John’s Brother Bill Shows How One Tree Can Build a Lifetime of Memories

As we’ve mentioned before, John’s older brother, Bill, lives a slightly different lifestyle than John. While our johnnie-O founder is out on the golf course taking names, his older brother is gardening, fishing, hunting or even making his own canoes. Yup, the entire O’Donnell family is quite innovative. JOD solved the everyman’s second-button dilemma, and Bill is out there making homemade syrup by tapping his own maple trees and building nest boxes for native bluebirds and wood ducks (both equally as important, in our book).


Twelve years ago, Bill started harvesting trees on the river bottom of his Blue Ash Farm. Black walnut trees are known for having chocolate brown heartwood, which is prized for furniture-making and one of Bill’s favorite woods for building canoes and other projects.


With two canoes already under his belt, this winter, he’s making a third canoe for his youngest son. The chosen tree was 50-feet tall that Bill girdled two years ago in preparation for this season. Since green lumber needs to dry out before it can be used for woodworking, the girdling stopped sap from flowing, which consequently killed the tree, making it just right for Bill’s plans.


With a large chainsaw in hand, the father of four went out to the woods, tied ropes around the tree and pulled them tight with his tractor, causing enough tension to pull it in the direction he wanted it to fall. Then, in one big chop (and a loud “Timberrrr!”) the tree came down. Bill removed the branches from the top of the long, straight trunk, tied up the bare tree to his tractor and dragged it across the frozen ground to where a man who owns a local mill came and picked it up. After a few hours, the 2-foot wide by 25-foot long trunk was milled into boards that varied in length and thickness. It will then be returned to Bill after spending a few weeks drying in a kiln.


With the help of his son, Bill will take those pieces and mill them down even more into long strips, about an inch wide and about 17 feet long. The strips will be added by hand one-by-one to a canoe form from the bottom up. Once that process is complete, paddles, decks, gunwales, yokes and caned seats will be built and added to the boat.


After several months, the canoe will be fully built and ready for Bill’s son to use, and to keep as an heirloom for the rest of his life. It will not only hold the eternal memory of the time spent together building it, but the canoe itself will be forever marked with a penny dated the year the boat was built, which will be drilled and embedded straight into the wood.


John’s brother has been able to take something simple – the lumber from one tree – to create a lifetime of memories. And johnnie-O was founded with the same motivation. Even a nugget of innovation can take something ordinary to extraordinary.