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Reclaiming history, one plank at a time

Dealers will hunt for abandoned buildings, race rivals and even dodge hurricanes to get their hands on weathered hickory or aged oak. For style-conscious homeowners, few materials can compete with the authentic glow that comes only with age.

July 06, 2006|Janet Eastman | Times Staff Writer

MICHAEL KUHN can be as beat as a bluetick coonhound after a hunt, but he won't stop. The self-described good ol' boy from Kentucky will wade through boggy hollows in the quest for the perfect abandoned old building, buddy up to demolition teams to recover the weathered wood that others plan to junk, and sweet-talk ma-and-pa sawmill owners to cut the lumber just the right way -- all while scrambling to stay one step ahead of rivals racing for that rare aged chestnut, that richly grained oak, that sun-mellowed longleaf pine.

"They'll blindside you if you don't watch out," says Kuhn, cofounder of Pegasus Custom Hardwood in Costa Mesa and an upbeat Willy Loman in the increasingly competitive business of reclaimed wood.

Old wood -- particularly aged timbers used in the framing, flooring and paneling of structures as varied as antebellum estates to Lockheed Martin's Skunkworks factory in Burbank -- is hot property. Though no organization specifically tracks sales of the material, suppliers report that sales are growing as much as 50% annually.

"When we first started doing this a decade ago, it was always a question of, 'Is our next job our last?' It wasn't a proven market," says Dennis Roberts, co-owner of Vintage Timberworks in Temecula. His company now sells more than 1 million board feet of old wood a year.

With the scars and patina that come only with time, the timber has an unmatched rustic beauty and built-in history -- "wood that comes with a great story," as veteran salesman Larry Percivalle of EarthSource Forest Products in Oakland likes to say. Planks cut decades ago, sometimes by hand, and even landmark trees such as the tornado-damaged hickory, cherry and aromatic cedar salvaged from President Andrew Jackson's former estate in Nashville provide homeowners with tree species that are much more difficult to find new.

Reclaimed wood also is touted as eco-friendly because it lessens the amount of waste burned or sent to landfills, and it saves living trees from the saw blade.

Old wood is installed in only 1% to 3% of new and remodeled houses because it can cost three times as much as new wood, says Anita Howard of the Missouri-based National Wood Flooring Assn. Reclaimed materials are a small but lucrative business, she says, one that has grown rapidly in the last two years along with the style-conscious search for new ways to make homes more distinctive.

To meet demand, wood manufacturers are even finishing more boards to have an antique appearance. Customers who won't spring for the real deal buy young wood that is distressed by hand with scrapers, chisels, saws, files or torches.

"But with manufactured wood, you'll see a pattern after a while," Howard says. "With the old pieces, no two are alike. I saw a floor that was made entirely out of old wine barrels with the label name wood-burned into it. It's really something you can't find anyplace else."

TODAY, Kuhn, 57, is scheduled to start a six-week road trip up the West Coast, across the Midwest and down into the South to scout for office buildings, cotton mills, tobacco farms (" 'bacco sheds," as he calls them) and even abandoned sawmills that might hold old oak or walnut.

Guiding his finger across a map of the United States without even looking, he ticks off destinations like a fifth-grader cramming for a geography test. This is his fourth summer driving as many as 1,100 miles a day in his Toyota Highlander, greeting secret sources, potential buyers and other links in this supply chain with a hello and handshake.

He says he will meet with 300 architects, showing them 600 pounds of wood samples packed in his SUV. In the big cities, he'll recruit assistants to watch his car so it's not towed away before he can finish unloading. He'll hope for an hour of meeting time but will settle for whatever he can get. He knows from experience that if he talks with people face to face, he'll have a better shot.

"I cold-called this one company in Virginia that does real fine work with reclaimed wood, but the owner was away and didn't call me back until I was near the Arkansas border," Kuhn says. "I drove back to meet him and he ended up doing the milling that's now on the floor of a house in Newport Beach. I even dodged a hurricane to see him. But it's all about relationships."

And competition.

"It's secretive, like a poker game where no one wants to let the cat out of the bag until they have it all sewn up," says Jeff Husted, co-owner of Vintage Timberworks. He and Roberts retired from construction in 1995 and put their energy into finding and selling old wood. Since then, their company has installed used wood in more than 500 houses, primarily in Southern California, in styles ranging from traditional to contemporary.

As demand increases, competition among salvagers gets ever more fierce.

"If you find a building, no one wants to share anymore," Husted says. "I have a couple of projects in Portland that I'm finalizing the deal on this week. I have been working on them for two years.

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