July 22, 2003 11:00 pm
ANTLERS PUT TO USE: Gillette turns antlers from elk, deer and sometimes moose into such items as chandeliers, lamps and sconces.  (Photo by Ray Linker of The Observer).
ANTLERS PUT TO USE: Gillette turns antlers from elk, deer and sometimes moose into such items as chandeliers, lamps and sconces. (Photo by Ray Linker of The Observer).

It has been only about four months since Phil Gillette sold his sporting goods store in La Grande.

But his time has not gone to waste. He's built a huge workshop on his large parcel of land next to his home at the north end of Fourth Street. He's planted his usual big garden, including lots of corn. He's spent more time with his wife, Peggy, and two young home-schooled children.

And he's begun to pursue a dream, which he hadn't had time to do in the past. It combines his love and abilities in art and creativity and his long-time interest in the outdoors.

While operating Phil's Outdoor Surplus and More on Jefferson Avenue and working nights as a maintenance man for the

La Grande School District, he had little time to devote to anything akin to a hobby or avocation.

"I never had weekends to spend a lot of time with my family or to pursue interests outside the store," he said. "I had the store for six years, and I was there seven days a week."

But now he can spend his days as he sees fit and often can easily get absorbed for long hours in his 24- by 36-foot shop, which is 25 feet high. He turns antlers from elk, deer and sometimes moose into such items as chandeliers, lamps, sconces and even a bar table. In the back of his mind, he has ideas for other projects besides those dealing with horns, including painting on old milk cans and making three-dimensional objects using various saw blades.

"I built the shop after I sold the store, intending just to putter around, maybe make a few gift items for family members.

"I intended this as a hobby," he said, looking around at a number of lamps over in one corner and two chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.

"I had messed with welding and doing a few little decorative pieces. Then I started playing around, using some antlers. It was just a hobby. People who saw my work said, ‘You should get into that (as a business)'," he said.

"I had always been interested in art, but over the last 10 years I lost touch with it."

Born in Baker City, he called Richland home early, but grew up in Portland, graduating from David Douglas High School.

Before he built his shop, he already had a lot of equipment, such as welding, and bought other machinery, mainly a drill press and a cutting machine.

"This is something I've wanted to do for 10 years. Now I'm at the point in my life where I had the income to build the shop "

He makes each lamp, each chandelier or whatever he's working on individually. No two pieces are alike and he transposes various horns until he gets combinations he likes. They take a varying amount of time, depending on several factors, including whether or not he's in the mood to continue.

"I try to do stuff that is different from everyday items. I try to make it eye-appealing. On the lamps, everything is free-standing, everything is supported and held together by antlers."

Electrical wiring is inside the antlers, and whatever bolts are needed are counter-sunk and hidden from view, he said.

His artistic abilities come into play as he chooses among the different antlers to comprise a piece.

"It takes a differing amount of time to come up with just the right look.

"You can't just pick up any horns. On one project I was working on, it took about four minutes to find the horns that looked right together. On another project, I just couldn't get it to look right."

A chandelier can take up to six horns, at a bare minimum, he said, so he sometimes goes through 20 or more before he finds the right combination that suits him.

Sometimes, if a lot of antlers are required for a project, he may trade a finished chandelier, for example, for a dozen or so antlers in hopes of finding the right combination he's seeking.

He also trades sometimes so he can make a finished product available for someone who wants one.

"I want to make things affordable for people, so the ones I sell don't cost much," Gillette said.

Similar chandeliers, made by others, that would sell for $3,500, he sells for $1,200; "and I can go down to $750 and they will still look nice. If someone wants to pay $5,000, I can do one for that price."

Lamps are more affordable at between $300 and $750, he said.

Besides word of mouth, he wants to market his work through the Internet and is having a Web site designed. He's hooked up with Furniture West, which has stores in several locations. He can have his work displayed there but doesn't have to deal with the public.

He hasn't registered with the state yet, but wants to call his business "Rolling Wildlife Creations."

An avid hunter of deer, elk, turkeys, bear, he picks up antlers in the spring. He also has a buyer's license, "and I do a lot of trading with local horn hunters," he said.

"If I sell more than a couple pieces a year, I'm satisfied," he said. On the other hand, "if this goes ballistics as a business, I'm more than ecstatic to try it.

"Most importantly, I build what I like. That way, I can keep it if no one wants to buy it."

And now he has the time to do it.

Story and photos by Ray Linker Of The Observer