Thousands of seasoned crossties of oak, hickory, walnut, cherry and other hardwoods are discarded each year, rejected as seconds during the late 19th and early 20th centuries — too warped or cracked to provide solid footing for railroad cars — or pulled out during railroad track maintenance after a century of service. They were burned or left to rot.
Any lover of fine lumber can identify with Robert Hendrick’s pain at such wanton destruction. Hendrick’s response: salvage the fine wood for practical use in custom furnishings that cross the line between art and craft.
Hendrick, who owns a rail line maintenance company, established Rail Yard Studios with a mission to save railroad materials with a documentable history. He creates furniture-as-art for homes and offices — desks, coffee/end tables, chairs, beds, wine/coat racks, etc.
Art on the Floor
The railroad ties and rails date back as far as 1898. Each furniture-as-art piece is individually numbered with a scavenged railroad date nail. (Railroad crossties used to be marked with a date nail to indicate the year of production.) The Rail Yard Studios’ work is seen in galleries and art competitions in Atlanta, Nashville, Chattanooga and Chicago.
“We get many questions about our timbers — their source and their safety,” Hendrick explains. “We do not use creosoted ties. We use only new ties that have not yet been treated in any way.”
The timbers were “culled” as seconds, marked and destined for the furnace before being intercepted by Hendrick.
“We stain some ties to give them color, and we seal all of the ties with finishes,” he says. The bed shown here has walnut posts combined with hickory for the portion running along the head of the bed. It is finished with a golden oak stain and spar urethane — both low-VOC.
“Using exterior urethane helps to smooth down some of the roughness inherent in the timbers from their being air dried, and allows us to maintain that rough characteristic,” Hendrick says.
The wine rack featured on the table of contents in this issue is hickory finished in golden oak stain with spar urethane. The rack featured on the cover is a white oak timber finished with a provincial stain and spar urethane.
These ties were singled out because of excessive knots, splits, warps or other imperfections. While those features make the ties less than ideal for running 180,000 pound rail cars over, “they also add great character to our pieces,” Hendrick says. “The imperfections are beautiful; they’re what make the woods interesting.”
Hendrick holds a masters degree in Industrial Design from The Ohio State University. After school he pursued technology and industrial entrepreneurial opportunities, never expecting to return to design, especially after acquiring a railroad contracting firm in 2001. After picking up the love of wood from his father Jim, the two launched Rail Yard Studios in 2010.
“With a demand for authenticity, we insist that only railroad materials be integrated into a design,” Hendrick says. His products are branded Made in the USA, “crafted in large part by the same hands that work the railroad on a daily basis,” he says.