Sawdust flew like snow flurries as John Daniels sliced into a 9-foot-tall sugar pine with his orange Husqvarna chainsaw. As he slowly moved around the log, shaving off wood with the 4-foot-long blade, the distinctive shape of a bear standing on its hind legs began to emerge.
Stepping back to survey his handiwork in the shade of his palm frond-covered “carving cabana,” the Daniels Wood Land co-founder proudly pointed out the details that will make his sculpture pop.
“I feel like Santa Claus because I’m able to provide people with something they can’t get somewhere else,” he explained.
John Daniels and his fraternal twin brother, Ron Daniels, co-founded Daniels Wood Land in Paso Robles, now the focus of the reality show “Redwood Kings.”
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Recent episodes of the Animal Planet series, which premiered Aug. 1, have featured the company creating a shooting gallery for a Sioux Falls, S.D., sporting goods store; crafting a Gold Rush-style millhouse and waterwheel in Kettleman City; and designing the San Francisco Dungeon attraction at Fisherman’s Wharf. Friday’s episode will find the brothers working on a “hobbit hideaway” play structure.
“Ron and I have true passion for what we do,” John Daniels said, which is one of the reasons they agreed to star in their own television show. “We really, really like telling our story.”
Growing up on a Paso Robles ranch, John and Ron Daniels, 41, learned about determination and teamwork.
“Our dad would give us tasks on the ranch when we were little kids that could only be done if (we) worked together,” John Daniels said. “It causes us to put our differences aside and work as a team to accomplish whatever his agenda was.”
After graduating from Paso Robles High School in 1991, the twins chose separate paths — John Daniels launched a chainsaw carving business while Ron Daniels attended Cal Poly, earning his master’s degree in mathematics in 1999.
Their paths merged permanently in 1997, when John Daniels built an elaborate oak tree house for the California Gift Show and his twin accompanied him to the Los Angeles convention.
“Four days later we (had) sold 17 tree houses — and I had hoped to sell one,” John Daniels recalled. “Ron and I looked at each other and went, ‘Well I guess we’re in the tree house business whether we want to (be) or not.”
Daniels Wood Land grew steadily. But the business took a dramatic hit in 2008 due to the economic recession — a nearly 60 percent drop in sales, John Daniels said.
Reimagining the business
Rather than close their doors, the Daniels developed a new business plan to focus on commercial themed projects such as animatronic shooting galleries for restaurants, stores and amusement parks rather than the luxury tree houses they’d been creating for residential customers.
“We came out the other side with a much more diverse business (and) a more diverse client base,” Ron Daniels said.
Daniels Wood Land currently employs a staff of 44, including architects, carpenters, engineers and welders. Edward Walton Wilcox serves as art director, while Mark Sylvestre is shop foreman.
“What you see here is not John and Ron Daniels Wood Land. It’s the sum of a lot of talent,” Ron Daniels said.
That said, “There’s a distinct pecking order,” quipped their 43-year-old brother, Jim Daniels, who joined Daniels Wood Land in 2009 as a welder and fabricator. (He and a business partner previously owned a company that manufactured teddy bear stuffing machines.)
Although originally housed on the family farm, Daniels Wood Land moved to its current location in 2005.
In addition to an 11,000-square-foot warehouse on Limestone Way, which features soaring ceilings and a “wow room” stuffed with one-of-a-kind treasures, Daniels Wood Land rents a nearby lot on Marquita Avenue that serves as a combination storage yard and workspace.
Striving to be the best
Spread over a couple acres are half-finished projects, ready-to-ship commissions and a junk heap of epic proportions. Wading through the piles of wood, wagon wheels, traffic lights and tugboat rope, it’s possible to find everything from horse tackle to antique ambulances to fighter jet seats.
“You just never know when you need something,” John Daniels said.
To transport extension cords and tools from site to site, the company uses a truck cobbled together from a Cushman metermaid car and parts of vintage Dodge vehicles. It’s embellished with antlers, a boxing glove, wine barrel staves and the smoke stack from a pot-bellied stove.
According to Ron Daniels, Daniels Wood Land prides itself on its use of reclaimed materials, such as ancient redwood logs salvaged from northern California and the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
“All the materials we choose, we choose with that artistic eye,” Ron Daniels said. “Whenever we can, we want something that brings a unique appeal.”
As an example, he pointed to the Chinese New Year display that Daniels Wood Land created for Bellagio resort in Las Vegas. The company transformed a wooden sailboat from the 1930s into a 19th-century Chinese junk.
“(Customers) want that story. They want that charm. They want that character,” he said.
Take the tree house Daniels Wood Land recently displayed at the IAAPA Attractions Expo in Orlando, Fla., held by the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.
Carved from a 2,000-year-old sequoia, the structure combines a gabled German Gothic roof with an entrance reminiscent of a Mayan temple. John Daniels described the theme as “Harry Potter meets (Disney’s) Jungle Cruise.”
“The more you look, the more you see,” he said. “That layered detail is what sets us apart.”
The same goes for the double playhouse the company created for a Saudi Arabian family that features separate spaces for boys and girls. Although the staircase appears to be made of stacked crates, the steps were actually carved from a solid log.
While that structure retails for just under $200,000, Daniels Wood Land playhouses can cost anywhere from $7,000 to a few million bucks, John Daniels said. “It just depends on how crazy you want us to get.”
“We’re not interested in being the cheapest guys,” his brother added. “We’re interested in being the coolest and the best.”
John and Ron Daniels hope “Redwood Kings” will raise their company’s profile, enabling them to expand both sides of their business. (They’re currently eyeing a second season.)
Although Daniels Wood Land previously saw a boost from three appearances on the ABC reality show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” the brothers said the Animal Planet series should draw even more attention to their special brand of woodcraft.
“Now it’s our time to really show the world our story,” John Daniels said.