For some woodworkers, reclaimed or salvaged lumber is a tangible reminder of history, waiting to be made useful again.
“It becomes an heirloom, rather than something you’re just
going to throw away when it’s used up its service to you,” said Brett Stevens, who transforms USS Constitution-era timbers into benches, coffee tables, and other smaller household items for the Carlisle-based Weathered Benches.
A handful of local businesses have cropped up in recent years in response to the demand for items made from reclaimed or salvaged wood, whether born of a desire to reconnect with the past, to partake in the ultimate recycling effort, or simply to push back against too many items bought at big-box stores that survive just to their limited warranties.
“It’s trendy,” said Jane Longden, who launched her Shirley-based Lake and Mountain Home furniture-making business in 2004. “It’s classic, but it’s also fashionable.”
Her staff of eight creates various styles of tables, hutches, cupboards, vanities, and other items with old pine and oak recovered from demolished or decrepit barns.
Meanwhile, in Plainville, Stephen Staples has been creating furniture from 200- and 300-year-old pieces of wood culled from barns, mills, and homes through his business, Creative Art Furniture, which he launched in 1973. In December, he opened the New England Artisan Gallery in Wrentham.
Staples describes old-growth lumber as “dense, heavy, strong, and beautifully patinaed,” and says “each board holds its own story, having survived the rigors of time.”
Longden agreed, explaining that, remarkably, old barn wood can be manipulated to look “extraordinarily modern” without sacrificing its historical integrity.
“It has so much character in it,” she said. “When dealing with old wood, every single board has its own unique character.”
Sentiments shared by Stevens — as he refines each piece, he said, the colors, knots, grooves, and other unique features emerge.
“I’ve never worked with wood as interesting,” he said as he stood in the Acton workshop of Weathered Benches, dust from his recent sanding work clinging to his clothes and lingering in the air. A neat pile of about a half-dozen 19th-century planks sat nearby.
He crafts benches, tables, picture frames, candle holders, and lamp bases from sections of live oak and white oak that were retrieved from the Charlestown Navy Yard in 2010. The enormous timbers were discovered while crews were prepping the site for the ongoing Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital construction project.
As Stevens explained, the wood had been stored in a salt-water pond to preserve it for the eventual reconstruction of either the USS Constitution (a frigate launched in 1797, and widely known as Old Ironsides) or the USS Constellation (launched in 1854). But in the mid-1880s, the shipyard began making all-metal boats, and then, in 1914, on the brink of World War I, the timber pond was covered to make room for diesel storage tanks.
Then the wood was all but forgotten — until three years ago. Upon the trove’s rediscovery, Mystic Seaport, a living history museum in Connecticut, took some of the timbers to restore the whaler Charles W. Morgan, while Stevens’ business partner Peter Sellew bought the rest — 13 tractor-trailer loads, now stored at New England Hardwood Supply in Littleton.
Stevens, a Groton resident who has been in the furniture-making and lumber business for 33 years, has created 100 pieces, and there’s enough wood to make about 1,000 more, he and co-owner Stephanie Blunt (Sellew’s daughter) said.
“It’s history, and it’s limited, so only a few people will have one,” he said. “The pile’s already getting smaller.”
The plan is to eventually make other, smaller pieces from the scraps left after the benches, which sell for anywhere from $1,000 to $1,600.
To make the giant timbers more manageable, they are cut in roughly 5-foot lengths with a chain saw, then milled to 2 inches thick. Then Stevens works on them with various sanders, and ultimately finishes them with boiled linseed oil. The largest size bench, which weighs 83 pounds, takes eight hours to complete.
As for working with the wood?
“It’s brutally difficult,” Stevens said matter-of-factly, noting that the timbers were soaking in water and mud for more than 100 years. “It’s the hardest wood I’ve ever worked with.”
It’s dense, thick, and not always pliable, dulls tools “horribly,” and is hard to move without help, he said.
But even so, Stevens said, he is intrigued by the material’s story and its qualities — each piece yields differences in lightness, darkness, and number of knots, and edges that are permanently darkened in different shades and spots by its bed of mud for all those decades.
Also, the wood is, in some ways, a living entity: After being fashioned for its new life, it responds to its environment, shifting (albeit ever so subtly) in the fresh air, and buyers are instructed to oil the wood every once in a while.
Educating people about old wood is also key to Jane Longden’s furniture business.
“One of the biggest challenges is to understand [the wood] differently,” she said, noting that it doesn’t always sit flat like freshly milled lumber, it isn’t veneered, it’s rustic and weathered, ultimately darker, and it’s certainly not perfect.
But despite all that, it is a remarkable canvas.
“There’s so much you can do,” she said. “It never gets stagnant.”
Taryn Plumb can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.