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.

PIONEER MILLWORKS

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.
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Foundry Maple Reclaimed From American Crayon Company

The American Crayon Company’s factory in Sandusky, Ohio was slated for deconstruction, so we headed out to rescue the antique wooden bones of the building before it went to waste. We rescued 2 truckloads – that’s 24,000 board feet – of Foundry Maple. The old wood has endured thousands of footfalls, heavy machinery, and a smattering of colorful wax crayon materials.

Here’s a peek inside the former factory:

The American Crayon Factory in Sandusky, Ohio being deconstructed

The American Crayon Factory in Sandusky, Ohio being deconstructed

The factory’s history
When the first superintendent of Sandusky’s public schools wasn’t satisfied with the chunky chalks used on the boards in classrooms, he turned to his brother-in-law to create a new and improved chalk. William D. Curtis’ accepted the challenge and began experimenting in his kitchen in 1850 with what became, years later, the American Crayon Company. ACC became the largest employer in the area and produced many popular art products including crayons, chalk, watercolors, pencils, paste and cleaners.

Over the years, American Crayon acquired many other companies, most notably Prang Educational Company with their trademark Old Faithful geyser logo in 1913, and Dixon Ticonderoga who expanded their industrial supplies line in 1984. The former merger slowly outsourced the labor and plant operations to Canada and Mexico, sadly forcing the Sandusky plant to close in 2002.

crayon factory 2

 

 

The flooring’s next life

Bundle of Maple Foundry reclaimed from the American Crayon Factory

Bundle of Maple Foundry reclaimed from the American Crayon Factory

After leaving their old factory life behind in Ohio, the raw industrial salvaged Foundry Maple arrived at our eco-friendly shop in Upstate New York where we’re de-nailing and re-milling the planks into paneling, flooring, fixtures, and more to be used in commercial and residential spaces. Limited quantities are available and each ‘batch’ of this grade comes with one-of-a-kind often hard-earned texture, wear marks, and color.

Reclaimed Maple Goundry from the American Crayon Factory

Reclaimed Maple Foundry from the American Crayon Factory

Full of texture, and on occasion original paint, Foundry Maple can be put back into service with little or no finishing. Ranging from browns and golds to greys and occasional lavender tones, Foundry Maple offers unmatched color, original distressing, and character. While this reclaimed Foundry Maple may not be as boldly colorful as the products that passed through the factory, the boards continue to maintain a vibrant history and unmatched durability.

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A tour of reclaimed Chestnut Hill

Jered took a recent trip to Boston and stopped at Chestnut Hill mall to check out our reclaimed wood in its new home. Here’s what he found:

When you walk up to Anthropologie, you’re greeted by doors made of a mixture of Douglas fir and Cypress milled from wood reclaimed from wine vats. That same wood accents select areas of the store as flooring. Our sister company, NEWwoodworks, created a shelving unit made of reclaimed American Gothic Oak.

Anthropologie entrance with wine vat stock siding.

Anthropologie entrance with wine vat stock siding.

 

NWW AG Oak shelves

Anthropologie American Gothic Oak shelving.

Fir Cypress flooring

Anthropologie wine vat stock flooring.

Anthropologie wine vat stock flooring.

Anthropologie wine vat stock flooring.

Madewell features Character Select Heart Pine flooring that has no finishing on it, though some is painted white as part of their more recent designs.

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Character Select Heart Pine at Madewell.

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Character Select Heart Pine at Madewell.

Next up is Eileen Fisher, where the ladies working there told Jered they get lots of love for the floor. The flooring is Engineered American Gothic Elm which has been stained and refinished on site.

AG Elm

American Gothic Elm flooring.

The new Basset Store features FSC Certified Red Oak siding that has been heavily brushed and primed in our shop then finished in the field.

FSC Red Oak

FSC Certified Red Oak siding at Basset.

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FSC Certified Red Oak siding at Basset.

We’re excited to see our ‘old’ wood getting new life in Boston. Jered had a good time visiting (he said something about the best cannolis in the country?!) and is already gearing up to go back in late Fall. We’ll be sure to share more!

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Reclaimed Heart Pine with a powerful history

When we heard of plans to demolish many of the General Electric Factory buildings from the 1900s, we were led to Bloomfield, NJ to prevent the factory’s bones from ending up in the landfill. To date, we have rescued over 23 million board feet of antique wood from ending up landfills or other wasteful disposal methods.

A little plant history:
Opening the doors to its 17 buildings in the 1900s, GE expanded to meet the demand for battery manufacturing. With over two thousand workers, and one of the largest local manufacturing facilities, they were busy producing the batteries behind communications systems as well as kinetoscope, wax for phonograph cylinders, x-ray equipment, medical instruments, electric fans, and later, much of the equipment for WWII. After a decline in the demand for manufacturing, the company vacated Bloomfield in 1959.

Timbers within:
While the main building currently remains and is being converted into residential spaces, we reclaimed 81,500 BF of Long Leaf Heart Pine timbers as well as a small amount (15,900 BF) of Oak from several of the surrounding buildings. Heart Pine is said to be the species our country was built on with many of the factories and mills of the past having been largely constructed using these pine timbers. Reclaimed Heart Pine is a highly desired species due to its dense grain patterns, deep patina, character, and of course, history.

 

What’s next for this wood:
While the GE factories have run out of juice, their wooden timbers, posts, and planks will be recharged around the world. Our goal is to continue to rescue ‘old’ wood from factories, warehouses, and other industrial buildings giving it new life as flooring and other products for retail, commercial, and residential clients. Beginning with raw industrial salvaged timbers, we mill board stock repurposing the antique wood into paneling, flooring, fixtures, and more to be used in commercial and residential spaces.

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