Craftsman Jim Swanson’s antler creations light up the room
For many of us, the only time we notice the lighting in a room is the moment when we don’t have it. You’ll notice these lighting designs.
Jim Swanson got poked—not by the antlers he works with, but by the bug to do this.
“One day I was in my shop building chandeliers and I thought, ‘I could do this,’” Jim recalled of the afternoon when the bug first poked. The thought lingered awhile, left, returned, left, returned, stayed. In 1996 the former full-time mechanic and life-long craftsman sold his automotive business to tinker full-time with building antler chandeliers.
This became Antler Chandeliers & Lighting Co. Let’s join Jim in his Bitterroot workshop:
Do you go for a walk when you need antlers?
That’s how started: I would go out for a walk. Now a lot of people do a lot of walking, and I do a lot of buying. We buy by the pound, and every species and every grade of species has its own pound price.
Grades? Please explain.
There are three grades of antlers. Number 1, art grade, which is pretty much all of what you see in [my workshop]. There is number 2, which is white; it’s been weathered. And number 3 grade is white, cracked, and starting to crumble and getting lichen and stuff like that growing on it.
Do you use all three grades?
Yes, occasionally. Believe it or not, there are customers like Ralph Lauren who like it. Over the years, all the fixtures we’ve built for him and his wife Ricky—30 some chandeliers—have been spec’ed out to include some lichen. Sometimes, lichen is bright red, sometimes green. However, we only deal in art grade unless instructed otherwise.
Antler Trivia: Female caribou have antlers; they are the sole deer species in which males and females grow antlers. About 3-5 percent of females do not grow them.
“When I put my hands on an antler, I take it over to my build bench and I rough out a structure,” said Jim. “You see that,” pointing to his bench, where he’s weaved an intricate web of antlers into a chandelier, “that’s been roughed out. All I’ve done is pre-determined where the sockets will go.
“As you’re building it, you have to be very conscious about how you’re going to pass a wire from one antler to another to another. So, I’m thinking about, as I’m building a chandelier, how the wires are going to pass,” he said. “I don’t want to have to deal with that train wreck later.”
You’re a one-man operation?
TWO! I got him back after we moved the operation back [to the Bitterroot] after a dozen years in Madison County. Jake Dunbar, my right-hand guy. I had Jake for years prior [to that move]. I moved back and got Jake back. Cheers!
What does Jake do?
Detail work. Filling, grinding, painting, and wiring sockets. His part is very in-depth. It just doesn’t deal with structure.
“There are four distinct colors we mix up to paint our chandeliers,” said Jim. “There is terrain on an antler that is anywhere from completely smooth like glass to a bumpy material to pock marked, cavernous, and/or vein-like. All these different terrains have to be re-established in places that I destroy when I’m creating the circuits, and Jake does that texture grinding, then comes back in and paints with four colors to completely fool the human eye [to believe] that those spots have never been touched by a man. And that’s really where the rubber hits the road.
“Other than the obvious structure that I design and build. I want the lines to be appealing, but as a person gets closer to it, once they know that they like it,” Jim said, “they are going to get closer and say, “Man, I like this thing,” then get closer and wonder, “How they’d do that?” They are looking at holes everywhere. A chandelier sometimes will look like Swiss cheese when I hand it to Jake.”
Then, after that, it’s handed to you. And you’re none the wiser that those antlers have enough holes poked (ahem, drilled) into them that they resemble the holiest cheese.