NORTH FORK — For some of us, the sight of old wood triggers a very specific response: ahhh. Not plywood languishing roadside, or firewood stacked outside the house. We’re talking about architectural wood — the kind of aged paneling that warms like an embrace when you enter the room, for instance, or a marked wooden floor that’s so solid you feel grounded. Run your fingertips along the smoothed surface of an old mantel and you almost hear the whisper of time gone by. There’s something touching about touching fine old wood.
This is some of what you’ll find at Crossroads Recycled Lumber in North Fork, and you can see examples around the foothills, including the bars at Oakhurst Spirits and Wine Tails in Oakhurst, and throughout the addition at South Gate Brew.
Crossroads’ Marc Mandel has been recycling wood for nearly four decades, and the company has supplied quality old growth lumber, timbers, flooring and finish materials to some of the finest homes and commercial projects in the west.
Located on twelve acres at the old North Fork mill site in the planer shed, about a dozen people spend their days at Crossroads immersed in the scent of cedar and pine. Their vast stash of holdings include reclaimed wood flooring, timbers, barnwood, post and beam, siding, paneling, wainscoting, mantlepieces, and timberframe. They promote and support sustainable design and green building, often working with people using earth, straw, and non-toxic materials in their projects.
Their salvaged wood has been carefully removed from institutions both illustrius and infamous, Stanford University to San Quentin. Timbers from a shipwreck at the mouth of the Columbia River, preserved under water for 90 years. Military housing, waterfront buildings, a cable car system, barns, churches, schools — a nearly endless list of sources.
It started out simply enough a long time ago when Marc Mandel was framing houses in Fresno. In 1981, when the housing bubble burst, more houses were repossessed than in any other time in history, he says. Then Marc heard about an old house someone wanted torn down and he took the teardown job. Once he got to work, he noticed something he hadn’t thought about before then. There was some pretty good wood inside that house.
Typically, back then, old houses and other buildings were demolished, then crushed and taken to landfills. In this case, Marc could see there was something to be gained by preventing this loss.
“So, I salvaged most of the wood in the house, and that led to me putting an ad in the paper for this old oak flooring. I got a call from a demo guy named Fred Burton, a wonderful old man from Oklahoma with an okie twang.”
Turns out, Fred was getting ready to tear out a gymnasium full of old maple flooring in Fresno and was interested to talk to the young guy selling the oak floor. From there, a beautiful friendship formed. It was the start of a long relationship in which Fred mentored Marc and taught him how to properly disassemble — rather than demo — a structure. He showed him how to save everything, from the doors and windows to the toilets and sinks.
“He said, ‘if you want to save a building you take it down in exactly the reverse order as it was built. You start at the roof and work to the bottom.'”
And that’s what they did.
“It was probably nineteen-twenties to nineteen thirties with full rough-cut lumber,” he remembers. “The wood floor was upstairs and it didn’t have a subfloor, just the joists and three-quarter by two-and-a-quarter tongue and groove. That was a big turning point.”
This time, Marc put an ad in the paper saying he had more than just floor — he sold the lumber, the doors and the windows. From that point on, he found that a careful job dismantling a structure would lead to people would buy the wood and fixtures. This went on throughout the 1980s and into the ’90s.
By 1993 Marc was in Bellingham, Washington, and he heard someone was building a big house on Lake Washington in Seattle. There was a guy by the name of Gordon Plume, and his GR Plume Company had the contract to mill all the wood for the place. Contractors were using recycled wood on this particular many-millions of dollars luxury custom home. Marc started sawing wood as part of his work; Gordon had a union shop with 25 people, rare at that time for a specialty in recycled lumber. Left and right, they were buying up the old wood, for the home of Bill and Melinda Gates — and that, says Marc, was a big reason recycled lumber got on the map.
In those days, sourcing the old wood was not unlike a treasure hunt. Marc bought a sawmill, and did many of the teardowns himself — or with his crew and a demo crew working side-by-side. For the last 15 years, Marc has eased off doing the teardowns in favor of working with professional demolition contractors.
“At this point we have been around long enough that people contact us, and find us on the internet. We get calls from wreckers all over the country every week. People know there is value to recycled wood and they call us. I have about half a dozen main contractors we buy from but we get calls from all over.”
Most of what Crossroads markets is old growth timber, Marc explains — big trees that grew for a long time. As for what is so evocative about the product, he believes it’s a combination of elements. For one thing, the wood carries the physical memory of the old growth forest and is not only desirable from an aesthetic standpoint, it’s the best thing you can work with.
Marc says that, if you look at trees being cut now, it’s not uncommon to reveal two, three or four rings per inch. Old growth, though, may have 10 – 30 rings per inch.
“An old tree in the forest with twenty rings per inch, if it’s ten feet in diameter, it has the energy and the vibration of the old growth in it.
“The wood still has the vibe. People may say baloney, but you can still feel the energy of the forest in the wood. A tree that stood for five-hundred years has life and DNA.”
Furthermore, it’s a pleasure to work with, Marc says, as the density of old, slow-growing trees gives the wood a stability in the grain that is unlike anything new today.
“When you cut a tree that is green and fresh, it has moisture, and the water makes it heavy and dense, and as it dries it shrinks because it’s dehumidified. Old wood has been sitting, aging for fifty, seveny-five or a hundred years. It has done all the shrinking and drying and twisting it’s going to do. New green wood twists. And while some of our wood has twisted, because it is old growth – it’s more relaxed. We get a lot of big wood. Instead of four-by-twelve-inches, we get wood that’s more like twelve-by-twenty-four-inches, and thirty-two feet long, so if they are twisted — we can resaw them straight.”
If some of the allure comes from milling the old growth forest, it’s only enhanced by the history of the structures the lumber was crafted into, and the stories of those who once occupied the buildings.
Years ago, Marc helped tear down a mill north of Seattle in Everett, Washington. After work, he’d stay just to hang out in the planer shed, about 150 x 300 feet.
“You could feel the energy of the people, guys who worked there for forty or fifty years — their whole career. The place is half torn down, with old wood, remnants, and a barn owl flying through… but you could feel two shifts a day running. It was some of the best timber in the world. They took pride in the work.”
Another attraction factor is association — for instance, if you like baseball it would be cool to have wood from a baseball stadium. Along those lines, Marc talks about a woman who called Crossroads one day, asking if they had any hardwood flooring. The told her they had some maple, circa 1914, from the gym at Stanford University.
“I will take it,” she said, without even asking a price. “I met my husband on the gym floor — I was a cheerleader there.”
Now, their house in Carmel has that Stanford gym wood flooring.
Finally, the essence of its magnetism lies in the look and feel of the wood as it ages.
“Port of Oakland buildings, for example, had skylights,” explains Marc. “So the wood got indirect sunlight — ultraviolet from sunlight changes the color of wood. It darkens it, and as fresh new wood darkens and gets this patina, it’s really rich and beautiful. You can’t get that look by painting on a stain, it’s seventy years of sunlight and ultra violet light that does it — a slow process of color change gives it that aged look.”
Marc also theorizes that using lumber from Crossroads may help reconnect modern city-dwellers with the natural world.
“Many people these days are quite removed from nature. They come home and have electric lights, and are looking at sheet rock on the wall. Old wood, when you’re around it, gives that soothing feeling. It feels really warm and sweet, and when you’re inside and you look at this wall – you’re reconnecting with nature.”
Talked about a writer who did a story years ago on Crossroads and, as they were walking Marc was telling him where the stacks of wood were coming from… Washington, Oregon, Ghirardelli Square, we were outside in the summer. He stopped at a stack of wood, and asked, “what are these?” Del Monte Cannery, built in 1918 in San Jose. He was staring at wood, and I said, “Dave, are you okay?” He comes out of it and says, “my grandpa put himself through college working at that cannery – I could smell the red wine and salami on my grandpa’s breath.”
If you’re in the market for reclaimed wood, you may want to be prepared in that it’s necessarily more expensive than newly harvested lumber widely available today.
“One reason reclaimed is more expensive is because it takes more of an effort to salvage it,” Marc explains. “Crews have to get paid for their labor, and if it is union labor, it is now well over fifty dollars an hour. Then, we have to pull the iron, the nails, we’re extracting bolts and moving brackets. We then trim it out and possibly remill it.”
Ultimately, consumers can expect to pay about two-to-three times the cost of new lumber. Many feel it’s worth it, no question. It’s also important for buyers to understand that reclaimed wood is, by definition, imperfect. Those imperfections are some of what makes it so desirable.
“We want to realize expectations but customers also have to realize reclaimed wood has historic marks. Some people want reclaimed wood that is perfect. Most people want to see the historic marks.”
At the end of a day, the goal at Crossroads Recycled Lumber is to make their customers happy — they love it when dreams come true and people are elated. The other part of their mission is the determination to reuse wonderful resources that, for years, were crushed and burned, or sent to a landfill.
“We are utilizing this stuff that came from our old growth forests. It’s stupid to just waste our natural resources. We have rescued some of this stuff and we’re giving it some of its best potential. We should do that with all of our natural resources and our old growth forest. Someday, years from now, they may well be digging up landfills for old iron and old wood.”
If you’d like to visit Crossroads, please make sure to call or email ahead of time — appointments are necessary as the shop is busy and they want to make sure they have time set aside to help you.
Photos Courtesy of Terrance Reimers and Paul Abram