Notorious for his sense of humor and discerning eye, Steve is great when you need to smile or need detailed expertise on wood finishes. He filled us in during a recent Q and A: forest fires, contracting, bluegrass music, and an unusual fear of antiques…read on for details.
What do you like about living and working in Upstate NY?
The weather! No, not really. I dislike the weather here 10 months out of the year. I’m into 70 degrees with sun and we get that for just a few weeks per year…which does make those weeks extra special. Truthfully, the best part about our neck of the woods is that my family lives in the area. After traveling the country looking for a place to call home, my wife and I settled back here, where we grew up.
You’ve been part of our team for four years. What role did you start in and where are you now?
I started stacking boards and bundling at the end of the moulder line. I could read calipers so Dave C taught me how to setup and run the moulder. Some time later there was a need for a finishing crew leader. While I wasn’t a finishing expert, I like to lead and learn, so I spent months researching finishes, reading everything I could get my hands on – including scouring forums of flooring contractors who freely gave their opinions of different finishes.
It seems like just yesterday I ordered samples of several different waterborne polyurethanes and tested them all. I specifically tested for ease of application, scratch resistance, and availability – I obviously had to be able to get the product when needed! I shared with our larger team and we decided on Vermont Natural Coatings because of their commitment to the planet; their finish is really good; and it’s made in the USA. Win Win Win!! (Specifically, Vermont Natural Coatings PolyWhey Floor Finish was engineered to take advantage of whey protein – a byproduct of the cheese industry. We can almost say that we are using a reclaimed product on a reclaimed product.)
What is your team’s role?
I lead the finishing and samples departments – we produce about 1,300 samples annually, many of them fully customized for individual projects. Last year we pre-finished 30% of all projects – that’s several hundred thousand board feet. We also have a laser etcher which is a fun tool for special customization like adding logos or phrases to various planks.
What’s your background with wood?
I graduated from the University of Vermont where I studied Forestry. I focused on forest ecosystem restoration – I wanted to repair damaged ecosystems, and restore Old-growth northern hardwood forests to the Northeast.
After college, I did what every forestry graduate does: I headed west to fight fire. I worked three fire seasons with the National Park Service, primarily working prescribed fires in California, Oregon, Nevada, and in the Everglades. I worked my way up to a Fire Effects Monitor and Fire Line Sawyer before calling it quits. I watched fire burn around the bases of the Sequoias, was dropped off in the Yosemite backcountry via helicopter, and took a boat through the everglades to torch 10,000 acres of sawgrass. Ah, to be that young again!
Immediately prior to Pioneer Millworks, I owned/ran a business installing tile and hardwood floors and doing light construction work. Overall, the workload was very up and down. Timing was right; Pioneer made the choice to leave my business very easy.
What about reclaimed wood appeals to you?
The idea that we reuse/repurpose wood that would have ended up in a landfill is very exciting to me. I am an active advocate for environmental causes and being able to work for a company that purposely limits it’s impact on the planet makes it very easy for me to come to work.
Which product is your favorite?
My favorite product is Settlers’ Plank Mixed Oak. When sanded just right and oiled, to me it becomes the quintessential reclaimed floor. The richness, the mix of grain, the depth of patina, make it such a timeless floor.
On a side note, I would only use one product to finish this floor: Rubio Monocoat. By utilizing Monocoat you can be assured that you will never have to sand the floor to remove finish (like you would a poly or aluminum oxide) to fix a scratch, etc. Sanding would potentially destroy the original saw marks and coloration that make Settlers’ Plank what it is, so the finish is a key element.
What fun finishing story can you share with us?
Back when we used 2-component polyurethanes we would end up with some waste at the end of a job. Instead of disposing of the finish in liquid form, we would pour it into nitrile glove and let it set up overnight. You see, with a 2-component polyurethane, it has a pot-life of a few hours and then it begins to gel up and it eventually turns to a firm rubber-like consistency. We would dry out the poly hands, and occasionally ship them in care packages to our salespeople across the nation. We wanted to offer them a helping hand. All in good humor!
What are your hobbies outside of work?
In the rare instance that I have a few minutes to myself, I love to play Clawhammer Banjo. I started out loving bluegrass music until I re-discovered Old-time Appalachian music. Old time music skips the lyric driven tunes of bluegrass and throws out the mandolin and finger picks on the banjo. It’s a simple kind of music with big sound and a driving rhythm that will make you dance all night. My wife and I have vowed to instill a musical sense into our daughter from the day she was born. She attended her first music festival at 10 months old – The Great Blue Heron Festival near Jamestown. As a rule, we’ve determined that any festival that hosts Donna the Buffalo, is likely going to be child-friendly and fun. Otherwise, with a 5-year old in my life, my evenings are spent painting, coloring, and reading.
Care to share something quirky about yourself?
I have a phobia of antiques – in particular, newspapers, furniture, dinnerware, and especially eating utensils. You won’t find me at an antique store looking for treasures. How do I work with antique wood with this phobia? I don’t know but I do love reclaimed wood even if it is old.
(A few more images from Steve’s fire chasing days are below):