Progress: Time-honored timber: Antique lumber finds new life at Big Wood
Scars left by axes swung before the Civil War show the work of skilled builders who shaped timbers for use in homes, barns and warehouses long before cutting machinery came along.
Each board or beam bears the signature of the hands that created it as long as two centuries ago, and Dave LePage recognizes the work those men did and it forms the basis of his modern-day design and construction firm Big Wood Timber Frames.
"I probably wouldn't be doing this kind of thing if it wasn't for these materials," LePage said on a June day inside his company's Brainerd workshop. "They have their own presence and character and history. ... That board's already had an experience in its life, and you sort of owe it to try to do your best on reusing it and putting it in its proper place for its second life."
LePage and business partner Mike Nicklaus started the company in 1991, designing and building timber-frame homes, trusses, entry systems, brackets and porches from reclaimed, antique timber. The pair first opening up shop in the George E. Hess 1883 building in Lowertown St. Paul. Six years later, Big Wood's workshop space was added on Business Highway 371 in Brainerd, repurposing the Blue Ox Co-Op feed mill and fertilizer factory.
Today, the Big Wood campus covers 5 acres and includes multiple buildings erected from reclaimed materials, including the former Minneapolis Racquet Club and beams from an old waterpark. Nearly everything inside—from furniture created from extra-large boards to old blast doors salvaged from the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant in Arden Hills—had its own previous life.
LePage knew the Brainerd lakes area, having built homes for family members nearby in the 1980s. But as the popularity of using reclaimed wood, metal and other building materials rose, the "up north" aesthetic of lakes area homes and cabins offered a veritable feast of opportunities.
"This (area) is the center of the world for using this kind of stuff, these materials," LePage said. "It's definitely the hot look right now. It became popular out in the mountains maybe a little bit before here."
The projects the company undertakes range from reassembling antique barns in their entirety to fashioning flooring and paneling from reclaimed wood to be used in remodels or new buildings. Antique corrugated steel is among the materials collected at Big Wood as well, along with details from doors, windows and more. An eye-catching selection of cast-iron door handles and hinges are on display in the main office.
LePage, whose own background includes construction and studio art, designs most of the building projects the company accomplishes, including homes. His medium was not always antique lumber, however—in line with construction trends and preferences at the time, LePage used green lumber to build timber frames. But he found the new lumber was not meeting his expectations.
"The timber frame structures we were cutting in the late '80s and early '90s were experiencing a lot of shrinkage and twisting," LePage said. "The timbers change shape, and they were tearing some of our structures apart. We quickly realized that we're going to run into problems if we didn't switch."
The antique lumber, LePage said, long ago went through its own shrinkage process and years later is stabilized. It still undergoes a series of preparations before finding its new home, however, starting with finding its way to Big Wood in the first place.
LePage works with a number of people who tear down barns for a living, as far away as Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The company pays for the materials recovered from the tear-downs, allowing their cadre of contractors to deal directly with the property owners.
"Shipping is so expensive, we try to get as much as we can locally," LePage said. "We'll send a semi(trailer) and usually buy all the usable product from the buildings right from the site."
Some of the buildings are in such great shape, the timbers collected from them are kept together in storage as kits for reassembly. About 25 of these exceptionally beautiful sets of timbers sit together in an open-air storage building on the Big Wood property.
"We've gone through and make sure we've found any rotten pieces, or pieces that need repairs," LePage said. "We clean it all up and make sure the joints all fit together."
Each timber hauled to Big Wood is put into the hands of one of six full-time employees, whose job is to remove any nails or other pieces of metal embedded in the wood. Some of the timbers are re-sawn, depending on what type of finish was added to the wood. The original wooden surface is the most desired, LePage said. From there, some of the timbers are re-milled into flooring or siding, while others retain their original massive form and are used in frames.
After a quarter-century in the business, LePage said they've run across timbers made from rare and extinct woods such as those made from American chestnuts, which were devastated by a fungal pathogen in the early 1900s. They have even begun to recognize the building styles of certain barn builders in a specific geographic region.
The company has been involved in taking down a number of well-known buildings, including the towering six-story West Publishing building in downtown St. Paul. That building, of which one entire wall was formed from the limestone along the Mississippi River, filled as many as 30 semitrailers with its reclaimed timbers.
LePage said Big Wood Timber Frames is growing as he and Nicklaus continuously reinvest in the business, which he said is nearly one-of-a-kind.
"We keep putting our money back into this business. We continue to add more buildings and more people and employees," LePage said. "There are a couple others that do similar things and that maybe do more flooring. But no one that really combines the reclaimed flooring, timber framing and heavy timber construction."
Relying on antique materials poses an interesting quandary for the company's future, however—eventually, the supply of hand-hewn timbers will run out. LePage said he's working on ideas for business expansion when that time comes.
"Any time a timber-frame barn comes down, the materials become a little more rare. And people don't farm the way they used to," LePage said. "I remember when I was a kid, you could see 10 barns from a high point on the horizon, and now you might see one old barn."
So what should property owners who may be in possession of one of those old barns do if they wish to remove it? Call Big Wood, of course, LePage said. He advised property owners to take lots of photographs, including close-ups of the timber. Even if the company ends up not being interested in the timber, LePage said he can offer advice for proceeding with a tear-down. And the company is always interested in purchasing materials from those who've chosen to deconstruct the buildings themselves.
"We'd rather see it preserved than pushed in a pile and lit on fire, which unfortunately happened all too often before it came to its popularity," LePage said.
• Business: Big Wood Timber Frames.
• City: Brainerd.
• Number of employees: About 25 employees.
• Interesting fact: The original Brainerd facility was converted from a fertilizer factory, and a shop built nearby was erected entirely from the timbers reclaimed from the Minneapolis Racquet Club building.