Old Planks Find New Homes


A red laser guides the screaming silver saw blade through one precision cut after another. As the blade slices the huge planks, the mill fills with sawdust and a pine aroma trapped in the timber for more than six centuries.

While only a few old-growth heartwood pines exist in nature today, the sawyer shows no regret ripping through wood that sprouted long before Columbus set sail for the Americas.

Turning ancient timber into planks suitable for hardwood floors and kitchen cabinets might normally spark the ire of environmentalists. In fact, the work here at Mountain Lumber draws their praise.

Unlike most lumber producers, this mill is part of a growing cottage industry that can boast it has never cut down a tree.

Mountain Lumber thrives on the sale of reclaimed or recycled wood. The forests it harvests lie in crumbling turn-of-the-century factories, aging inner-city warehouses, and dairy barns that dot rural landscapes.

"I knew of one other person [doing this] when I first got into the business," says Willie Drake, who founded Mountain Lumber nearly 25 years ago. Once nicknamed Chairman of the Boards, the noncorporate Vietnam vet and college drop-out started saving old timbers in the 1970s, when the wood was routinely taken to the landfill. With 30 employees today, Mr. Drake's company is one of the largest of some 75 recycled-lumber suppliers in the country.

In the Mountain Lumber "nail shed," metal detectors are used to assist sharp-eyed nail pullers in the first stage of preparing the wood for resale. After cutting, the boards are dried in a kiln before undergoing the final transformation into products ranging from furniture to tongue-and-groove flooring.

A stack of gray chestnut boards near the kiln, once barn siding, is particularly rare. A blight in 1908 nearly wiped out all American chestnut trees. "This wood was once used for everything, cradles to coffins," says Jerome Maddock at Mountain Lumber. Today, it sells for about $10 a square foot.

Centuries-old trees

Walking past the stacks of old, rare wood, Mr. Maddock extols the virtues of deep red cherry, chocolate brown walnut, and hemlock grown at a time when trees were undisturbed by man.

Under the shadowy canopy of other arboreal behemoths, old-growth trees grew slowly, some developing 30 growth rings per inch. By comparison, a southern yellow pine today might have five or six growth rings per inch and be harvested after about 50 years in the forest. Rare species, like the heartpine, had a lifespan of 200 to 700 years. The result is a wood with a denser grain and an appearance unavailable in faster-grown trees.

To find these ancient woods, Drake and his competitors buy from "pickers" and send out their own scouts. The hunt often takes them along a trail left by the Industrial Revolution as huge factories and warehouses went up to house America's engines of production.

Tens of thousands of board feet of lumber were rescued, for example, from the old Studebaker warehouse in South Bend, Ind., when it was demolished. Timbers from a John Deere tractor warehouse in Moline, Ill., have been reused in homes across the country as floors, cutting boards, and furniture.

Aficionados of recycled lumber have grown well beyond folks concerned about old-growth forests. "The fact that we weren't cutting down trees used to be sort of a sales pitch in some ways," says Drake. "Now we have people coming to us looking specifically for reclaimed products."

The Southern Forest Products Association estimates that as much as half of the pine flooring installed today is reclaimed lumber.

Reclaimed heartpine now adorns the office floor of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. "It's fascinating stuff," says Kevin Ireton, editor of Fine Homebuilding Magazine. He's putting old heartpine into a new addition to his home in Newtown, Conn. "It's more expensive, but I wanted the look. It's different from new timber and it's much more stable since it's old, and drying would have happened long ago," he says.

As demand for the raw materials in old buildings grows, prices rise. Drake increasingly has to pay for wood that he once got for a song. "Willie pays more for raw wood now in some cases than he used to make off finished product back in the '70s" says Maddock.

Finished recycled wood costs from about $9 per square foot for granary oak to $17 per square foot for antique American oak, depending on the quality, size, and availability.

The Bill Gates effect

Some of the fastest selling products in the reclaimed market are whole timbers, used as exposed ceiling beams. Bill Gates's architects unleashed an nationwide search for pristine old-growth Douglas fir timbers to put in a palatial home the Microsoft founder is building near Seattle.

Even in more humble dwellings, the wood is a reminder of history. Author Rita Mae Brown is restoring a small shack once used as slave quarters on her property in Afton, Va. Last week, she took delivery of pale oak flooring from an old granary. "You can just run your fingers over it," says Ms. Brown. When wood isn't reused, she laments, "so much of our history is lost."

While most buyers today want the finer woods, the reclamation industry is expanding into another category: dimensional lumber. The rough-cut studs and beams used behind walls and ceilings in old buildings are less expensive than fresh-cut pine. Builders are now turning to the old wood to frame new homes.

"New dimensional lumber has reached the $300 to $400 per thousand board-foot level, and it's going to get worse," says Lewis Hendricks, a professor of forest products at the University of Minnesota. Import restrictions and tariffs on wood from Canada, he says, are pushing up prices.

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