Storied wood gets a second chapter

Brennan LaBrie blabrie@ptleader.com
Posted 8/18/20

In a lumber yard tucked away in the woods of Glen Cove Business Park, off Highway 19 leading into Port Townsend, stacks of beams and planks reach to the sky. 

Between them, workers move back …

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Storied wood gets a second chapter

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In a lumber yard tucked away in the woods of Glen Cove Business Park, off Highway 19 leading into Port Townsend, stacks of beams and planks reach to the sky. 

Between them, workers move back and forth, cleaning, inspecting, and moving beams from the stacks into the two shop buildings on the property. The sounds of bandsaws echo off the metal buildings. 

This lumber yard, however, is different from others close by. All of the lumber in this yard has lived a past life. The wood arrived here from places as far away as Florida and Virginia, having made up docks, houses, commercial buildings and stadiums. Now they’re destined for a new life.

Jake Jacob of Pacific Northwest Timbers and Sebastian Eggert, owner of Rain Shadow Woodworks, have operated their businesses out of this property for the past decade, along with fellow woodworker Dale West. Jacob’s business is procuring wood from job sites across the country, often commercial demolitions, and repurposing them into flooring, paneling, and other architectural details. Eggert and his crew create “fine architectural millwork,” from staircases to fireplace mantles, with a specialty in crafting moulding for many historical buildings.

The two longtime
Port Townsend residents’ life paths have come together in large part due to one shared passion: reclaimed wood, which Jacob said is an industry that is small yet “strong and vital” throughout North America.

The two men often collaborate on projects. 

In many cases, Eggert will buy wood from Jacob, who will saw large beams down to a size so Eggert and his team can add finishing touches to an artisan shelf or Victorian moulding. Other times, it’s Eggert doing the selling to Jacob.

With numerous lumber yards in the vicinity offering mountains of freshly cut lumber for local builders, why do people come to Jacob and Eggert for pre-owned wood? 

There are a few factors, such as the environmentally-friendly action of buying recycled wood. But most of all, it all comes down to the strength of the reclaimed wood. 

“The reclaimed material, it’s extraordinary,” Jacob said. “I mean, the stuff is already old; it’s been in a building for hundreds of years, and it tends to be really well seasoned. It’s already dry, it’s already done all the moving and shrinking and cracking it’s going to do.”

“It’s much more stable than any new material that you’ll ever get,” he said. “And it’s sort of imbued with the sense of history that you cannot get with brand-new wood.”

“Green,” or freshly cut lumber, is much less predictable, he explained. The longer a tree or timber has air-dried, the sturdier it is. And nothing is sturdier than the air-dried Douglas fir that make up most of his lot, based on the strength-to-weight ratio and rot factor, among other things.  

ART OF RECLAIMED WOOD

Each log, beam or plank that Jacob or Eggert buy are unique and come with their own strengths and weaknesses. While this adds to the value of the wood, it also makes it more challenging to craft it into new products. 

“Most big beams can’t be diced up and have a perfect result,” he said. “There’s tension. Even in the air-dried wood, there’s tension. It will reveal itself when you resize it.”

It’s not as simple as ordering auto parts and knowing what will show up, he said.

Therefore, consistently finding new wood and adding to his diverse, varied inventory is necessary to be able to offer clients what they want. 

“Our product, as far as lumber and timber is concerned, probably costs 4.5 to 5 times more than new house building lumber or timber wood, so you have to be pretty determined to want to have it.” 

The varying ages and values of the wood, the cross-country transportation, and the energy put into it also factor into the cost.

However, the two men aren’t lacking in clients. Requests constantly come in from across the U.S. for their wood products.

Jacob’s clients seek him out for all sorts of reasons. For many, they don’t want just any wood for their houses or boats. Some want just one piece of wood with a character for a mantle. Others want a rustic-looking floor, ordering up to 200 planks. Many clients buy reclaimed wood in order to not contribute to deforestation, Jacob said. 

The lumber yard is fully certified as a Forestry Stewardship Council wood yard, and the two men track the energy that goes into making their products.

Jacob is able to choose his clients — happy to work with anyone who appreciates reclaimed wood as much as he does. 

“I just don’t want to sell our product to people who are just gonna cover up our product with sheetrock or paint it,” he said. 

“We find delight in just about any kind of project,” Eggert said. “I don’t turn anything down; I take everything that comes my way.”

A SHIFT IN THE CULTURE

Eggert and Jacob have seen the demand for their products rise in recent years. Jacob attributes this to a society that has grown to appreciate the value and virtues of finely-aged, air-dried wood. 

“The public is getting more and more savvy about what reclaimed wood means,” he said.

The post-World War II construction boom and the creation of suburbs in the U.S. brought about a “factory-like stream” of quick construction based around fresh two-by-fours, which can be easily kiln-dried. This, Eggert said, helped bring about a shift in the culture of house building from “design-build” in which people designed and built their homes, to an industry of construction.

“Now it’s coming around full circle,” Eggert said. “The design-build aspect is alive and well and running again.”

Unfortunately, the new respect for reclaimed wood means that Jacob’s overhead is higher than it once was. Long gone are the days when he’d sift through salvage lots in Tacoma and take away old growth fir beams for free. 

“Today there’s not a wrecker on the planet who doesn’t realize that that wood has value. It isn’t free anymore; it hasn’t been for a long time.”

Eggert doesn’t use reclaimed wood on all his projects; it’s more like
50 percent. However, this cultural shift has allowed him to combine his passion for high-quality woodwork and reclaimed wood more so than ever before.

“There’s a synergistic relationship between reclaimed lumber and fine finished woodwork now that people are beginning to understand the value in bringing material history into their projects by using reclaimed material.”

Despite doing business nation-wide, it is no accident that their businesses are based out of Port Townsend. The local culture of wooden boats and wooden homes, from Victorian mansions to contemporary log homes, has given them a firm base of customers along with a community of craftsmen to work with. It was the popularity of artisan home-building that brought both men to the area.

Eggert got his architecture degree in New York but found his way to the area as a contractor on an “organic form” Port Ludlow house built from native materials. He got his contracting license in 1978 and has been working in the trade locally ever since.

Jacob worked as a marine engineer on merchant ships for 23 years, and would spend his months on land in northwest Montana, where in the 1980s he began building log homes from air-dried trees left over from a 1929 fire in Glacier National Park. In 1987, he came to Port Townsend for a one-week course on timber-framing, which led to a construction job on a Whidbey Island home. He settled in Port Townsend shortly thereafter. 

THE TREEHOUSE GUYS

Jacob’s passion for reclaimed wood started with building homes, and he never left it behind. As his career went on, he continued to build homes from reclaimed wood — most of which weren’t on the ground. In 1997, he started Treehouse Workshop, a construction company that built treehouses for clients across the world, from Morocco to Japan and in 38 states. 

He met his business partner, Pete Nelson, in 1993 when he sold Nelson reclaimed wood from his Tacoma yard for a treehouse. 

He and Nelson, who remain friends to this day, reorganized in 2009 to focus on their own ventures. However, neither of them left the treehouse building behind. Nelson went on to star in Animal Planet’s “TreeHouse Masters,” the success of which led to TC producers calling up Jacob for a similar show. 

“TreeHouse Guys,” starring Jacob and PNT employee Forrest Binger along with other builders across the country, ran from 2014-17. 

The show took Jacob across the U.S., where he built one treehouse for a client per episode, a period of time that he found enjoyable yet stressful. 

“There was a lot of pressure to work hard and fast,” he said. 

When the show went on hiatus, he was relieved to return to Port Townsend and focus on manufacturing reclaimed lumber in a community that shares his appreciation for it.

“I find it very exciting to live in a community like this, where so many people have cut their teeth on wood,” Jacob said.

“Or sharpened their teeth, worn out their teeth,” Eggert threw in with a chuckle.

“...So we’re just another cog in the wheel of that,” Jacob said.

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