Using Real Antlers to Build Christmas Trees That Last Forever
If there's one thing people can't say about Dan MacPhail, it's that he doesn't have a sense of humor. I mean he has to carry a certain degree of hilarity to install a shop door derived straight from Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. (See slide 12 for an image of the door.) "People think it's funny I have a Hobbit door going from my showroom into my shop, but I just thought it would be a cool thing to have … Now I want to recreate the Stones of Stenness in my front yard. Before I die I'd like to chase druids off my lawn," MacPhail says laughing. It's that same lighthearted wit and imagination that has helped MacPhail become one of the foremost designers of antler-accented furniture and furnishings. For the last 21 years, from his shop in Kevil, KY, he's garnered popularity for his one-of-a-kind, handmade bone-framed fixtures, and more recently, for his distinct, authentic antler Christmas trees.
But merging furniture with antler wasn’t the original path MacPhail set for himself. His life pursuit was painting, and he made a living creating originals and restoring old works. “One day I was on a tour of the Texas capital building and led into the speaker’s private dining room. There was this big Texas longhorn skull. I thought ‘man, that’s cool,” MacPhail says. “So I called a friend who had access to longhorns and asked if he could get me one. It turns out he was the one that supplied the very longhorn skull I saw at the capital. He sent me the biggest one he could get and I started thinking of cool things I could do with it, and I ended up incorporating it into a chair. Not long after, I found some moose antlers at some antique store in Canada and I made a chair out of them. So it all just kind of fed into itself, and I’ve barely painted since.”
The transition from painter to furniture maker wasn’t easy for people close to MacPhail to understand. But hearing his account of how he made the switch, replete with a hint of his own brand of cowboy comicality, makes the story sound more like the baseline for a country song than a biographical anecdote. “One year while I was living in Washington D.C., and I was driving to Santa Fe with one of my paintings and the chair I made with Texas longhorns to put both in a gallery, and then planned to go to New Mexico to work during branding season. My wife at the time stayed behind. It wasn’t her cup of tea. She wanted me to move to California because she wanted to be an actress … Well, that wasn’t going to happen,” MacPhail says. “I was driving an old diesel Mercedes and half-way there the engine blew up. It took forever to get the new engine, and in the meantime, my wife divorced me and sent me my dog and my stuff, so I never went back and decided from then on I’d just do what I wanted to do–screw antlers together.”
Because of his strong artistic roots, MacPhail says he always had an eye for design, but nary a hint of the processes behind furniture construction. Short of rebuilding an 1869 mansion, he had no professional woodworking experience–just a desire to create. “According to my father, I’ve been doing stuff like this since I was four years old,” MacPhail says. “When I was little boy I watched ‘The Time Machine’ with Rod Taylor and afterward went into my room and got all these model parts and built a time machine. I brought it down and showed my family and they couldn’t believe it. So I guess I always had a natural knack for this sort of thing.”
MacPhail’s career took off and his resume now includes exhibitions in the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyoming and galleries in Switzerland and Colorado–home to pieces made with elk, deer, moose, bison and even dall sheep. After years of creating furniture and other accoutrement like floor lamps and chandeliers, MacPhail says the idea for creating an entire Christmas tree of antlers came naturally. “Sometime in the late 1990s I was driving home from a furniture event in Cody, Wyoming, and thinking about this chandelier I was working on,” MacPhail says. “The idea for a tree just kind of popped in my head. I mean, there’s not much difference between the shape of a chandelier and the shape of a tree.”
MacPhail says the rest is history and over the years he’s seen his Christmas trees used for holidays and left standing year-round in hotels and vacation homes. But even with his keen attention to detail and realistic finishing touches, people admiring his unique antler trees still have one universal question: Where do all the antlers come from? “I’m a prolific hunter,” MacPhail says jokingly. “Actually, all the antlers I use come from antler brokers. There are brokers all over that deal in antler. It’s amazing how much there is out there. And I only use shed antlers because it doesn’t harm the animals and they grow back every year, though I do get a customer now and again that asks me to incorporate antlers taken on a hunt or something.”
However, despite its availability, antler certainly isn’t cheap. Not only is there a high demand for trophy-sized bone in the U.S., brokers and collectors alike receive numerous requests for animal antler from overseas customers that value it for its symbolic nature, or believe it offers some form of medicinal value. “The farthest I’ve ever had to ship an antler tree would probably be China. I make a Chinese company a chair every year. I don’t know what their deal is, but they like Texas longhorn chairs. As it turns out, the antler brokers are sending a bunch of antlers over there too. Places all over southeast Asia grind them up and market it as some type of aphrodisiac, which I think it weird–I eat about a pound of antler dust a day, and I’ve never felt any different. But if it ever kicks in, stand back,” MacPhail says with a chuckle.
Antler tree prices reflect antler demand. While a four-foot tree bills out at around $5,800, you can get a 6-footer for $8,500, an 8-footer for $12,500, or a 10-foot model–a tree containing over 100 big and small antlers–for just over $20,000. MacPhail says that despite a full schedule of furniture construction, he receives 8 to 10 requests a year for trees, which adds up to a significant chunk of change. “I used to be able to build a tree in a week, but now it takes me a couple weeks. I start with a PVC core using pipes that fit into one another–large on the bottom tapering to smaller sizes as I go up, so the entire piece comes apart for shipping or storage,” MacPhail says. “I drill long ducts down the length of the antlers and run wire to a light socket installed on the antler tip, so everything is hidden. Then, after I secure the antler to the PVC, I run the tag end of the wire into the hollow core where I can loop them all together. I start at the bottom with big, trophy-sized elk sheds, and as I go up, I use gradually smaller racks like mule deer and then whitetail so the entire piece takes on a tapered look like a Christmas tree. When it’s all secured and wired together, I apply a special epoxy from the trunk to the crown that masks seams and has a dimpled texture like bark.”
MacPhail takes pride in the fact that like snowflakes, no two antler trees are the same. Like his other pieces, he rarely responds to customer requests or suggestions saying he simply creates what he feels and sells it on spec, guided only by a tweaked Hemingway quote: “the difficult thing is not to build the finest antler furniture in the world, but to build it well, true and honorably.”
He believes we’ve become an increasingly throw-away society, and his goal is to make heirloom quality furniture that people’s grandkids will fight over. With that said, he leaves the Hobbit door open to anyone that wants to see his latest project or visit his retriever, Spooner Hemingway MacPhail III. But before entering, he’ll remind you in his usual tongue in cheek fashion, that no reindeer are harmed in the making of his trees. For more photos of MacPhail’s work, keep clicking through this gallery!
Dan MacPhail standing next to an antlered Christmas tree that won a People’s Choice Award at the 1997 Western Design Conference in Cody, Wyoming.
You can see the Hobbit door on the left side of the back wall.
The underside view of a chandelier constructed from 16 individual whitetail deer antlers.
A low back chair upholstered with elk leather and framed with moose antlers–a design that won MacPhail Best of Show at the 1997 Western Design Conference in Cody, Wyoming.
A chair inspired by Ferrari, replete with moose antlers that form the back of the chair and the armrests.
The top and back of a wing back chair created with moose antlers.