| Thomas Heath |
I WAS ankle-deep in mud in a woodsy corner of Baltimore County, Maryland, in the United States (US) watching two furniture makers use a USD100,000 saw to cut a three-ton log lengthwise into wood slabs worth USD1,000 apiece.
“It’s Christmas,” said Paul Timmins, exhaling with joy as he splashed water on a 10-foot-long, three-inch-thick slab to remove the sawdust.
“This is the spalting,” Timmins said, running his fingers over winding black lines that etched the wood, lines that can be rivers of gold to this small business. It’s caused by fungus fighting each other for years. The patterns create unique images that make or break a quality piece of furniture.”
This particular slab was the first of eight or nine that the beechwood log would yield. Over the next two years, the slabs will be transported, dried, planed, trimmed, cut, sanded, whatever – until the wood turns into “the most expensive piece of flat furniture you will get in your house,” said John Ferrara, Timmins’ partner.
Timmins and Ferrara own OE Custom, a micro-niche, high-end – and fairly profitable – small business. Its success is built on delivering custom woodwork, made with lumber from salvaged trees, to an upscale customer base.
“We can take a felled tree and put it in your home in a finished product, and it will touch no one else’s hands in any form,” Ferrara said. To duplicate OE, you’d probably need the owners’ special chemistry: two guys, longtime pals – Ferrara a daredevil loner, Timmins a wonky, contrarian Eagle Scout – who share a spiritual connection to wood.
Ferrara, 48, finds the trees, runs the sawmill and oversees installations. Timmins, 36, handles everything in between: fabrication, sales, social media, administration.
“Paul can talk to people and sell the stuff, organise the guys in the shop and is a leader,” Ferrara said. “I can talk to the tree guys and do the hard labour and put the thing together in the house.”
OE doesn’t cut down trees. The company mills logs from trees already felled in cities and towns surrounding its operations near Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport. It calls the wood “urban salvaged lumber”.
Most trees are free or inexpensive and come from within 50 miles of Baltimore. Tree-removal companies and property owners call Ferrara to ask if he wants their trees. OE takes the trees it wants and stores them at its Baltimore County sawmill.
“I get calls from homeowners, who say, ‘I don’t want the tree to go to waste’,” Ferrara said. “A lot of people are attached to their trees – maybe their kid had their prom picture underneath it. They don’t want to see it chopped into mulch or firewood.”
The most desirable wood is walnut or white oak, Timmins said. OE also uses cherry, beech, elm, sycamore, hickory, maple and ash. Ferrara and I jumped on OE’s small John Deere utility vehicle, called a Gator, and sped to a clump of logs on the sawmill property. Standing near a big walnut log, Ferrara poked at his iPhone and declared, “Walnut gets better with time.”
Within seconds, he calculated that this walnut log could yield more than USD10,000 in furniture-grade wood. Though there’s no guarantee.
Urban trees can be troublesome. They tend to be older – up to 100 years – and to have been exposed to relatively high levels of car exhaust and poisonous soil content. They are trimmed to grow around wires and next to houses, with their roots under concrete and asphalt. Of the logs that OE takes, one or two out of 1o will be good enough to be transformed into heirloom furniture.
“It’s a crapshoot,” Ferrara said. “You never know what you are going to find in the tree.” He showed me a log that contained a steel rod. The rod had destroyed one of his saw blades. “No idea how that got there.”
OE products aren’t cheap. A typical dining room table ranges from USD5,000 to USD10,000, without chairs. Conference tables run from USD15,000 to USD25,000. Kitchen countertops run from USD4,000 to more than USD8,000.
The company takes in about 100 to 150 orders a year, two-thirds of which are residential. The current backlog stretches past August, with one project already booked for 2020. About a third of OE’s business comes from the Internet; the rest is word of mouth.
Big customers include National Geographic, whose Washington, DC, lobby OE helped decorate. The company also has a big contract with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Washington.
OE started in 2001 as Odds & Ends Handyman Services. Ferrara was a neuro-trauma critical-care nurse at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. Timmins was a burned-out construction worker who wanted a new life.
They talked it out and Ferrara, then 31, wrote a cheque for USD3,000. And they were off.
The business partners bought a bunch of tools and a van and started changing light switches, painting rooms, fixing doors and doing other household projects. Most of the early clients were Ferrara’s hospital co-workers.
Ferrara did double duty as a nurse and a handyman for nearly a decade. He and Timmins started rehabilitating homes. In time, they bought homes in disrepair, fixed them up and sold them.
Then the financial crisis hit in 2008-2009, and Ferrara and Timmins had USD1 million invested in three homes that they could not sell. They eventually got their money back, but they decided they needed to change their business.
They turned to woodworking because they knew from the handyman business that there was a need to fill. They also liked the idea because they could specialise and be creative.
“We were doing a job for a lady who lived in a condo in Baltimore, and she showed us a picture of a table in a magazine,” Ferrara said.
“It was more than USD10,000. Paul said, ‘We will do it for USD5,000’. We had to learn real quick.”
Thus the woodworking business was born. They bought books, jumped on the Internet and learned how to turn wood into heirloom-grade products.
OE now has eight employees, including the owners, who expect to gross as much as USD1.5 million this year.
Rent is about USD10,000 a month – almost all of it for the 10,000-square-foot fabrication plant and showroom near BWI. The plant, at any time, has nearly USD1 million in inventory because the wood must be dried for months, and sometimes years, before it can be made into furniture.
“We are ageing the wood,” Timmins said.
OE has become pretty efficient. Timmins can tell you how much diesel fuel the sawmill generator consumes per hour. He has a moisture meter to measure the wood’s water content. The company knows almost to the square foot how much wood can be harvested from a log – if it is clean. A big chunk of the profit is reinvested in state-of-the-art equipment, such as high-tech saws, routers and kilns.
The company has a six-figure debt outstanding, but the equipment is essential to maintaining its niche.
Labour consumes about half of OE’s revenue, including the owners’ salaries, and there is very little turnover. Working around woodworking tools is dangerous and requires great skill.
Three of the employees are musicians. “Musicians have a very good understanding of wood movement based on the care that they have to take with their wood instruments,” Timmins said.
“It matters how you cut it, sand it and finish it. These are heirloom-grade pieces. This isn’t your grandfather’s coffee table sitting on a shag run in the basement next to the ship’s wheel with the rope around it.”
I told you they had a spiritual connection to wood.
“Wood is my whole life,” Timmins said.
He and his family have a vacation planned for this summer in a national park. They are going to stay in a treehouse. – Text & Photo by The Washington Post