to the townships and asking if we could take some of the ditch ash that was growing. The agreement was that I had to kill the stumps."

The Tomaszewskis said they hope to turn their rustic furniture shop into a business, but it will be a challenge.

"It'd be a full-time job" for the two of them to make enough furniture to keep an inventory, Dave Tomaszewski said.

But there would be some good parts to making furniture full-time.

The brothers would get to be their own bosses, for a start.

And there's also the good feeling they get from meeting people who like their work.

"It's so much fun, I think, to see the looks on people's faces," Don Tomaszewski said.