Vintage wood for an environmental age

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Vintage wood for an environmental age
By: Beth Winegarner, San Rafael News Pointer, July 24-30, 2001

michael Black in showroomMarin residents have helped pioneer the recycling movement. We recycle our paper, glass, plastic, styrofoam, used motor oil, batteries and computers. Now, one Marin resident is making it easier for builders and decorators to use recycled wood.

In 1998, Michael Black was working a summer job as a carpenter in Marin while waiting to enter a PhD program in clinical psychology.

“I was working on a high-end residential project using a lot of wood and noticing a lot of wood waste,” Black, 31, recalls. “I became curious about recycling wood.”

The owner of the site was looking for some old barn wood to build a pool house. coincidentally, Black received a call from his grandmother, who told him that the family’s tobacco barn in Ohio (on the farm where he grew up) had fallen down.

“I asked her what she was going to do with it, and she said, ‘Burn it,'” Black recalled. “She was very nonchalant. But it was this wonderful old-growth oak barn wood.” He called a local friend and asked him to ship Black some samples. When the owner saw the wood, he wanted all of it.

Black suddenly found himself back on the family’s tobacco farm, removing the nails from hundreds of boards, putting the wood on pallets and shipping it back to Marin. He returned home and entered the psychology program, but word-of-mouth spread about the wood he’d found and he kept getting phone calls from builders who wanted more.

“I had to deliberate: will I go into the PhD program or am I going to defer for a year and raise some money for my education?” Black said. “I’ve never gone back to school.”

However, Black soon found that finding good vintage wood wasn’t as easy as the first time. “I went back to Ohio and pretty much dropped out,” he said. “I had a chainsaw, crowbars, a truck, and was taking fallen-down barns in rural Ohio. It (was) really labor-intensive.”

Because Black had very little operating capital, he would often offer to do the work of deconstructing a barn in exchange for the lumber. As times changed, vendors began doing the work of actually disassembling barns and finding old timber, and Black realized he could work with those vendors to bring wood to customers.

“A lot has changed in the last four years. I rarely take down barns anymore,” he said.

He’s established a showroom in Lucas Valley, called Black’s Farmwood, where he stores wood to show and sell both to homeowners looking to do improvements and to builders who want vintage wood.

Once wood is found, all the metals – including nails and other structural supports – must be removed, otherwise it can destroy milling equipment. Then it must be kiln-dried until the moisture content is six to eight percent. One of his products is tongue-and-groove flooring made from tobacco barn wood, and Black has a mill that can cut the wood to the right shape.

“The showroom takes the chaos out of the industry of unclaimed wood,” Black said. “You have random people throughout the US who have a tool shed or barn, and try to get on the Internet and sell it. I’ve heard horror stories where people order something and it never shows up, or they get something that is totally unacceptable, or isn’t what they expected.”

Black’s business has allowed him to come into contact with some stories straight out of the history books. “One of my clients down in Silicon Valley a year ago bought a truckload of river-reclaimed beams. They were originally cut in a logging colony in Canada in the 1850s during the Napoleonic Wars,” Black recalled.

“At that time, the British had to come over to start these logging colonies to cut old-growth oaks. They would float these pieces of lumber – which were 24 inches by 24 inches by 50 feet – back home. A lot of them sunk,” he continued. Black sold them to be used as timbers in a home in Atherton. In another case, he managed to obtain lumber from an 1870s shipwreck off the coast of Washington.

These stories make the wood more valuable to customers. “It has a pedigree,”
Black said. “If you’ve seen what 100 years of rain and snow can do to a piece of wood, it’s so beautiful. And our wood has a story, a history, whether it’s coming from a civil war era barn or the Lockheed plant down in southern California.”

Another reason people want recycled wood is, of course, environmental. Old-growth timbers are stronger, have a tighter grain and fewer defects than wood grown on modern tree farms. “When people are building their homes they don’t want to know they’ve killed a thousand to two-thousand year old tree,” he said.

As someone who has called Marin home for the past 11 years, Black said that setting up shop in Lucas Valley made perfect sense. “What better place than to create your business than in your home? [This business] is something that has been unreliable and has been an uphill battle for people who wanted to use reclaimed wood in building their home. I’m here to make it easy.”