The Persistent Beauty of Salvaged Wood

I don’t think I am old yet, or done with growing. But my perspective has altered – I am less hungry for the busyness of the body, more interested in the tricks of the mind. I am gaining, also, a new affection for wood that is useless, that has been tossed out, that merely exists, quietly, wherever it has ended up. 

Mary Oliver, Building the House

Every piece of wood I am about to tell you about has a history; a story to tell. Each story, as far as I can discern, is entirely true. They range from tales about brutal heat and extreme cold to the lonely passing of seasons and being completely ignored. Many of them are incomplete. All of them are in process. Grouped together they could be placed under the heading, “Second Chances,” or the more evocative, “Lazarus.” A warning, however, I will only covey the most basic elements of these stories – the rest you must find out on your own – because these are stories that can not be heard, they can only be intuited, told (as they were to me) below the threshold of hearing.

“There’s something beautiful about a big old ugly knot hole in the middle of a piece of wood.” 

George Anders, fifty-nine years old, well over six-feet tall with broad shoulders and thick chest, stands outside his woodworking shop in Lolo in the Bitterroot Valley when he says this to me. He’s wearing a blue denim carpenter’s apron and long sleeves rolled back to reveal his forearms, and he speaks with the slow, calm authority of a woodworker, someone who is used to taking their time, getting things right. There is also a hint of wonder and amazement in his voice, embedded there like a nail, dovetailed into his humility. Just before this he looked me in the eye and with the same dulcet tones told me, “I didn’t make the wood. God made the wood. And you’ve got to work with that, let what’s in the wood come out.” As I climb into my car and drive away I think about this.

Two evenings before I sat at a friend’s house and ran my hands over their dining room table. It was a piece of curly redwood, centuries old, its gold tones and wavering pattern like a sheet of water running over the cobbled stones of a creek bed, the creek bed illuminated by sunshine. My friend, Scott Edgerton, who dismantles buildings for a living and resells the timbers, had taken it out of the Riverside Bar and Grill just a few years ago when the premises was being razed to make way for an expansion of  I-93 north of Arlee. It had been the restaurant’s bar top and looked like it: chipped as the shoulders of the men and women who had bellied up to it and including their engraved names. 

I set my glass of wine on the table. It would be impossible to buy a piece of wood like this today. Old growth like this can have over a hundred years of growth rings squeezed into just a few inches. Compare this to the quarter inch between growth rings you see on the 2 x 4’s at Home Depot. It made me think about the novelist and art critic John Berger who writes in his series of essays, The Shape of a Pocket, that our customary visible order is not the only one, and how he talks about the experience of being able to see between two frames of our lives, like seeing between the flickering images that go into making a motion picture. Looking at the pattern of that table was like that. I imagined Oregon before Columbus or David Thompson. I thought about the beer spilled on it when it was a bar top, the fights and love affairs that had broken out above it. 

The timbers above my head had likewise been salvaged, taken out of the Marcus Daily Granary in Hamilton, built in mid-1800s, torn down to make room for an aquatic center. The cabinet doors in the kitchen, I was told, were once bleachers in a gymnasium. The counter top I’d been leaning against and the redwood doors I’d entered through had come from a water tank Scott had taken down in northern California. George, as it turns out, had made the doors, as well as the counter top and redwood table. History, both old and new, was all around me. God was in the details.

Scott and his partner Bryony led me into another part of their home, a small log room that at one time was a cabin just off the Mullen Trail near Drummond, a historic military route used for the transport of supplies from Fort Benton, Montana, to Fort Walla Walla, Washington. The cabin sat in a little draw with no trees around it. Newspapers crammed in the cracks went back to 1902. When they first saw the cabin Scott says, “It was in the middle of the prairie and the roof was pretty well gone. There were no windows or doors on it so the cows had been getting inside it. There was cow dung everywhere in it, splattered on all the walls. The wood shingles on the outside were all scorched because it had been through a couple of fires, grass fires. It looked like hell, but I knew what was there.”

When I look at Bryony she places a hand on one of the logs and likewise mentions its history, that she likes to imagine the people who once lived there and what their lives must have been like. Later she uses the word character when talking about the cabin. It is a word I have been waiting to hear.

Two years ago word spread through the Missoula community about another table. “Have you seen Deanne’s table?” was the question everyone was asking.  Deanne Bell is from Jamaica and speaks with the recognizable accent of that island. She lives in the Rattlesnake Valley in Missoula, and the table in question is also the handiwork of George. When I visit her, she jokingly refers to herself as a frustrated interior designer, but looking around I am unable to understand the joke, or see where the frustration comes from.

The table is three feet high. Three three-inch by eight-inch pine planks make up the top, scarred with the black of nail holes and set a quarter inch apart, all resting on two eighteen-inch by twelve-inch fir pillars which Deanne refers to as stumps. Despite the bulk of the table it feels light, and like Scott and Bryony’s table there is a presence to it: You imagine it having a say in every conversation that takes place. When I ask Deanne what the appeal of using salvaged wood is, she says without hesitation, “That’s really easy.”

“It’s the soul and character,” Deanne says. “Old wood to me just exudes something that new wood doesn’t have and you can’t replicate, even if you work with it, distress it, it’s not the same… To me it’s alive. It’s rich and it’s deep and it’s full of texture like you can’t get with new stuff.” 

When Deanne first brought her stumps to George he was skeptical. In a previous incarnation he’d lived in New York where he says everyone wanted their woodwork polished and finished to an incredible degree. Deanne wanted the antithesis of this. The result is the rich texture she speaks of. It is what gives the wood its character, its personality; the very thing George says is in the wood all along.

“It’s the soul. I don’t know how to say it any differently,” Deanne says. “I look at it and I see endurance. I see art. I see something in its natural state. I don’t see an artificial thing that will make me feel differently. A huge part of why I used reclaimed everything is the feel that it leaves with me.” With this she points to the trim on the windows and doors, oak left with “live-edges”, then to the cabinet doors with elegant knot holes punctuating the amber wood as if artistically arranged. The wood floor of her bedroom upstairs is also oak, irregular sized boards interspersed with six live-edged boards fitted between them in suggestive curves, like a two dimensional forest. Looking at the floor we agree with each other that despite all its character, wood sometimes looks like something that never came from a tree. But not so with this floor. There’s no mistaking what it is.

Half an hour away up Sleeman Creek Road in Lolo is another home made with almost entirely reclaimed lumber, including nearly whole trees, many of them salvaged.  In the winter of 98’ a huge storm hit the Bitterroot Valley and took down a number of pines. Half a dozen of those trees now stand in Bill McDavid’s house, supporting the stairway, or seeming growing out of a corner. Brothers, Adam and Tyler Pfiffner, timber framers, built the home, and when we tour the house Adam points to each piece and gives me the history. There are as many as ten different species from as many sources; one of the ceilings in particular is old barn wood, siding, two-inch stock that is hard to find. Years of exposure to the elements have pitted and grooved it, turning it a deep rich brown with dark highlights and a mahogany tinge that stand out nicely against the stucco walls. When Brian joins us, he says it is exactly this, the aesthetics of using old wood that attracts him. 

“I love to look at it,” he says. “That patina -- you just can’t beat that. You’d have to live in a place 100 years to get that. It adds more character. You build something out of green wood and it’s boring… It makes all the difference in the world. I mean you have one beam of exposed wood like that and – for me at least – it changes the whole feel of the room.” 

Bill is in real estate and talk turns to the huge increase in the use of reclaimed lumber over the last few years. The four of us wonder about the reason behind this. “Green building,” the idea of building environmentally friendly houses is suggested, and is certainly a factor. There is the aesthetics, of course. Then, without prompting, Bill says something interesting. 

“I think what people are looking for is a sense of place.”

We say our goodbyes and once again I drive away thinking about this: He has to be right. As the world speeds up, as our lives get faster and faster, farther away from nature, as one city begins to look like every other city and all the houses the same, we want something that links us back to the landscape, to the organic, to the  place we come from, the place we live.

Finally, I will say this about reclaimed wood. I have worked with it myself. I know the frustration and difficulties it can present to a woodworker. I have also been witness to the stunning resurrection of what looks like a piece of junk wood into a thing of beauty, and it has changed my way of thinking. I’m of the opinion that we will never come to know much, at least not of importance. Mystery, I believe, is what sustains us – the inaudible and invisible that surrounds us each day – like the stories in a piece of wood. Woodworkers I’ve talked to will refer to these stories, the nail holes or burn marks I love, as blemishes. I’ve seen them hold up a piece of wood and point to a knot hole or to a check in a beam and call it a flaw. Yes, I know what they mean, but it is a concept I can not go along with.


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