Turning Salvage Timber Into Quality Lumber
By David Lillard
It all started when building contractor Charlie Beach couldn’t find someone to take trees removed from a site where he was building a house for a customer. He couldn’t stand the thought that a natural resource like good timber might be scrapped for want of a buyer. That, says Beach’s partner Scott Carpenter, was the genesis of Local Wood. The Berryville company converts locally harvested trees and wood from old structures slated to be torn down into lumber for furniture, cabinetry, flooring, moldings, and other wood products.
Their response to the quandary of good wood illustrates the challenges to the ideals of sustainability. It takes a marketplace and a supply chain to repurpose and reuse anything. It’s part of the reason many paper-recycling programs fall flat: You can “make paper from paper,” as long as there is a nearby company to do it. Otherwise, it makes no economic sense.
Salvaging wood requires its own chain, one involving harvesting, transporting, drying and milling—as well as selling rough and finished lumber. If harvested trees will be used onsite, it might require an operator of a mobile sawmill.
So launching Local Wood in 2009 meant investing in all links of the chain, said Carpenter.
Now in its fifth year, Local Wood has a dedicated group of contractors and cabinetmakers who rely on them for custom milling on short runs. Craftsmen turning bowls or joining tabletops also come to Local Wood.
Homeowners, too, are a growing segment of Local Wood’s sales, now accounting for about 50 percent of the business, said Carpenter.
“When we first started,” said Carpenter, “we wanted to take trees from a property and turn them into finished wood for use on the same site.” That model works out sometimes, but the greater demand is from other local businesses who want high-quality, custom milled lumber from local sources.
“A cabinet maker might come in looking for a hundred feet of cherry—of a certain quality—for a certain project,” said Carpenter. “Larger mills just aren’t set up to accommodate that.”
The same is true for building contractors working on one home at a time. Custom projects involve working with homeowners to find exactly the right floors, doors, and moldings for their home.
“We don’t compete with larger mills that turn out 2-and-a-quarter-inch floor boards,” said Carpenter. “Our customers want something unique and distinctive.”
Local Wood is also a place where a homeowner can walk in the door looking for anything from a new kitchen countertop to a couple of boards to fix a floor, or to have a door made.
Increasingly, said Carpenter, customers from Northern Virginia come to them for handmade furniture with a “live edge,” or finished pieces that retain the natural curves of the timber. He shows off a recently completed coffee table, recounting, “The customer picked out the slab and expressed a vision for the finished product. This makes the customer a big part of the design.”
Homeowners might be surprised at how competitively priced a custom bench or table compares to a factory-built piece. A live-edge cherry bench in the Local Wood showroom retails for about $300. It’s more than a mass-produced piece with factory edges, but considering this piece will likely be handed down to grandchildren rather than be put out to the curb in a decade, the price compares favorably. The same holds true for a trestle table there—it’s a few hundred dollars more than a table bought in a big home store, but comes custom made from local wood with a finish chosen by the customer.
It takes about six months, said Carpenter, from harvest to finished lumber. A lot of that time is spent air-drying then curing in the kiln onsite. Then the lumber moves into the showroom. That’s really too fancy a name for a warehouse of slabs standing upright, reaching up to 20 feet tall. But for anyone with a fascination with wood grain, colors, and strength, the showroom is like a Lego warehouse to a six-year-old. It’s cool.
Beach and Carpenter are still active contractors. Beach runs the building firm of Carpenter-Beach, while Carpenter works full-time on the wood businesses. In late April, they will move the milling operation—the shop—to a new location in Berryville. The retail operation will remain on Route 7 west of town.
The move will allow more showroom space for tables and other products they make onsite. “I’d like to see the live-edge side of the business grow,” said Carpenter. “Live edge is always one of a kind.”
Carpenter also is developing wrought iron as part of Local Wood’s offerings, for table bases and fireplace tools. The addition makes it possible for a customer to choose a locally harvested fireplace mantel, and pair it with tools that are created with that mantel in mind.
When asked whether he still thinks of himself as a builder, or if he has been transformed into the “local wood guy,” Carpenter pauses a moment, as though it’s the first time he’s stopped to ponder it. Then, with determination, he says, “I’m a wood guy!”
There was a time when most things made from wood were crafted from nearby sources. It just made sense. Carpenter and Beach could have a hand in bringing back that sensibility—with a modern twist. One less about necessity, and more about choice. Less about expediency, and more about sustainability.
Local Wood is at Kimble Road and Route 7, west of Berryville; open Monday through Friday 8am–4:30pm, and Saturdays 9:3am–1pm. For information, call 540-955-9522 or visit localwoodva.com.