Firm carves niche with used wood

Old pallets, bleachers, turned into fine furniture

When the tables, chairs, and TV stands arrive at The Wooden Duck furniture shop in Berkeley, Calif., from South Africa in a few months, they will, in one sense, be making a trip home.

The furniture is made from 120-year-old Douglas fir. That old-growth lumber was sent from the US in the late 1800s to Africa, where the wood was known as "Oregon." It was then used to make warehouses and factories. Now the warehouses are coming down, but the wood will get a new life as tables and chairs and be returned to its native land.

"It's a great story," says Eric Gellerman, co-founder of the 25-person firm. "Nobody's ever done it, that's for sure."

It's the first time Mr. Gellerman and his company have worked with South Africa, or brought Douglas fir, in any form, back to California from another country. But it's certainly not the first time The Wooden Duck has used old wood - recycled from bleachers, perhaps, or salvaged from underwater - to create furniture.

All the furniture the company produces itself (about 20 percent of its stock is imported antiques) comes from reclaimed wood. The result is a product that is both higher in quality and ecologically sound. It's also increasingly popular; even the multimillion-dollar Bill Gates home is made entirely from recycled wood.

Some of the environmental benefits are fairly obvious - any furniture (or house) made from previously used wood means that much less wood is taken out of existing forests.

"Generally speaking, the advantage one gets is the avoidance of environmental impacts associated with resource extraction," including the manufacturing processes, says Reid Lifset, associate director of the Industrial Environmental Management Program at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

In addition, he says there are benefits from keeping the wood out of landfills.

In 1999, for instance, 7.5 million tons of wooden pallets - platforms associated with shipping - went into the solid waste stream, accounting for over 60 percent of all wood waste. Gellerman's company can turn those same pallets into carefully crafted furniture.

While Gellerman feels strongly about the environmental benefits of his furniture, and even recycles the sawdust his factory produces, his primary motivation for using recycled wood is the quality - and character - of the final product.

"I love the look of old wood," he says. "I don't want to make cookie-cutter furniture."

The quality of the wood, he says, is six or seven times the quality of most of today's second-, third-, or fourth-growth wood. The old-growth wood he uses is completely dry, with a tighter grain. It often has nailholes, knots, or other imperfections - character that he says his customers tend to like.

"You can make recycled wood look brand new, but they always pick the [furniture] with more character.... They look like old tables from Tuscany or from France, as opposed to Ikea." It's also somewhat pricier, with a typical table selling for $450 to $1,500, depending on the wood and construction.

Since the wood sources are constantly changing, every piece of furniture has a unique story. Gellerman got 18-foot boards of vertical-grain Douglas fir - a product that would be impossible to harvest today - from high-school bleachers that were dismantled several years ago. His company peeled off the gum stuck to the bottom, plugged the bolt holes, and made tabletops. He has used redwood, old chestnut floor joists, recycled teak from Indonesian railroad ties, and 150-year-old white-oak flooring from Pennsylvania.

Gellerman never set out to manufacture furniture, recycled or otherwise. At the University of California-Santa Barbara he studied political science and Spanish literature. He found his way to a start-up company in Indonesia that made furniture from pallets simply because he spoke Malay.

Now, 10 years later - and seven years after he started The Wooden Duck - he's firmly entrenched in furniture, and his 20,000-square-foot retail store set up in a remodeled warehouse is something of a landmark in Berkeley.

He describes the furniture he sells as a cross between Craftsman- and Shaker-style, and says his clients come almost entirely from word of mouth. In the first five years, the company never advertised. The connections that bring him customers are the part of the business he enjoys the most.

"We had the University of San Francisco - a Jesuit college - buy some furniture from us," he says. "Pretty soon we got a call from a monastery in [nearby] Los Gatos. Then from two Catholic high schools. Suddenly we're connected to the whole Catholic community. That's the fun part of business."

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