Topanga Craftsman Breathes New Life into Roots Burned by Fire

Burned ceanothus root burls and some of the bowls Tom Merchant makes from them. The red and golden color is natural. The shape of the burl and the way the fire burned the wood determines the shape of the bowl. Photo by Suzanne Guldimann

The Woolsey Fire burned so hot it melted aluminum and consumed massive oak trees, leaving behind only ash. Hundreds of thousands of ceanothus plants were among the casualties of the fire, but this flowering shrub grows from a tough root burl, one that can resist even the 1500-degree heat that chars almost everything else.

The burls are carried out of the burn zone to the sea during the first rains following a fire. When they wash up on the shore they resemble lumps of coal, scorched black by the fire. Many beachcombers might pass them by, but to craftsman and artist, Tom “Teeg” Merchant, they are a treasure trove. He transforms these burned-out hearts of native ceanothus into art objects, revealing the golden and red wood that gives the shrub one of its common names—red heart.

“I’ve been using ceanothus burls for years,” Merchant told the Messenger Mountain News. “I know what to look for.” He has found the occasional ceanothus burl washed up on the coast but the Woolsey Fire brought the craftsman an unexpected bounty of the burls.

Before beginning to shape it, he searches for the shape and colors of the heart of each bur,l revealing the bright color beneath the charred exterior. It’s an ancient tradition. The Chumash people were master woodworkers who used native woo, like the ceanothus burls to form vessels.

Merchant uses an array of power tools to shape the wood but the technique is the same: carefully finding the form and hollowing it out. “It’s like the wood has been kiln-dried by the fire,” he said, explaining that ceanothus is a hardwood that is made even harder by the fire.

Merchant has to take care not to damage his tools. “I broke one of my favorite carving tools,” he said. “The wood is super hard and has zero grain. It’s hard to work, but worth it.”

He uses a drill press and belt grinder to shape the bowls, switching to a Dremel and other hand tools near the end of the process to smooth and refine the shape.

Because the burls form underground they can have inclusions of rock or grit and Merchant has also found shells of small burrowing marine worms and clams in burls that have been in the ocean for an extended period of time before washing ashore.

“I call it my magical reality,” he said. “It’s a pilgrimage through fire and flood to the beach where each burl has the potential to be reborn.”


Suzanne Guldimann

Suzanne Guldimann is an author, artist, and musician who lives in Malibu and loves the Santa Monica Mountains. She has worked as a journalist reporting on local news and issues for more than a decade, and is the author of nine books of music for the harp. Suzanne's newest book, "Life in Malibu", explores local history and nature. She can be reached at

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