Reclaimed lumber gets a beautiful new life

When it comes to reclaiming lumber from local rural and urban areas and creating custom art, furniture, flooring and wall structures, “It’s all about the story,” according to Sonoma Millworks president Gordon Martin, whose Healdsburg company specializes in custom milling services using repurposed lumber. Wine casks become doors and chairs, oak sticks change into bars and walls.

Founded in 1979 as Martin Forest Products, the business was primarily a company meeting the needs of the cooling tower industry. Over the years, family-owned lumber companies in the area closed due to lack of timber and environmental concerns, and around 1996 Martin saw the need to diversify. While retaining the cooling tower contracts, the millworks grew to include custom milling.
“I think of this as a transformation company, not a lumber company,” he says.

Finding salvageable lumber is a story in itself. One tip leads to another for Martin in the search, and he often finds himself speaking to ranchers at some out-of-the-way barns and farms. He discovered between 150-200,000 feet of redwood and oak near Lodi and at Beaulieu Vineyard in Rutherford. Some of the redwood, Martin estimates, is hundreds of years old. “I’d never seen redwood this nice,” he says of this treasure.

The Lodi-area lumber was spread outside over staging and loading areas formerly used by local nut growers; the redwood located there was from the now-defunct Cherokee Vineyard Association tanks. Beaulieu Vineyard’s wood was culled from some of the old oak casks, and redwood and oak uprights.
When reclaimed lumber arrives at the mill, it’s cleaned and any nails are removed. Then, the wood is run through a veneer machine or planer for optimum yield and milled to release its beauty, thus giving it a second life and keeping it from being diverted to a landfill.

“This wood has an heirloom quality,” Martin says. It has aged well and usually has developed a soft patina. With redwood, this rarer old-growth is a desired feature for furniture and larger pieces that highlight the vintage texture and grain. In some cases, customers supply their own used lumber to the millworks to be converted into material for new projects. The welcoming, double-front doors and tasting room bar at Seghesio Family Vineyards were created from their old redwood tanks.

The use of this reharvested, repurposed wood in clients’ businesses and projects becomes a backstory, which the clients love and can share with their own customers. Silver Oak Winery sports a bar and matching chairs made from reclaimed oak casks. Rodney Strong Vineyards reused some of its own redwood wine tank stock for an AIA award-winning outdoor tasting terrace.

Martin has an artist’s eye, enjoys designing and encourages his employees to express their creative sides by going to “the toy box,” a conceptual area in a specially built clean room on the property. His latest concept in development is an easy-to-assemble and inexpensive pergola, about 8 feet by 10 feet, with an exalted gable that most people can put together themselves. Think Lincoln Logs, only for a Sonoma County lifestyle.

Using another technique known as VinoPlank, Martin and his crew have completed some other interesting projects, including a tasting room display wall at Dry Creek Valley’s Comstock Wines, a long curved bar for Esalen Institute, and floral display shelves and end-caps at the remodeled Big John’s Market.

VinoPlank uses the discarded oak tasting sticks from inside wine tanks to create a new hardwood material that is utilized for furnishings, wall panels, bar tops, countertops, flooring, decking and more. These tasting sticks are often no longer than three feet in length, and sometimes smaller. Vintners place them in stainless steel tanks during the fermentation process to produce an oaky flavor in the wine. Some sticks have been convection toasted, some fire toasted, and each has its own grain and texture.

There is, understandably, a vast supply of used tasting sticks in our area. After the millworks takes delivery of these inner-staves (still fragrant from their respective wines), they are air-dried on outdoor pallets, then kiln-dried, sanded and laminated together to create thick, strong boards. The mill can then re-saw and customize the boards to make them smoother and smaller, depending upon the future use and projects. The dark toasted edges combined with the various shades of wine, whether red or white, make for a striking pattern and grain. Each plank forms a unique striated design, intricate and rich in color.

In their more rough state, the planks are art in themselves, with the rouge hues bespeaking of the varied wine origins. The sparkle of “wine diamonds,” little tartrate acid crystals formed naturally in aging wine, glint from the reclaimed wood.

There’s a romance in all of this salvaged and irreplaceable wood; once used for more prosaic functions, it is now re-purposed as craftsman creations. That is, indeed, a beautiful story.  SD