Running out of old barns

Virginia company goes global in finding sources of old wood

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Print this page by Nicole Anderson Ellis

For more than three decades Mountain Lumber Co. converted wood from old Appalachian barns into floorboards.  But big-beamed barns are not a renewable resource.  To keep pace with growing demand, the Ruckersville-based company expanded its search. Today, its reclaimed timber might come from antique railroad cars or beer vats from as far away as Russia and China.

Strangely enough, Mountain Lumber’s business plan always depended on the scarcity of its supplies. America’s forests once appeared endless and for centuries they were logged that way.  Timber and paper companies cleared old-growth forests, including more than 87 million acres of longleaf pine, famous for its heartwood.  If they replanted, explains CEO Bill Stone, they put in fast-growing yellow pine.

The result is a premium on now-rare species. In the early 1970s, Mountain Lumber founder Willie Drake tapped a hidden source for longleaf pine, American chestnut, and other old growth woods —  dilapidated barns.

People love the wood.  Not in spite of the weathering and saw marks, but because of them. “One of my favorite things about it,” says customer Tim Gearhart, “is you can still make out all the nail holes.”

With the explosion of the green building trend, Mountain Lumber found a new market among commercial builders. The rescued boards qualify as “recycled” and “local” materials and contribute toward LEED certification (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).  Today commercial use counts for 20 percent of sales. 

To match growing demand, the company moved beyond barns to salvage beams from condemned tobacco warehouses, mills and factories.  Then the search went global. Why not use antique oak cut from Russian railroad cars? Chinese elm from Ming dynasty structures slated for demolition? Decommissioned Guinness brewing vats? Standing dead French oak? “The worm tracks are fantastic,” brags Stone. His own desk is made of English oak from Scrumpy Jack brand cider casks. 

Scrumpy Jack is Gearhart’s favorite.  When he and partner Bill Hamilton opened Charlottesville’s Gearhart Chocolate, they chose flooring that reflects their product — rich, rare, hand-made. The salvaged boards have character, says Gearhart. “From the minute they laid the floor down it was an ideal fit for our business.” 

Last November, Gearhart opened a second store in Richmond. Once again they called Mountain Lumber, but this time they chose Entique, the company’s new line of engineered wood.  With only a top layer of reclaimed timber, Entique stretches the supply of rare boards.  It also cost less.  Hand-milled antique chestnut starts at $14.45 per square foot; ancient Chinese elm starts at $17.45.  By contrast, Entique starts at $6.99 per square foot yet still has what Gearhart calls “loads of look.”

Entique has been a hit in high-traffic commercial applications, from Monticello’s Visitor’s Center to Disney’s Magic Kingdom, to Starbucks stores.  “It looks great,” says Gabi Philippon, a regional Starbucks design manager. The coffee giant has used Mountain Lumber at its Tysons Corner store and in more than half a dozen more “green” renovation projects.

Adding to the diversity of their green offerings, Mountain Lumber also sells newly cut timber certified by the Forest Sustainability Council (FSC). “The idea of FSC is not harvesting any faster than the forest can regrow itself,” explains Stone. Mountain Lumber’s success aside, he says, “Wouldn’t it have been better if 100 years ago someone had said, ‘Wait. Let’s replant as we go.’” 

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