Company turns old barn wood into custom floors

January 02, 1997


Associated Press Writer

WOODSBORO, Md. - Alexander Grabenstein was in his early 20s when he tore down his first barn and sold the lumber.

It didn't take the hungry college dropout long to see his future in the weathered wooden buildings scattered across the agricultural landscape of western Maryland.

``I could see the potential for getting lumber quite economically just for putting the labor into it. I didn't have to put up much money to be in business but the cash flow was good and I enjoyed the selling end, too,'' said Grabenstein, now 45 and president of Vintage Lumber, one of the country's largest lumber recyclers.


Grabenstein (pronounced GRAY-ben-stine), an amiable man with a short gray beard, no longer knocks down barns. He buys the old lumber from sharp-eyed pickers from as far away as Indiana and re-mills it into antique wood flooring.

Vintage Lumber's hardwood products, along with its reputation for quickly filling orders, have won it some high-profile customers, including retailers Nordstrom and Timberland, and celebrities Tom Cruise and Oprah Winfrey, Grabenstein said.

The company lists 13 types of wood flooring in 20 grades, from new white pine at less than $3 per square foot to vintage distressed chestnut at $11.75 for widths of 8 inches or more.

The higher price of the vintage wood reflects processing costs: the recovered lumber must be dried, de-nailed, cleaned and squared before milling. About half of it ends up as scrap.

``All our guys burn firewood,'' Grabenstein said.

He said 65 percent of Vintage Lumber's sales are oak and chestnut, which are less common than pine among recycled wood flooring.

The company's 1996 sales of $1.5 million, up 20 percent from 1995, place it among the top 20 of the country's 40 or more manufacturers of reclaimed wood flooring, Grabenstein said. Vintage Lumber employs 21 people, most of whom have been with the company seven years or more.

The wood flooring industry is growing. Shipments of hardwood flooring rose 7 percent to 330 million square feet from 1994 to 1995, according to the National Oak Flooring Manufacturers Association.

Pine and other softwoods account for a smaller share of the flooring market - 75 million square feet in 1994 - but as much as a half comes from reclaimed lumber, according to the Southern Forest Products Association.

Grabenstein said rural areas of the Northeast, dotted with 100-year-old dairy barns, are rich hunting ground for the lumber pickers who recover old wood. One barn can yield 5,000 to 20,000 board feet of lumber.

Old lumber prices have skyrocketed with those of new lumber. Grabenstein said recovered rough wood averages $1 per board foot, three times more than a few years ago.

``I've talked to six guys in the past month who said they're just getting into barn demolition,'' he said.

Vintage Lumber has a handful of regular suppliers but won't turn away pickers who - like the young Grabenstein - show up with a single load to sell.

``Alex has a reputation for buying what they bring,'' sales manager Mark Harbold said. ``To keep the pickers coming, you can't be too picky yourself.''

The Herald-Mail Articles