March 28, 2020

Antique wood looks good the second time around

PORTLAND — Michael Perkins’ hand slides skillfully across the rough, weathered plank as he scrapes away at the top layer with a pocket knife.

“Most people don’t expect to see this,” he says as the plank’s gray exterior gives way to the dark brown hue of 150-year-old northeastern pine. “But this is the real beauty of antique wood that you just can’t find in new wood.”

Perkins is one of a handful of flooring and furniture dealers feeding a growing demand for vintage wood. Still largely a mom-and-pop business, the size of the market is anyone’s guess.

The wood is frequently harvested from 19th century barns and buildings, and fans like its distinctive weathered appearance.

“I wanted my entire house to reflect that warm, comfortable, aged-wood look,” says Tom Humbert, who used antique pine, chestnut and hickory flooring for his new home in Hanover, Pa. “I wanted an old, rustic feel.”

So, apparently, do a lot of others.

Perkins says he and other craftsmen are selling as much furniture and flooring from antique wood as they can make. In fact, Perkins’ company recently did the millwork and furniture for Timberland Co. at the shoemaker’s store on tony Madison Avenue in New York.

There is no singular definition for antique wood, but most dealers say it is more than 100 years old and weathered enough by the elements to create unique textures.

“But we don’t thumb our nose at anything just because of age,” says Dave Stein of McCall, Idaho, whose business supplying antique wood and flooring has tripled in the past five years. “It’s the weather that makes the difference.”

Years of exposure to sun, snow and rain leaves wood with a dark, aged look. It has frequently been textured by nail holes and sawing marks, leaving it “naily” or “wormy.” Especially prized are old barn floorboards, where the generations of farmers and livestock who walked across them left patterns of wear and tear.

Oak and pine are among the types of wood most frequently recycled. Others include chestnut, Douglas fir, hemlock and cypress.

“Clients like it because it looks like it’s been there a while,” Sabrina Bassman of Waldo’s Designs in Los Angeles, said of antique wood. “There seems to be a real desire to have roots.”

The products are not cheap. Antique wood flooring sells for $3 to $12 per square foot, compared with $3 to $6 for new flooring.

Vintage wood involves more than just tearing down old barns and hammering a piece of furniture together. It takes skill to turn wood that frequently appears rotten or scrappy into a salable commodity.

“It’s an art,” says Tom Campbell of Pomfret Center, Conn., who estimates he spends more than 25 percent of his time getting wood into usable condition. “It’s about having a vision and being able to look at a piece of wood and saying that’s going to look great when I’m done.”

Another challenge is finding a constant wood supply. Without it, Perkins says, it’s hard to make long-term business commitments. He recently purchased the rights to more than 1.5 million board feet of wood from an old mill.

Perkins has come out with a new line of mass-produced furniture made from antique wood. He hopes the ready availability of $850 coffee tables and other furniture will eventually make vintage wood a fixture in more homes. He already sells precut flooring that allows contractors to use the wood with minimal fuss.

A broader audience is the key to the industry’s future, says Michael Aronstein of Mount Kisco, N.Y., an investor in PerkinsWood. He says new woodworking techniques, combined with the increasing popularity of a New England or rustic look, have made the wood a much easier sale.

“As more people understand what antique wood is, it will become more popular,” said Aronstein, whose own home features antique pine floors. “I think it will become a standard building product, as opposed to a specialty item.”

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