Reclaimed Douglas Fir A Part of Chicago History

WoodStackWe recently reclaimed 67,000 board feet of Chicago’s manufacturing and industrial history from the A. Finkl & Sons steel mill. Douglas Fir timbers were extracted from the 1890s manufacturing plant that was centrally located in the Windy City along with several other steel forging factories. In 2007, an overseas firm purchased the company and the manufacturing plant moved to the southeast side of Chicago, leaving many of the historic buildings covering over 25 acres, vacant. As the demolition wrapped up in late 2014, crews ensured that nearly 90% of usable material was recycled.

finkl steel mill 2Over 450 of the reclaimed A. Finkl & Sons Douglas fir timbers were recently repurposed for a large timber frame project in Michigan. Available currently from this reclamation is a collection of 5 x 11 timbers. They are free of heart with original ‘sandblasted’ surfaces.

Along with our new-reclaimed Douglas fir, flowers on the property are also finding new homes. Beds of lilies and hydrangeas have been transported to other historic locations in the Chicago area to celebrate the once industrial valor of the area.

a finkl 3A. Finkl & Sons was founded by Anton Finkl, a German-born blacksmith that arrived in Chicago in 1872. In 1879, Finkl developed a new kind of chisel to clean bricks from buildings destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire, creating a new business opportunity. As the business expanded into steel products, the company moved around the Chicago West Loop area, absorbing several existing properties along the way. Buildings that were constructed for Standard Oil and Cummings Foundry Company became additional puzzle pieces in the web of plants utilized by A. Finkl & Sons.

Let us know if you’re interested in the 5 x 11, free of heart, ‘sandblasted’ timbers.


Reclaimed Gym Flooring and Bleachers Puts Eco-Minded School Design Firm Ahead of the Class

Original gym flooring with reclaimed bleacher boards add character to the Ashley McGraw office in Syracuse, NY.

Original gym flooring with reclaimed bleacher boards add character to the Ashley McGraw office in Syracuse, NY.

We teamed up with a local architectural and interior design firm in Syracuse, NY  to make their workspace a little more playful for employees. Ashley McGraw Architects collaborated with us to bring reclaimed gym flooring and bleacher boards into their snazzy, newly remodeled office space.

The material was sourced from Geneva Middle School, just 55 miles from Ashley McGraw and 28 miles from our headquarters in Farmington, NY. “Sourcing this so close to our headquarters, from a gym I played sports in, was remarkable,” shares Jered, one of our reclaimed wood experts. “When Ashley McGraw reached out looking for reclaimed wood for their office remodel, I knew immediately that we had the right product. It is a great fit and it feels good when a local company gives reclaimed wood a second life.”

The gym flooring was reclaimed by Pioneer Millworks from Geneva Middle School in Geneva, NY.

Tony de-nails the gym flooring on-site as we reclaimed it from Geneva Middle School in Geneva, NY. While the planks are checked again at our mill, this initial de-nailing made packaging and shipping much more efficient.

Our friends at Ashley McGraw specialize in school design and were excited to bring iconic school building materials into their space. (They cherish their memories of sometimes winning a game of dodgeball and finding an okay square dancing partner.) The office remodel utilized Geneva Middle School bleachers and gym flooring. Original surfaces were maintained allowing the mixture of court lines and varying school-spirited colors to be celebrated. “It looks like confetti!” said Susan Angarano, Interior Designer with the firm. Tonal differences in the wood from the various schools helped create a border from the circulation spaces into the office areas at the company. Bleacher boards (sans bubble gum) were incorporated as screen walls and ceiling accents.

We salvaged the hard maple flooring and Douglas fir bleachers from the 1920s gymnasium during the building’s deconstruction last spring. As always, special attention was given to maintaining the original appearance of the wood, including surface finishes, bolt-holes, colors, and milling.

Reclaimed from educational institutions across the country, gym flooring can be re-installed as is, with the color schemes creating a random and playful reminder of its source.

Reclaimed from educational institutions across the country, gym flooring can be re-installed as is, with the color schemes creating a random and playful reminder of its source.

“Gym flooring is one of our most colorful reclaimed products with a history most folks quickly relate to,” says Jered. The painted planks from the gymnasium were sorted from the others and used in the circulation spaces of the office, while the remainder of flooring from two other schools was used in the materials library. The old gym flooring has varying lengths, some up to five feet long while the bleachers boards are up to sixteen feet long.

Reclaimed oak boards were used for wall cladding in the break room.

Reclaimed oak boards were used for wall cladding in the break room.

We’ve certainly found likeness in our commitment to sustainability and conserving the world’s resources. “Every day, we challenge ourselves to embrace the possibility of a fully sustainable world,” states Ashley McGraw. “Our contribution is schools and campuses that respect, support, and nurture the learning experience and work in concert with the earth and its resources.”

David Ashley and Ed McGraw founded Ashley McGraw Architects in Syracuse in 1981. Their work includes classrooms, laboratories, recreational, and residential buildings, as well as sustainability strategies and master plans for public and private primary, intermediate, secondary, and high education facilities.

Reclaimed oak boards were used for wall cladding in the entry way.

Reclaimed oak boards were used for wall cladding in the entry way.


Kiln Drying: Get the moisture out!

We recently read an article in Hardwood Floors that gave some really good details on the kiln drying process and its importance to any wood flooring, reclaimed or fresh sawn. We were inspired to dig back in our archives to find a post about our drying process and the steps we take to control moisture. We’ve re-posted it below for your reading pleasure.

If you have a few extra minutes and enjoy knowing the details of manufacturing processes, you might also like to read the Hardwood Floor article.

Why Dry?

by Reclaimed Wood Expert Roblyn Powley

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking about our kiln in the context of conservation (we use our scraps to fire our kiln, lessening our waste- how cool!) but you might wonder why our kiln is such a big deal at all.

“Pioneer Millworks, why do you dry your wood?”, we’re asked, “If it’s reclaimed, doesn’t that mean it’s already pretty dry?”   “Why do I care if it’s dried when I can buy reclaimed barn siding somewhere else for one dollar per square foot?!”

All good questions!

We dry all of the wood that we process into our beautiful reclaimed flooring, siding and wall paneling for a couple of very important reasons.  While it is true that reclaimed wood does tend to be drier than fresh sawn products, the raw materials we use are exposed to environmental moisture both at the original site and here at our facility.  This means the wood is not quite as dry as it could be, and probably not as dry as your home, or office or restaurant.  Our reclaimed planks are dried to a 6%-9% moisture content and ultimately this means that the material is more dimensionally stable when you receive it at your job site.  Wet wood shrinks when it loses moisture, and the more moisture it has to lose, the more dramatic the change.  This shrinkage can result in cracking and buckling after installation.  While all wood expands and contracts as it absorbs and loses a small percentage of moisture over the course of the seasons, it is the significant change that can cause the greatest problems or possible installation failure.

Drying the material also helps us maintain our quality milling.  With a consistent moisture content, we can generally be assured that we won’t have a batch of flooring that moves or shrinks to a greater degree than another while it is waiting to be milled or after the milling process.

The other big reason that we take kiln drying so seriously is the possibility of insect infestation.  No one wants to think about bugs in their barn siding, but old wood will very likely have, at some point, insects living in or on it.  It’s not a very exciting thing to talk about, but it’s a very real concern in the reclaimed wood industry.

The high heat of the kiln drives out and kills any insects that may be inhabiting our reclaimed materials.  Kiln drying, like all of the other parts of our production process contributes to material cost, but also ensures that reclaimed floor or paneling you install is product that you will be satisfied with.  And we really, really don’t want you to accidentally bring insects into your home (or office, or restaurant – yuck!).

Kiln drying is critical to the quality and value of our products and just one of the many ways we differ from others in the reclaimed wood market.  What other questions do you have about our processes and methods?  Is there anything else you’re curious about?  We love to talk about our products and what sets us apart from the rest…


Building Products Dealer Profile

Building Products recently caught Jonathan for an interview where he shared Pioneer Millworks’ and New Energy Works Timberframers‘ history, what we do, how we do it, and why we do it. You can read the article below, or live on their website.


Dealer Profile: Pioneer Millworks

Restaurants are frequent customers, such as for this reclaimed American Gothic Oak in an Upstate New York eatery.

Restaurants are frequent customers, such as for this reclaimed American Gothic Oak in an Upstate New York eatery.


Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. Well, in this case, the light bulb flashed in the brain not of a mom, but a dad.
Jonathan Orpin, founder and president of Pioneer Millworks, Farmington, N.Y., owned (and still owns) New Energy Works Timber Framers, based in Farmington, and, of course procuring wood for its operation was front of mind. “It was important to look for a stable timber source for the framing business,” Orpin explains, gazing back, “and this part of New York State had always used a certain amount of agricultural timbers.”
So, he reasoned—the light bulb moment—why not reclaim that vintage wood for modern use?
Thus, in 1988, Pioneer Millworks was launched “in a small, ramshackle building in a town not that much bigger,” looking to specialize in salvaged flooring.
“I liked the idea of using timber 50 to 100 years old—material that had undergone a slow drying process, which provided stable lumber. And that wood ended up with a story to tell,” he shares. “There were barns going down—I hate that, but at least we could give that wood new life. Here, in the classic rust belt of America, lots of buildings were built with big timbers. Plus, there’s the environmental aspect of it: Through Pioneer Millworks, the world has gained 23 million bd. ft. of lumber that would have ended up as landfill. We’ve become a major player in changing that direction, converting it for use in homes, restaurants, offices: gorgeous applications.” (A look at the photo gallery on the company’s website backs up his claim.)
That 23 million ft. breaks down into 1,042,000 bd. ft. saved a year, which, Orpin is quick to do the math, would fill a lineup of semis, bumper to bumper, for over 32 miles.
Sounds like a no-brainer start-up. Easy, right? Trust me (and him): It wasn’t. Another facet of the website plays homage to scores of big, complicated and expensive-looking machines resting on Pioneer’s nine-acre site. “We started on the cheap, bootstrapping as we went, buying used equipment. We got word of timber needed for a New Energy project, but we were required to buy the whole building, so we developed ways to use everything, even the sawdust”—it segues into animal bedding—“and chunks, which heated our kiln.”
Pioneer Millworks took hold and grew. Today, the two operations exist side by side, sharing administration and communications, but not manufacturing. “The child became more powerful than the parent. We’re our own best customer,” Orpin states. “We got the word out, one project at a time, as the cliché goes: timber framing that uses our own reclaimed wood in projects—a strong, built-in client.”
Pioneer sells to builders, remodelers and flooring contractors, primarily through its website (there’s no showroom), shipping nationwide. Architects and interior designers prove pivotal in influencing the homeowner’s or building owner’s decisions: “Highly refined design & build clients ask for it,” Orpin explains,” because it’s an attractive alternative to boring bamboo or the oak flooring of a chain restaurant. People love it because there’s a natural honesty to it; plus the amazing textures, with natural variations. And the environmental aspect—we’re not ruining any rainforests. And, of course, there’s the story”—the romance is provided—“behind its former use. These clients are thrilled, so it becomes fun.”
Products offered include timber, barn siding, paneling, countertops, and more. And that timber—awesome in its diversity and lineage—is cherry-picked: over 50 species, grades and specialty items, including teak from a dilapidated Indonesian structure; antique heart pine from a 1905 mill complex; oak from a coal plant of the 1800s; reclaimed hickory, with its contrasting knots and sapwood “that wears well—suitable for dogs and kids;” salvaged bowling lanes; FSC-certified recycled wood panels geared for quick and easy installation, even pairings of engineered wood and antique flooring. And cold storage oak—the Holy Grail of reclaimed wood—white oak flooring from a long-ago cold storage facility.
Projects range from a Manhattan restaurant utilizing a reclaimed gym floor from a Minnesota high school to the Wolverine company store in New York, using old planks salvaged for re-use as wall cladding: “lots of residences, restaurants. And offices: all the progressive, high-tech San Francisco firms. If you can name them, we’ve probably done the wood.” What sells best? “Weathered, rugged wood, and wood with a story.”
And how about supply vs. demand? “It’s always variable, always a challenge, but our supply channels are well-oiled.” (He’s got a network of scouts out sleuthing potential barns or what-have-you, but if he told me more, he’d have to kill me.) Pioneer employs a staff of 40—“good workers, thoughtful, smart—and they care about the environment.” Pioneer’s website personalizes the crew, complete with candid photos and homey bios, thanks to a strong marketing program. “It’s done in-house because we have a complex and personal story to tell,” the boss explains.
Margins must be golden for the highly-coveted antique wood, right? Wrong. “It’s a complex and difficult business,” Orpin claims. “It’s heavily labor-intensive—extracting nails located with a metal detector, for instance. There’s lots of waste, plus complex customer interactions, so we struggle with margins. They’re very, very tight.”
Adding to that challenge is the reality of competition out there—“half a dozen strong national companies and a hundred smaller regional players,” he tallies. So then, why does Pioneer continue to flourish? “Service! We’re very service-oriented,” Orpin is quick to respond. “We come from a custom-design background, so we’re adept at creative solutions. And we serve the hell out of folks: quick turnaround, quick delivery, good communication.
“Over the past 10 years customers have begun demanding delivery yesterday. So we keep a multi-million-dollar inventory on hand. An order can be for the 70,000 sq. ft. that a university recently needed, or just 70 ft. of trim. (We have a $100 minimum.)”
Pioneer, like the rest of us, was buffeted by the recent recession—“Sure, it hurt. But we made a point of no layoffs, no cuts in salaries or benefits. But we tightened margins; we did what we had to do to survive.” And business is not only back—it’s booming. “Last year was our best year ever—up 14%—and this year, even more! Another 14%!”
So, to keep things interesting, Orpin recently chose to open a second location on the opposite coast—a three-acre establishment in Portland, Or.—“for personal growth,” he explains. “In New York, I’m not needed as much on a day-to-day basis. So, I was looking for new mountains to climb. Plus, we have many Pacific Coast clients and do some salvaging out there.” Another light bulb moment.