CHELSEA — Arnie Jarmak sees history in wood.
That’s why he covets wood pilings that once held up wharves in Boston Harbor, and gets excited about reclaiming timbers from defunct factories across New England. In a world where decades-old buildings are regularly torn down, Jarnak sees himself a preservationist.
“I’m not selling wood; I am selling a story,” said Jarmak, who believes builders and architects are especially attracted to the harbor wood because of its history and authenticity.
The white oak pilings he reclaimed had been in the harbor for over 100 years. Now dried and recut, the oak is being used for everything from floors at Legal Harborside to walls at Brown Brothers Harriman at Post Office Square.
Jarmak’s road to becoming one of the region’s foremost experts on reclaimed lumber and 19th-century oak and pine began modestly in the 1960s, when he picked up carpentry while growing up in Marblehead. But his first love was photography, and in the 1970s, he began working as a news photographer for the Chelsea Record, snapping photos of a changing immigrant community. He eventually bought a town house at the lip of the harbor under the Tobin Bridge.
By the early 1990s, he decided to go back to carpentry and headed to Pennsylvania, where he landed a job working with an Amish family to help repair and build houses and barns.
There he learned the art of preserving wood. The Amish taught him that, rather than backhoes and bulldozers, hand tools and rope were all that were needed to dismantle a building. “The Amish didn’t break or waste one piece of wood. Everything was saved and got used again,” said Jarmak.
After a five-year apprenticeship, Jarmak returned to Chelsea and started working in the demolition business. He was shocked by the amount of wood and other materials that were thrown out.
“When I came back up here, they were smashing and scrunching it up and putting it into trucks and sending it to landfills,” he said.
He soon contacted salvage businesses and started selling electrical gear and other things — such as lightbulbs, doors, and furnaces — that could be reused. When his employer began to demolish older factories and buildings he realized that the wood inside was still viable. “Because of my experience as a barn builder I knew exactly what we had,” he said.
By 1998, he had started his own company, selling salvaged wood all over the world. Much of it was a yellow pine that grew in a swath from Virginia to Texas and was used in the late 1800s for timbers, floors, and doors in old industrial factories and for pilings and on ships. He shipped the wood directly from the salvage site to companies that wanted to reshape it into boards for hardwood floors. “I was able to sell it because demand exceeded the supply,” Jarmak explained. “People want this old wood; it’s way superior to anything that’s currently on the market today.”
In 2001, he hired the Amish family who had taught him about dismantling and building barns to work in a sawmill he opened in Lancaster, Pa. In 2006, he was asked if he was interested in hundreds of oak pilings that had been pulled from Boston Harbor. He jumped at the chance and trucked the pilings to Lancaster, where they took years to dry. At the time, there was little competition for the pilings. These days, more people are interested in the reclaimed wood, which is more expensive than new wood because it is not mass-produced.
During that process he discovered that a century of sitting in the harbor’s salt water had changed the wood. “It had some mineral staining and discoloration that makes it really beautiful,” said Jarmak.
Around that time, he realized that architects were looking to reuse wood from in and around the harbor. “They don’t want perfect boards. They want wood that shows its previous life,” he said.
Architect Cindy Lee, of Bargmann Hendrie + Archetype, is part of a team that is designing the new Converse Building on Lovejoy Wharf in Boston. The design includes using old pilings that Jarmak salvaged from the wharf before it was rebuilt. These days the pilings are drying in his Lancaster mill but in another year they’ll be cut and reused for stairs, flooring, and paneling at the new Converse building, said Lee.
“The wood has a story; it’s sustainable and it’s local,” said Lee. “It’s from the harbor and it’s a limited resource, too. Once these old pilings are pulled up there won’t be any more,” she said.
Over at Legal Harborside, Jarmak was able to install wood from pilings that had held up Jimmy’s Harborside, the landmark restaurant that previously sat at the site.
In 2011, he fitted the dining room floorboards with wood cut from the pilings. “We’re proud that elements within the space and concept are a nod not only to our heritage, but to the history of the footprint,” said Roger Berkowitz, president of Legal Sea Foods.
Meanwhile, Jarmak’s phone seems to not stop ringing.
He doesn’t take many photographs anymore, but he plans to put together a collection of old black-and-white photos for an essay compilation a friend is writing about Chelsea.
From the second floor of his Chelsea town house, where he’s lived since the late 1970s, he has a clear view of Boston Harbor . . . and some wood pilings.
“It’s different; it’s not something new that you can find in 10,000 homes,” he said. “It’s authentic.”