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Reclaiming history, one plank at a time

Times Staff Writer

MICHAEL KUHN can be as beat as a bluetick coonhound after a hunt, but he won’t stop. The self-described good ol’ boy from Kentucky will wade through boggy hollows in the quest for the perfect abandoned old building, buddy up to demolition teams to recover the weathered wood that others plan to junk, and sweet-talk ma-and-pa sawmill owners to cut the lumber just the right way -- all while scrambling to stay one step ahead of rivals racing for that rare aged chestnut, that richly grained oak, that sun-mellowed longleaf pine.

“They’ll blindside you if you don’t watch out,” says Kuhn, cofounder of Pegasus Custom Hardwood in Costa Mesa and an upbeat Willy Loman in the increasingly competitive business of reclaimed wood.

Old wood -- particularly aged timbers used in the framing, flooring and paneling of structures as varied as antebellum estates to Lockheed Martin’s Skunkworks factory in Burbank -- is hot property. Though no organization specifically tracks sales of the material, suppliers report that sales are growing as much as 50% annually.

“When we first started doing this a decade ago, it was always a question of, ‘Is our next job our last?’ It wasn’t a proven market,” says Dennis Roberts, co-owner of Vintage Timberworks in Temecula. His company now sells more than 1 million board feet of old wood a year.

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With the scars and patina that come only with time, the timber has an unmatched rustic beauty and built-in history -- “wood that comes with a great story,” as veteran salesman Larry Percivalle of EarthSource Forest Products in Oakland likes to say. Planks cut decades ago, sometimes by hand, and even landmark trees such as the tornado-damaged hickory, cherry and aromatic cedar salvaged from President Andrew Jackson’s former estate in Nashville provide homeowners with tree species that are much more difficult to find new.

Reclaimed wood also is touted as eco-friendly because it lessens the amount of waste burned or sent to landfills, and it saves living trees from the saw blade.

Old wood is installed in only 1% to 3% of new and remodeled houses because it can cost three times as much as new wood, says Anita Howard of the Missouri-based National Wood Flooring Assn. Reclaimed materials are a small but lucrative business, she says, one that has grown rapidly in the last two years along with the style-conscious search for new ways to make homes more distinctive.

To meet demand, wood manufacturers are even finishing more boards to have an antique appearance. Customers who won’t spring for the real deal buy young wood that is distressed by hand with scrapers, chisels, saws, files or torches.

“But with manufactured wood, you’ll see a pattern after a while,” Howard says. “With the old pieces, no two are alike. I saw a floor that was made entirely out of old wine barrels with the label name wood-burned into it. It’s really something you can’t find anyplace else.”

TODAY, Kuhn, 57, is scheduled to start a six-week road trip up the West Coast, across the Midwest and down into the South to scout for office buildings, cotton mills, tobacco farms (“ ‘bacco sheds,” as he calls them) and even abandoned sawmills that might hold old oak or walnut.

Guiding his finger across a map of the United States without even looking, he ticks off destinations like a fifth-grader cramming for a geography test. This is his fourth summer driving as many as 1,100 miles a day in his Toyota Highlander, greeting secret sources, potential buyers and other links in this supply chain with a hello and handshake.

He says he will meet with 300 architects, showing them 600 pounds of wood samples packed in his SUV. In the big cities, he’ll recruit assistants to watch his car so it’s not towed away before he can finish unloading. He’ll hope for an hour of meeting time but will settle for whatever he can get. He knows from experience that if he talks with people face to face, he’ll have a better shot.

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“I cold-called this one company in Virginia that does real fine work with reclaimed wood, but the owner was away and didn’t call me back until I was near the Arkansas border,” Kuhn says. “I drove back to meet him and he ended up doing the milling that’s now on the floor of a house in Newport Beach. I even dodged a hurricane to see him. But it’s all about relationships.”

And competition.

“It’s secretive, like a poker game where no one wants to let the cat out of the bag until they have it all sewn up,” says Jeff Husted, co-owner of Vintage Timberworks. He and Roberts retired from construction in 1995 and put their energy into finding and selling old wood. Since then, their company has installed used wood in more than 500 houses, primarily in Southern California, in styles ranging from traditional to contemporary.

As demand increases, competition among salvagers gets ever more fierce.

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“If you find a building, no one wants to share anymore,” Husted says. “I have a couple of projects in Portland that I’m finalizing the deal on this week. I have been working on them for two years.

“You have to get in at the ground floor to get access to wood. If you don’t have access, you’re out of business. It’s a great tug of war for a limited supply.”

Kuhn is more blunt. He says people in his business can be deceptive and devious -- bamboozlers, he says. Ask where he found the antique pine planks displayed in his showroom, and he’s reluctant to reveal a single detail.

“I’ve worked really hard to find this and prepare it for sale, and I don’t want anyone to swoop in now and undercut me. I’ve seen it happen.”

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When pressed, he lets out an exasperated sigh and stomps his foot before declaring, “Let’s just say ‘the Midwest.’ ”

Pressed further, he hesitates, then adds, “Indiana. But that’s it.”

PEDDLERS of reclaimed wood recognize that as big as this country is, only so many centuries-old buildings can be pulled down and raided for materials. Bill Gates’ 48,000-square-foot house outside of Seattle sucked up so much reclaimed Douglas fir and cedar in 1991 that suppliers nationwide say they felt squeezed until leftovers from the project -- about 750,000 board feet, according to architect Jim Cutler -- were put back up for sale.

Sometimes homeowners wait for a specific species of wood to be found, then endure the long process of getting it to their door. (Chestnut is among the most rare because the groves have been overharvested.) The landowner must sell the rights, the demolition team must gut the structure from the inside out, and the wood must be stripped of all nails and other metal, then dried, recut and certified to meet building standards.

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For many people, the lore behind the lumber, whether authenticated or invented, is worth the wait. Kuhn has longleaf pine that he says was pulled from a 19th century building that Confederate soldiers defended against Union forces. His selling tool: a historical photo showing the building before it was taken down. Kuhn has categorized and named this wood based on its qualities: “Saloon” is rough and pitted, whereas “the Boss’s Office” is smooth, with coveted tight vertical grain.

Beautiful, sure. But is reclaimed wood really environmentally friendly -- especially if it has to be transported hundreds or thousands of miles?

“If you were to try to get wood of that quality from new trees, you would be cutting old growth somewhere and perhaps affecting sensitive ecosystems,” says Nadav Malin, executive editor of the new GreenSource, the Magazine of Sustainable Design. Malin, who has reported on green building since 1992, says wood that is reclaimed or salvaged locally is best, but even if it has been transported a long distance, “there is a little bit of a downside, but not enough to offset the positive.”

ONCE reclaimed wood is installed, the results can be unparalleled, giving a contemporary cottage the ambience of the old West, or making a newly built Spanish-style hacienda look like an authentic relic of the Iberian peninsula. L.A. architect Richard Landry, whose clients have included Rod Stewart and Eddie Murphy, frequently uses beat-up barn wood in Old World-style mansions because of its rugged beauty: trimmed by hand with an adz, snow-bleached to a silvery hue and graced with the story-telling trail of dings and chips.

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“You can maintain a simplicity in the design because of the richness of the material,” says Landry, who estimates that about half of his residential projects include reclaimed wood, brick, slate or tile. “Some clients don’t react well to the idea that there are marks left by bugs crawling on it. They want new wood that has been distressed to look old. But others love the beauty and character of the materials, and there is sometimes a sentimental value.”

When Landry built his contemporary house in Malibu a decade ago, he used wood from an abandoned barn near his childhood home in Quebec, Canada. “When I bought the first barn, no one knew what I would do with it,” he says. “Then I bought a few more for another project. Those projects were written about in magazines and people saw the photographs, and some started calling me, saying, ‘I have barns for you, but the price is going up really fast.’ ”

Landry client Leana Greene cherishes the antique much more than the shiny and the new. When she and her husband, attorney Browne Greene, bought the Tudor-style house built in the 1920s for legendary MGM chief Irving Thalberg and actress Norma Shearer, they considered tearing it down.

“It was dark, depressing, with small windows and nothing special about it,” Leana Greene says of the house, which was designed by celebrated architect John Byers, erected by off-duty set builders and renovated, sometimes clumsily, over eight decades. Despite its problems, a sense of history tugged on the couple, so they hired Landry to restore the exterior and remodel the interior. The house is now a blend, Landry says, “an English manor with a Swedish accent,” a nod to Leana Greene’s Stockholm roots.

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The reclaimed wood adds an elegance, he says. “Some rooms have detailed molding that when combined with the simplicity of barn wood and the character of old planks become a tasteful study in contrasts.”

Honey-cream-colored pine is used on the floors, and 80-year-old whitewashed redwood siding is installed on some walls. Hand-chiseled beams stretch above the kitchen. Even sink cabinets, Pullmans and other elements of the bathrooms are made from wood that might otherwise have become kindling. All of the interior doors once hung in other dwellings. One is Greene’s favorite because she was told it came from Stockholm and is hundreds of years old.

“People looked at us as if we were crazy to want this, and it was expensive to use old things,” she says. “But it’s expensive to buy something that has been made to look old too, and sometimes that doesn’t work and people can spot a fake. Real old wood has a completely different feel. People who visit us think that these pieces have been here since the house was built.”

Custom home builder Gordon Gibson, who would be justified in resisting the use of doors in 30 different sizes, has nothing but praise for the Greenes’ choices.

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“You’re not going to get hand-carved doors like these today,” he says. “And you can’t buy timbers today that are as large as these beams except for the rare special order. This is solid.”

Hunting for those kinds of old and exotic materials is Kuhn’s passion. Before he packs his car, he holds a ramrod-straight plank of 300-year-old longleaf pine in his hands as if it were a muzzle-loading rifle.

“See the growth rings on this?” he asks, aiming the freshly cut end at a showroom visitor. “Eight growth rings per inch is valuable. This has 20. You’re not going to find that in any old lumberyard.”

Janet Eastman can be reached at janet.eastman@latimes.com.

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