By Mike Wilson

StairCrafters Inc. builds custom staircases with woods reclaimed from tobacco barns, cotton mills and even former French wine vats.

This staircase, built with reclaimed heart pine treads, includes fluted posts salvaged from a South Carolina courthouse that was built in 1840 and recently torn down.

Dodging lead bullets isn’t a typical woodworking hazard, but it’s a challenge StairCrafters Inc. needed to solve since the company began working with reclaimed lumber.

“We’ve got to make sure we check that we ordered it right, then check for any foreign objects,” says Paul Morey, sales manager at StairCrafters. “We’ve come across some materials like lead bullets in lumber, though those aren’t as hard on your blades as a hardened nail. You’ll find old hardened nails in the lumber, and if they get into a piece of equipment, you’ve just lost all your profits for the project.”

The Easley, SC-based custom staircase company, which employs about 20 people including installers, is increasingly using historic wood in its projects due to customer demand, Morey says. Staircases built with reclaimed woods are on the rise, because customers crave the look, history and lessened environmental impact that the materials offer, he adds.

“We’ve seen more of it, really in the last few years,” Morey says. “People are more conscious (of the environment) now than five years ago, and certainly more conscious than 10 years ago.”

He estimates that projects involving the more environmentally friendly woods now make up about 10 to 15 percent of new custom staircases. This has kept a significant amount of material out of landfills, Morey says, and he expects demand to continue gaining steam.

“A lot of people are buying woods they want distressed, they want it to look old,” Morey says. “It’s just very interesting, people want imperfection. They want mineral veining, they want knots.”

Customers are also interested in the history behind their boards, he says. Sources for lumber and components for custom staircases have included old cotton mills, tobacco barns, submerged logs, former French wine vats and even columns from a South Carolina courthouse built in 1840.

“Not only do people like the reclaimed lumber because it’s better for the environment, but it’s kind of cool to have history,” Morey says. “It didn’t come from who knows where, it has a little history behind it.”

For example, the company recently built a three-level set of French-style stairs with reclaimed wormy chestnut and wrought iron. The wormy chestnut was salvaged from a tobacco barn built in the 1930s, and the company is giving the customer a picture of the wood’s former home as part of the package, Morey says.

StairCrafters also replaced the treads on its office’s circular staircase with antique heart-grade pine salvaged from a former cotton mill. It used sapele rails, which is a more sustainable alternative to mahogany. Customers often like the look of the staircase so much that they decide to use reclaimed wood for their home, Morey says.

Wormy chestnut boards from this abandoned tobacco barn were reclaimed and used to build a three-level set of French-style stairs.

“(The lumber) came from Joanna, SC. It was from an old cotton mill, built in 1890,” Morey says. “The beams have been resawn into dimensional lumber, then we were able to plane, edge, then join that together and then make our treads and mouldings from the antique heart pine.”

Finding requested reclaimed woods can be tough, but StairCrafters is able to source almost any wood online if it can’t be found locally, Morey adds. They also use a supplier in Canada that tears down old barns and can determine when the structures were built based on their construction.

Another challenge is figuring out the quantity of reclaimed wood to order when buying lumber, Morey says. Since requested woods are often expensive and rarely used for multiple projects, the company takes care not to order too much or too little lumber.

“We just finished a job of antique heart pine ballusters,” Morey says. “We’d turn 100 if we need 50, because about half of them split apart while turning. We put a cage over the front of the lathe so if it disintegrates, it won’t hurt the operator. You have to turn almost twice what the customer requires, because you don’t know what the material is going to do. It’s spinning so fast, it can just shatter but once it’s done, it’s beautiful.”

He adds that despite the extra challenge, working with the reclaimed wood has its rewards.

“It’s interesting to look at something and think of what it might have been else where,” Morey says.  “If it’s reclaimed material from an old mill, how many people worked in and around that piece of lumber and made their living with that wood supporting that roof over their heads? Wood is a very important thing, but we often take it for granted.”

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.