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Mountain Lumber featured in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Wednesday, September 15, 2010
By Mackenzie Carpenter, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


Willie Drake is just back from a trip to Poland, where he spent a great deal of time looking at dead oak trees with worm holes in them.

It’s all part of a day’s work for Mr. Drake, who also likes to check out old Russian railroad cars, huge stout vats from the Guinness brewery in Ireland and abandoned piles of wood from ancient Chinese elms in his quest for one-of-a kind reclaimed wood that will eventually end up as someone’s floor, staircase or rooftop.

“The world is our forest,” says Mr. Drake, who in 1974 founded Mountain Lumber and was probably one of the first to see the possibilities in reclaimed lumber from barns, textile mills, breweries and other antique structures for home renovation and construction.

His own extraordinary home, on a property atop 4,000-foot-high Cheat Mountain, has reclaimed wood in every part of the house.

Outside, there’s cypress board-and-batten siding that blends into the rustic wooded landscape. In the kitchen, local “wormy” chestnut (no real critters, just a wonderfully textured wood) is used for cabinets and countertops.

On the floors, there’s distressed heart pine the color of molasses from an old textile mill in Framingham, Mass. On the walls and ceilings, white-stained oak boards from old barns in the Buckhannon, W.Va., area lighten and brighten the surroundings.

The overall effect is warm and enveloping, a home where the materials have a history but are not museum pieces. Rather, this is a place meant to be lived in. The wooden deck overlooks a pond in the back where Mr. Drake’s two children spend summer days fishing and swimming, and a capacious front porch, where on July nights, the family can sleep outside.

Mr. Drake also installed heart pine in the flooring, stairs and siding of three houses at the new Wild Rock mountain community near Fayetteville, W.Va., which is being marketed as the first sustainable upscale vacation development in the state.

It’s a good fit, Mr. Drake believes, because his company is all about sustainability, based on this simple calculus: “Using reclaimed wood will mean fewer trees will be cut down.”

A number of Pittsburgh clients have used Mountain Lumber’s wood in their homes, too—including Dan and Carole Kamin, who have his Russian railroad car planks in their Shadyside home.

Mr. Drake first realized the potential for reclaimed wood back in the 1970s when, working as a carpenter, he was asked to track down some chestnut wood for a contractor.

“People were giving it away when we first started,” he said, noting that much of his heart pine originally came from a demolished textile mill in Georgia.

Initially, all of his wood was from structures slated for demolition. Today, Mountain Lumber, based in Charlottesville, Va., has partnered with the Forest Stewardship Council to ensure that the reclaimed wood is from a responsibly managed forest without pollutants.

While abandoned mills have provided much salvageable wood for him over the years, Mr. Drake won’t take anything from a tannery or any other mill that would have used toxic chemicals.

Before Mountain Lumber purchases a batch of reclaimed wood, staffers research its history carefully, beginning with the original architect and the different uses of the sites over the years. That not only yields interesting facts about the property but red flags possible contamination that would preclude a purchase.

Ancient Chinese Elm wood, for example, is reclaimed from 200- to 400-year-old buildings as well as ancient temples in China. As that country embarked on modernization in recent decades, many of historic structures—some dating to the Ming dynasty—were torn down and left for salvage.

Guinness Oak came from the 100-year-old ale vats at the Guinness brewery in Ireland, which had been dismantled by the company and replaced with stainless-steel vats. Their original patina is preserved, as are the wooden wedges that were hammered into the wood by “coopers,” whose job it was to repair wooden casks or tubs.

Mountain Lumber also offers engineered wood, in which a one-fourth-inch veneer of reclaimed wood is glued to plywood. It wears as well as solid wood and allows for more use of historic woods over a larger area, he says.

On his most recent trip, the discovery of European oak from trees passed up by loggers (because the tree had already died even though the wood itself was solid) was a potentially big find, Mr. Drake said, noting that worm holes in the oak only add character to it—a big plus in wood floors.

“People just like the character of reclaimed wood, and I like this job,” he says. “I’m always looking all over the world for interesting wood.”

Indeed, if every one of Mountain Lumber’s floors tells a story—as the company’s slogan says—Mr. Drake is the globe-trotting detective who unearthed it. He first got a tip about the Guinness vats in Ireland while purchasing reclaimed wood from huge cider barrels in England, which were 27 feet tall and 27 feet in diameter, he noted.

“If you cut the wood from the cider vats, you can smell apple juice even 100 years later,” he said, “just as you can smell the hops from the Guinness vats. Once you put a finish on the wood, though, you can’t smell anything.”

Darn it.

For more information about Mountain Lumber, call 1-800-445-2671 or go online at mountainlumber.com.

First published on September 15, 2010 at 12:00 am