Baltimore rowhouse wood gets new life as furniture
By Jonathan Capriel
The Baltimore Sun|
Jul 19, 2016 at 6:31 AM
Sandtown Millworks makes furniture from salvaged wood from Baltimore buildings that are being town down. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun video)
A plume of sawdust drifted around woodworker Jim Klausmeyer as he pulled a plank from a shelf, one of thousands of pieces of lumber in the Riverside shop.
The yellow pine in his hands is denser than what can be bought at most home stores, Klausmeyer said, pointing to the tight groupings of rings on the wood.
"Back in the day, these trees, they had time to grow," the 27-year-old said.
This pine will be used to make a barn-style door, a popular made-to-order item for Sandtown Millworks, a woodworking company that uses lumber salvaged from old Baltimore rowhouses, factories and other buildings to create rustic but high-end furniture.
Klausmeyer, production manager and partner, started his carpentry career at 17, when he helped renovate rowhouses for New Renaissance Architects and Builders, the parent company of Sandtown.
"A lot of the houses we worked on were built 100 years ago," Klausmeyer said. "Working with them, you develop an appreciation for the wood used to make them."
The wood in those homes, which came from centuries-old trees, is often called old-growth lumber.
Sandtown Millworks was established in 2011 with the desire to preserve the natural beauty of the wood used in rowhouses, said John Bolster, 47, founder of Sandtown Millworks and New Renaissance. When Bolster started renovating rowhouses 20 years ago, he noticed that very few people in the industry saved the wood they pulled out of the homes.
"It all ended up in landfills," he said. "I started saving some of the wood because the character of it was so much more fantastic than new wood."
Some of the first creations to come from Bolster's shop were made of wood salvaged from houses in Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood — hence the name.
"Many of our designs are driven by the wood dimensions we pulled from those rowhouses," he said.
During the past couple of years, Bolster said, his furniture business has snowballed, rivaling his renovation company. This year he expects Sandtown Millworks, which employs six people full time, to sell nearly 500 pieces. Among the most popular items are the dining room tables, which range in price from $1,350 to $2,700.
That's in line with tables from furniture retailers such as Ethan Allen. Sandtown displays its pieces for sale online, in its Riverside showroom, which is open by appointment, and at festivals and farmers' markets in Baltimore.
"Right now it's a great time for houses, but, if the market weakens, more of my time might be shifted into the furniture business," Bolster said. "I think we might see some ebb and flow in the furniture market depending on the economy, but I don't think we will see the shifts like we did in housing."
Demand for old-growth wood is growing, even as the supply remains locked in decades-old houses and factories scattered throughout Baltimore and other cities.
For many years, efforts to quickly remove blight from neighborhoods meant that lumber from vacant homes went to landfills, incinerators or recycling facilities.
But there is a new movement within city government to salvage materials from these buildings.
In March 2014, Baltimore Housing awarded a contract to Humanim, a nonprofit workforce development organization, to dismantle several dozen homes and salvage the materials for reuse by taking apart the buildings piece by piece.
While such deconstruction is more expensive and slower than knocking down old homes with backhoes and excavators, the process tends to be more environmentally friendly, and it creates jobs, said Michael Braverman, the deputy commissioner of the housing agency.
"We were probably the first city to make deconstruction a major component to our blight reduction process," he said.
During the 18-month initiative, Humanim salvaged nearly 130,000 board feet of lumber from 126 buildings, said Jeff Carroll, vice president at Humanim.
"The city has done a good job to identify houses that have reclaimable materials and put them under a deconstruction contract," he said. "I'm pretty optimistic about the progress that has been made."
But a lot of old-growth wood still could end up in landfills or be ground into mulch. Between September 2014 and February 2016, Baltimore Housing awarded more than twice as many contracts to demolish buildings as it did for deconstruction.
While Baltimore requires a demolition company to recycle about 30 percent of the materials from many job sites, there are no reclamation requirements.
Even when a larger company does reclaim wood from a demolition site, it still may dump most of it, Bolster said.
"At lot of the smaller-dimension stuff we like to use is still getting tossed by other companies," he said. "Everybody wants the bigger stuff. Sadly, if it can be turned into flooring, they want it. That's where the money is."
Sandtown found uses for pieces that many people tossed, such as laths. The company took these thin strips of wood that were used as a foundation for plaster walls and seemingly useless for anything else, and turned them into a collection of modern-styled coffee and end tables.
"You see dumpsters filled with these," he said "We really wanted to find a way to reuse them."
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Sandtown also has worked with wood salvaged from well-known buildings.
"The very first famous building we got wood out of was the Admiral's Cup," Bolster said of the longtime Fells Point bar that reopened in 2012. "The wood was from the 1700s and just really beautiful. It's what inspired a whole line of furniture."
Bolster is not terribly worried about Sandtown Millworks' wood supply. Through working with other renovation companies, he's collected enough wood to fill the 7,500-square-foot workshop in Riverside and a 5,000-square-foot warehouse.
Preparing the salvaged wood can be time-consuming. A single board has an average of 50 nails that must be removed before it can be worked with.
"It's amazing how much labor goes into removing nails," Bolster said. "We usually have a full-time guy for that, but right now we have a couple of high school kids who come in part time."