COWLEY — For log furniture maker Rudy Strom, there are never enough hours in the day. His bread-and-butter cabinet business is a full-time job, and the custom desks, beds and tables he makes from gnarled aspen logs have customers lining up to get on his six-month waiting list.
So to find time to create a truly inspired piece — like the mammoth, two-level, nine-drawer computer desk he crafted for last year's Western Design Conference — Strom sometimes drops everything to focus on a single job.
"That's when inspiration comes from desperation," said Strom, who figures he spent about 140 hours during a two-week stretch before the show to get the piece ready for judges.
Though it didn't win an award, it drew plenty of attention from potential buyers and fellow craftsmen — and convinced first-time exhibitor Strom that he had a bright future making custom furniture.
But like many in Wyoming who mix art, craft and business, Strom is finding that balancing work and dreams can be a tricky proposition.
Keeping a thriving cabinetry business going while pursuing his goal of working full-time on a complete line of log furniture has not been easy.
"I'm trying to find a niche," he said. "I never planned on doing so much cabinet work, but with all the overhead of the equipment and everything, I can't turn the work away."
After witnessing Strom's palpable enthusiasm and touring his sprawling shop, littered with projects, gadgets and impossible-looking pieces of wood, it becomes apparent he's likely to find a way to make his dream happen.
Born in Lovell, Strom grew up hanging around his family's Cowley lumber yard, working as a carpenter from the age of 14. He was elected mayor of Cowley at 25, and in 1989 started work on what he calls his "trade secret."
Strom went to technical college in Salt Lake City to earn an electronics degree and learn how to make a prototype for a three-dimensional wood carving machine that he conceived on his own and built from scratch.
He learned computer programming so he could create the interface that allows him to scan a photo or drawing, convert it to a 3-D image and transfer it to a carving on a piece of wood.
After spending 18 months perfecting the machine, Strom decided in 1992 to focus on using it for woodworking, rather than trying to market the device itself, which at the time was the only one of its kind.
"My love wasn't in the machine," he said. "It's always been working with wood."
Though large companies have since created similar tools that sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, Strom says his still has a few bells and whistles he has yet to see in commercial models.
He uses the machine to help shape the irregular logs in his furniture, so that the final piece has a balanced and symmetrical look despite being made from wildly shaped pieces.
Strom also uses it to create custom carvings, spiral designs and intricate shapes that would take untold hours to create by hand. He then finishes the details himself.
"It's like an extra employee that never gets tired or complains," he said.
Though he has had good luck making pieces to sell on consignment in Cody, Strom is convinced he can reach customers from his new showroom in Cowley.
"I worked as a shift foreman for nine years in one of the bentonite plants to get the financing put together to start all this," said Strom, who sometimes enlists his three sons, 18-year-old twins and a 12-year-old, to help with big jobs.
He's happiest working on large, challenging projects, said Strom, and sometimes takes long breaks to stand behind his shop and gaze at his log piles, looking for the one piece that will leap out and inspire him.
"It's all about just trying to find a few cool logs, or even just one," said Strom, "and using that as a focal point."
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