Jun 11, 2023

Aston's Tommy Knotts is firmly rooted in custom woodworking

ASTON — A tree grows in Delco and Tommy Knotts wants to mill it.

Knotts, aka Tommy Worrilow III, runs Tommy Knotts Custom Woodworking and Sawmill, a one-man business in an industrial park filled with landscapers and tree contractors who cut up, remove, turn into wood chips or otherwise recycle trees.

Worrilow searches among the timber those businesses process for unique logs that may become crown molding, a custom-built bar top or perhaps a beautiful sounding guitar.

"I’m looking for that very unique species that is the accent piece for your house," Worrilow said during a recent tour of his operation. "I know what it is and its purpose in a niche industry."

Worrilow, 43, grew up in Ridley, graduated from Cardinal O’Hara in 1998 and then went on to Widener University for criminal justice and accounting.

As a teen, he worked summers for the Delaware County Parks Department clearing trees from trails after storms and it was then he began to appreciate the many different trees in our world.

Worrilow began to study the science of trees.

Nine years ago he opened his own organic landscaping business out of his house. He got a lot of requests to cut down trees and instead of disposing of them for wood chips he held on to the logs thinking he would turn them into firewood in the off-season.

A visitor to the house, seeing the piles of logs, told him about a friend who ran a saw mill that Worrilow might be interested in. He paid a visit and his love affair with wood grew.

In his daily travels, one log laying on the road on Rose Valley had fascinated him. He knocked on the door and the woman said, "my husband is an old word turner, he’d love for you to use it."

Using a two-person Amish handsaw he cut it to get it in the truck and took it to the mill yard, where another customer saw the log and offered to buy the wood in its entirety.

Worrilow was hooked.

That man was Joe Ball, a semi-retired high-end lumber buyer and he took Worrilow under his wing and began teaching him the tricks of understanding the hidden secrets of wood.

"I started cutting logs for him. It was like going to school for it," Worrilow said.

He learned facts such as that bacteria in the soil can cause strange growth, and fungus under the bark creates lines that will add to the design of certain woods and "fiddleback" maple is desirable for musical instruments.

Ball taught him more about identifying logs, the different ways to value the wood and finding people who would buy it.

As he became more experienced he branched out his learning. He joined a buyers group on social media that includes craftspeople who build or repairs string instruments that have a neck and a sound box. They are known as luthiers.

"It's a wild industry, but in order to do it you have to understand what they need, what kind of figure they need," Worrilow said. "Maple is predominantly what they use in violins and guitar."

Bumps in the maple are called angel stepping and fiddleback maple has tight curls in the grain.

Worrilow has shipped wood grown in Delaware County to California for a guitar maker, Idaho for table tops and a guitar craftsman in New Zealand.

Worrilow can walk through a yard of cut trees and identify the types just from seeing the end cuts.

"Maple, ash, ash, pin oak, spruce, black oak, … . How do I know this? It's what I do all day," he said pointing out different logs that looked alike.

Worrilow's mill doesn't use a large circular saw, he has a bandsaw mounted on a chassis. The property is full of a variety of logs waiting to be taken from the raw tree to smaller shapes for use.

Located on the edge of multiple growing regions, Delaware County supports a variety of trees, Worrilow said.

"It's crazy how it comes together in this little area. We’ll get species from the South that will grow here. Species from the north that will grow here. Sequoias will grow here, paulownia from southeast Asia. It's wild how it all comes together here."

At the mention of sequoia, a tree native to the western slope of California's Sierra Nevada, Worrilow becomes particularly excited. He recently got a hold of a rare sequoia.

A local tree company had taken the tree from a property in Glen Mills and asked him to help identify it.

"Trees are funny. There are many species that have subtle differentiating details," Worrilow said. "Bark is typically the best indicator."

Upon inspecting the tree and cross-referencing the bark with an identification app, he is certain it is a giant sequoia.

Worrilow believes the tree was planted 50 to 60 years ago. He has been able to document only 10 in Pennsylvania: one in Broomall and the champion specimen at Tyler Arboretum, which was planted in 1856 and is considered the largest east of the Mississippi River.

The owner of the house where the Sequoia tree was removed was told by the previous owner it was a sequoia, Worrilow said.

He questions how a tree native to the pacific coast of California came to grow so well in Pennsylvania.

"It shouldn't even be here. In its native range, it's a protected species. Where the hell did somebody have the resources to get seeds for this thing?"

Worrilow has milled two small sections of the log, and believes it was either in declining health or standing dead.

"What makes this so wild is who would have thought to plant this tree in Glen Mills," he said. "How did they take care of it, as this species doesn't like extreme temperatures or temperature swings? Why did it come down?

Sequoias aren't the only unique tree to be found in Delaware County and those are the trees he is looking for. The growing conditions, such as in a yard in the suburbs produce some of the most unusual wood grains, he said.

"What makes these unique is the area in a yard, which at some point was a forest and then you put a house in front of it and it's trying to turn …, and then you build a garage. It's like fifth grade science … putting a sunflower in a cup and watching it bend to the light. They are all fighting to get there and that is what makes them unique," Worrilow said. "Is it on a slope? Which way is the slope facing? Is it near a creek? There are all these mitigating factors that can change the color or the figure in the material."

He recently received a Russian olive tree that came from an alley in Lansdowne,

Worrilow said the scent is a good indicator of the type of wood.

"Cedar has a very distinct smell. Cedars are all very similar. Some have a stronger scent than others but red oak and white oak is totally different," Worrilow said. "White oak is like buttered popcorn when you cut it and red oak tree smells like a landfill when you cut it."

"You never know what's inside these things until you cut them," he said. "The fact I can look at it and think it's going to look like this when I put it on the saw. It's like snowflakes. Each is unique"

"What I’m trying to accomplish more than anything and why I do what I do is create unique things that no one else has," he said. "What I’m looking for is the most unique specimen of a particular native species."

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