San Rafael firm gives old farm wood a new life

Posted in press

San Rafael firm gives old farm wood a new life
by Rochelle Williams, Marin Independent Journal, April 24, 1999

Rustic, almost collapsing, old barns bring profits for a San Rafael businessman who rescues the solid timbers and boards from a date with the torch.

Michael Black, 29, buys vintage barns and buildings from farmers and others across the country who would otherwise dispose of the unwanted structures by burning them.

Black’s Farmwood salvages the wood, restores it and then sells the treated wood to contractors and architects, who use it for wood paneling and flooring.

“We started in January (1999) with an overwhelming response,” Black said. marguerite Burbank installed 160-year-old pieces of wood from Farmwood as flooring in a room in her mill Valley home. The Burbanks also plan to install restored beams in their family room.

“Some of the planks are 30 inches wide. You can’t find that kind of wood anymore,” Burbank said. “It is really wonderful to see this recycling going on these days when we are having so many problems (preserving) wood.”

Black’s suppliers are mostly in the midwest and East Coast, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois and West Virginia, where old farm structures are common.

The advantages of the old wood are many. Older barn wood grains are tighter, the boards are wider and the colors are richer in comparison to the lumber that is used today, said m. Dean Jones, a Tiburon architect.

Barn wood often is “original growth,” he said, instead of second- to eighth-generation wood, which is cleared and replanted to produce more trees.

“Today they grow the trees rather fast so that, generally speaking, construction lumber has gone downhill,” Jones said. “The standard for grade approval of lumber has eroded, permitting knots and defects that were never permitted before.”

Jones said Black’s Farmwood is the first in Marin to provide such flooring and wall paneling.

John Varney, owner of English Country Pine in San Rafael, can attest to the quality of ancient wood. He travels to England twice a year to shop for the wood, some of which is 200 to 300 years old. He uses the wood to make custom furniture.

“This is better than recycling,” Varney said. “Recycling means other pieces are compacted into it for another use. With this, the wood continues in its use and is high on the green list.”

Black’s path into the business world came last summer when he worked as a carpenter for a contractor. It was illuminating, he said, to see the large amount of lumber that was discarded. The idea further crystallized in his head when he learned a 150-year-old barn on his family’s farm in Ohio was slated for torching.

He intervened, brought the wood to California, and decided to postpone entering a doctoral program in clinical psychology last fall to make a go of the business. A friend joined him as a partner, and building contractor Bob Klock hired them to supply the wood. Klock said he likes the character of the old wood and the fact that it’s recycled.

“I hope those guys can pull it off,” Klock said. “It is kind of a finite resource.”