Excerpt from “Home: This Old Barn”

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Excerpt from “Home: This Old Barn
By: Kim Boatman, The Mercury News’ SV magazine, July 16, 2000

In Los Gatos and Palo Alto and Santa Cruz, clients turn to Michael Black to solve that age-old vexation of the newly minted rich: how can their homes acquire a sense of longevity, authenticity and history?

The answer lies in the well-trod wide-plank flooring, the massive hand-hewn beams and the reclaimed barn siding that Black scouts out across the country.

Indeed, tumbledown tobacco barns from Appalachia, Civil War vintage log cabins and mighty timbers dredged from river bottoms are finding new life in the homes of dot-commers as rustic flooring and wall paneling.

“For a lot of my clients, the old wood has so much character and so much tangible realness to it,” says Black, president of Black’s Farmwood, which has offices in San Rafael and Aptos. “It’s like 150 years of wind, rain and sun, of keeping the animals and feed dry. In our 21st century culture, most people are urban and long for those days gone by.

“It’s almost like nature’s art.”

Nature’s art is a far cry from the gleaming uniformity of Pergo. At the high end of the wood Black sells is rare American chestnut wide-plank flooring, which goes for $12.55 a square foot (compared to $7 to $9 a foot for average wide-plank flooring). The chestnut is a wormy wood rife with cracked knots, surface checking, nail holes and fossil insect scarring.

A customer in Santa monica so hungered for the real mcCoy he told Black, “I want it to look like a cowjust walked over it.”

Bob Frayer and Gary Partridge desired that patina of age for their Santa Fe-style home in Sonoma. They used beams from reclaimed barns for ceilings and walls and white oak random-width planks for the flooring.

“It just makes for a real nice look,” says Frayer. “It is old, as opposed to something new trying to look old.”…

…In many cases, the wood doesn’t go straight from barn to family-room floor. The flooring is remanufactured: Nails are removed, and the wood is cleaned and cut into boards, which are run through a shaper, molder and planer. The 3/4-inch thick wood is shaped for a tongue-and-groove fit.

Black considers his business an environmentally friendly use of existing resources. When barns are on their last timbers, as his grandparents’ barn was, farmers often burn them, Black says.

So, instead, the wood has found its way to the homes of Internet tycoons and the like. Black’s reclaimed lumber shows up in an addition to a 1930s castle in Tiburon and in a cherry-stained wide-plank floor for Chez Nous, a San Francisco bistro. Oak siding from a Kentucky tobacco barn was converted into custom-built wine cellar doors in the Napa Valley.

The business is spreading into Silicon Valley, where an order for large beams came from Los Gatos. A Los Gatos design firm specializing in historical restorations ordered rustic wide-plank flooring. A customer in Santa Cruz ordered a pair of mantles.

“People are wanting to build a legacy,” says Black.