New Life for Old Wood

See how four companies are combining raw materials and traditions to create home furnishings rich with beauty, character and a strong sense of place

Something great is happening in the West. A handful of smart and creative people have recognized the beauty and potential in the raw materials that have always been here—wood from tired old buildings and fences, trees taken by harsh weather and disease—and that, even in an age of mass-production, there remains a demand for beautiful things made by hand. 


It’s not often true that the most beat up materials make the best furniture, but that’s exactly the case when those materials are in the hands of craftsman Josh Mabe. The former shop teacher’s passion for reclaimed wood began when he was told to throw out some old wood that was taking up space in his classroom. “I just couldn’t do it,” he says, “so I used it to build a dining table for my own home; something different from what you usually see.”

Word spread that Mabe was doing cool things with reclaimed wood, which led to a demand for similar pieces. These days, Mabe and his business partner, Randy Valentine, meet that demand by combing the Rocky Mountain West for old barns, fences and discarded lumber, then turning those materials into everything from furnishings to wainscoting to mantels and doors—all in Mabe’s signature style: “organic, urban, with a bit of a rustic twist.”

“I’m drawn to reclaimed materials because like us, they have a story and a past,” the craftsman says. “With every piece I make, I want to capture that story as best I can.” Mabe and Valentine do that by sitting down with the owners of the farms and ranches from which they source their wood to learn the story of each barn and fence. Then they head back to their Colorado workshop where Mabe expertly pieces together those bits and pieces of wood, taking care to highlight each specimen’s unique characteristics. “If there’s a saw mark that went especially deep into the wood, there’s a story behind that,” he says. “I try to make that scar into something beautiful.”



It’s impossible to ignore the damage the mountain pine beetle has done to Colorado forests. Millions of acres have turned gray, creating an eyesore and a fire hazard. But where most of us see eerie stands of skeleton pines, interior designer Charise Buckley saw an opportunity—to make good use of the dead trees while making custom furnishings for clients who wanted specific pieces she couldn’t find on the market. “I would look out my window and see thousands of beetlekill trees right there, so I thought, ‘Rather than importing walnut from Indiana, why not use what’s here?’” she says. In 2009, Buckley created Beetlekill Blues, a company named for the telltale blue streaks left in wood infested by the pine beetle. Her Breckenridge, Colorado, showroom displays a sampling of her transitional and “organic modern” furniture designs, which Buckley carefully shepherds from forest to finish: She ventures into the backwoods to hand-select the timbers—some beetlekill pine, some from other species destroyed by natural causes—dries the wood, then works with local craftspeople to bring each piece to life. Her designs give back to Colorado’s forests in more ways than one: For each piece of furniture sold, Beetlekill Blues plants a tree.  


In Wyoming, where the snow blows seven months out of the year, hundreds of miles of snow fence has been erected to keep that snow from drifting onto state highways. Built from western Ponderosa and lodgepole pine, Douglas fir and blue spruce, these fences typically stand until they fall apart, then get bulldozed and disposed of in landfills or burn piles. But in 1999, when John Pope noticed that Wyoming’s unforgiving climate was turning those fences into specimens of perfectly weathered wood, a new business was born. Pope’s company, Centennial Woods, works with the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) to rescue the snow fence before it becomes unusable. Centennial Woods planes and de-nails the wood (when requested), then sells it to contractors who transform the raw material into custom flooring, wall and ceiling paneling, doors, furniture, exterior siding and more, all with a rich patina that only comes from years of exposure to the elements. Unlike most salvaged wood, reclaimed snow fence has never been treated or painted, making it a healthy choice for homeowners. It’s good for the environment, too: To date, Centennial Woods has reclaimed more than 7 million feet of Wyoming snow fence, saving WYDOT more than $11 million and preventing more than 11,500 tons of CO2 emissions (from snow plows and vehicles used to respond to car accidents on snowy roads) from entering the atmosphere. 


Given their backgrounds, it seems perfectly natural that cousins Aaron Everitt and Luke Schilling would join forces to create collections of reclaimed wood tile. After all, the Everitt family has been in the lumber business for generations, and Schilling is a fourth-generation tile installer.What’s surprising is just how cool and contemporary that tile can look when applied to a coffered ceiling or accent wall. Made from upcycled hardwood scraps and wood salvaged from old ranches and farms, each tile and plank has a unique character, much of it earned from years of exposure to the West’s extreme weather conditions.  But once it’s cut into varying depths and lengths and set in bold dimensional patterns, the rustic material takes on a new look that ranges from rustic-industrial to modern.  Designers love that the tile and barnwood planks are easy to install—the wood comes in interlocking panels and is pre-mounted on a backing—and coated with a low-VOC, water-based ceramic finish, making them practical for kitchens and bathrooms. A whitewash or brown gunstock tint is available for those who want a more consistent color, but according to Everitt, most customers opt to showcase the wood’s natural mosaic of colors, which can range from gold to black, “depending on what side of the barn the wood was on,” he says. 

Categories: Artists & Artisans