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Making a living selling reclaimed wood
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There is an old saying that one man’s trash can be another man’s treasure. Two local businesses have made recycling salvaged wood for reuse in a variety of ways their business plans—Wisconsin Barn Board and Beam and Sebastian’s Specialty Hardwoods.

Throughout the country, the reclaimed lumber industry gained momentum starting in the 1980s on the West Coast, due to growing concern for how the lumber industry had affected the environment. On a smaller scale, people had been selling reclaimed lumber earlier on the East Coast as well.

Timber was the dominant American building material in the past due to its relative abundance. And reclaimed lumber is said to be stronger, a claim attributed to the lack of air pollution that existed up until the 20th century, as well as the wood often being harvested from virgin timber stock.

Ken Goodwin

Readstown’s Ken Goodwin is the owner if Wisconsin Barn Board and Beam (WBB&B). For the last six years, he has been in the reclaimed lumber business. His business card boasts, "Bringing the past into the future for a greener tomorrow."

 The idea started floating around in Ken's head as he stumbled across reclaimed lumber on the Internet. Later, he was hired to help someone else work on a couple of barn projects. When he found work to be slow, doing roofing and building, Ken decided to grab his team and try their hands at the deconstruction of barns for resale. That’s when Wisconsin Barn Board and Beam was born.

"Finding the barns when we started wasn't as hard as finding the buyer," said Goodwin.

Barns serve as the most common source of reclaimed lumber in America, according to Wikipedia.

The flow is steady now, with the wood coming in as fast as it goes out, Goodwin explained.

"I sell a lot of it as soon as we get it, and sometimes I sell it even before we get it with purchase orders, and that helps a lot," Goodwin said.

The company has grown bit by bit from a humble beginning.

"I'm pretty happy with the way things are; we get a little bigger every year. For the first two years, we didn't even have a truck, we did every thing with a Tahoe and a trailer," Goodwin said with a chuckle.

The crew of six finds themselves throughout Wisconsin each week, as well as other parts of the Midwest. The crew has also traveled as far as Kentucky to complete the reclamation.

Goodwin credits the Internet with much of the success for his business.

"I spend 75 percent of my time online, looking and looking for this or trying to sell that," said Goodwin.  Referrals and word of mouth are also an important part of the success of his business.

Many people do their research online and happen to stumble across Goodwin and WBB&B at the website, It’s just the way that Goodwin found himself in the business in the first place.

"People research getting rid of their barns, they find us and email us. Then, we go and look at it and go from there," Goodwin said. "We can look at ten barns, but we may only take two, they might not have what we want for material."

Goodwin works hard to find the just right kind of wood for his buyers.

"The value of the wood is determined by type of wood, condition, and availability," Goodwin said, "Gray barn siding has the highest demand. People go crazy for it." Gray siding is in higher demand generally because it is more difficult to acquire. With it never being painted much of it has given-way to the natural elements of the Midwest. The siding is generally used as interior decorating in bars, shopping malls and homes. 

Goodwin and his crew have shipped siding throughout the country and around the world. They currently are preparing boards for shipment to Belgium. You can find some of their wood in the Lynyrd Skynard bar in Las Vegas and in Wisconsin much of the wood is sent to a company, which turns it into a variety of different rustic furniture options. The furniture can fetch upward of $5,000 for larger pieces such as bed frames. Much of their reclaimed oak is turned into flooring. Maple stair treads from the Readstown group can also be found in Hollywood star Kevin Costner’s home.

A fair share of the wood is also shipped, about once a month, to California, where a certain percentage of any new building needs to be made from reclaimed wood.

"There isn’t a large local demand for the wood," Goodwin noted. Although they have sold some wood to people in the community, they’re still hoping to see more local people find an interest in the reclaimed lumber.

From start to finish, the process to take down a barn is quick, generally taking only three to four days. Although it is done in a timely manner, the process is also a careful one. Workers take time to ensure the wood, sometimes over a hundred years old, is taken down with care to maintain a higher quality of the salvageable pieces. The siding is torn off and structural parts of the barn and interior wood that can be easily accessed initially are removed.

"We try to keep them standing as long as we can during the process," explained Chasca Dremsa, an employee of WBB&B. "That way, you're able to salvage most of the larger beams without damaging them, when the structure comes down." 

After the structure does come down, the crew members continue to salvage everything they can, before cleaning up everything that is unusable.

Some of the appeal of buying reclaimed lumber is the lower cost, but there is also the beauty found in it.  Many of the beams found in old barns are hand-hewn and were cut by an ax and most likely pulled by a team of horses to the jobsite.

"Up north, you'll find many of the barns were made from pine, and around this area it’s oak, which reflects on the abundance of local wood stocks," Dremsa said. 

White pine is the most popular and easiest wood to sell from the WBB&B lot in Readstown, according to Goodwin. However, the local crew does come across a variety of wood in their work. Most commonly they encounter pines, Douglas fir, elm and red and white oak. Sometimes, strange varieties like Brazilian walnut can pop up in their stock, as well.

In addition to removing barn and farm structures, WBB&B also removes the occasional commercial building. Most recently, Goodwin’s crew participated in the removal of a large door factory in Oshkosh.

"There is more to reclaim in commercial buildings with their size," Goodwin observed.

As popularity with eco-friendly trends grows, Goodwin is hoping to leave a lasting legacy with his business for his son and the workers, so they will be able to continue making the world a little bit greener.

Camille and Emile Smith

Camille and Emile Smith of Sebastian’s Specialty Woods have taken a slightly different tack, working with woods salvaged from industrial warehouses and businesses built between the 1860s and 1960s. Their wood comes from across the country, and likewise they ship it across the country.

The Smiths been building their rural Seneca business for 20 years, taking industrial timbers and reworking them into anything from flooring, paneling, millwork, cabinetry, retail fixtures, furniture and anything else their clients may desire.  

Reclaimed industrial timbers account for approximately 75-percent of the wood with which they work. The other 25-percent comes from local, sustainably managed woodlots.

The couple did not set out to become carpenters and reclaimers of wood. If you stepped back just a short time from the beginning of the business, you would have found both plying far different trades in Chicago.

Camille owned and operated a wine import company and Emile raced sailboats on the Great Lakes and in Florida. Then came a moment of serendipity.

Emile was given a stack of cherry logs by his mentor, who had moved to the area. The next logical step was finding someone to cut it into boards. Directed to a sawyer in Muscoda, Emile headed out to get his logs worked into usable planks. At the sawyer’s, he found an intriguing stack of beams. On inquiring, the sawyer offered to sell him the beams, which had originated on the old Sears Building in Chicago.

“With the contacts I had made in sailing, I was able to find buyers, brokering the sale and picking up some of the wood for myself,” Emile said.

The Smiths found themselves relocating not long after to a new home and new careers.

Trial and error and both a willingness to seek advice and to experiment has allowed the couple to bit-by-bit build the operation up.

“It takes more than you might realize to make the wood usable,” Camille said. “We have to pull a lot of metal from this wood. We have even had to invent our own equipment for some of these projects.”

The assemblage for a job can resemble a Rube Goldberg machine, she added, with one feeding wood into a series of machines they have hooked up and the other catching the boards as they come out.

They used to travel the country more to find wood that could be reused. Now, they have established contacts they trust around the country and can share pictures via the Internet.

The wood’s previous use gives it a unique character, according to Emile.

They were able to purchase the last of the wine tanks from Taylor Ridge Winery in upstate New York.

“It was redwood, which I offered to a guy in California, who laughed and asked why he would need to buy redwood,” Emile recounted. Not long after, the man called back asking for those reclaimed wine tank staves. And as it turned out, they went into the California house of the grandson of the man who built those tanks so many years earlier, making the project something extra special within the realm of recycling

The couple works with their clients to try to help them get they what they want at fair prices, a driving value in their business.

“Early on, I went into a Madison vendor, was poorly treated, and overcharged,” Emil said. “That’s not right. That’s part of why I am in this business.”

The couple whose business started with producing flooring in a 45’x90’ pole shed have diversified their products and increased their heated shop space to 15,000 square feet, all in use. They have also begun working with other carpenters, who rent space from them and collaborate on projects.

“Glen Drake is an old world tools expert,” Emile said. “He and Canesius Johnson have built reproduction pieces for an architect.”

Drake and Johnson and several other carpenters work in the space, sharing knowledge and skills.

“We’re all problem solvers,” Emile noted. “It multiplies the amount of work that can be done.”

Working with the other carpenters has affected how the Smiths view their own work, leading them to adopt some of the hand working methods of their peers. Hand planing instead of sanding doesn’t automatically mean more time spent to make the finished product, according to Emile.

However, embracing old technologies doesn’t mean they eschew the new.

The Internet is a vital part of getting their information out to the people looking for their products. Auto-cad drafting lets Emile and Camille help customer visualize their dreams in 2- and 3-D before the product is even made.

“We can help people design homes around the features they want,” Emile said, pointing out the elements in their own home, windows, trusses, and taller than usual kitchen counters that were the source of personal inspiration. “We want to excel at working with other peoples dreams over the ‘standard’ way things are done.”

In the ever-present entrepreneurial spirit of the Smiths, the two also recover flat stone and barn foundation stone.

Due to issues with post-hole beetles, the couple is cautious about working with barn boards. The insects can lay eggs that lay dormant for up to seven years and are energy intensive to kill. The treatment is energy intensive and the couple has opted to focus on other reclaimed woods instead.

The Smiths do occasionally work with barn boards when a customer desires the product and have looked over barns as advisors to landowners looking to ascertain the value of their old barn boards.

Emile has also become involved with sustainable forestry and has an interest in biofuels. If he can conceive of a way to incorporate sustainability and recycling into their business, he’s interested!

“We are probably the best kept secret in Crawford County,” laughed Emile.