Wood Whisperer

I stood in the middle of a huge pile of old wood. Different sizes, shapes and colors all Jenga’d together—some with jagged edges, some with smooth ends. Some still had rusty nails poking out. After staring at it for a while, the pile began to seem less like individual pieces of wood and more like a complete, cohesive unit—each piece supporting its neighbor, all of them resting peacefully together.

The popularity of reclaimed materials continues to rise. Whatever a person’s design preference, things have been trending towards upcycled furniture for a few years and it seems almost everyone has drawn from it in some way. Coffee shops and restaurants score major points in the hipster department when they build around this type of furniture and people have been buying these pieces for their homes or trying to make them themselves. But how do these storied planks find their way into our lives?

Enter Chad Weilbacher, the man responsible for that huge pile of wood you found me in. Weilbacher, a Northport native with a gruff voice, a quick smile and an ever-present cup of coffee in his hand owns Reclaim Everything, a green company that repurposes vintage lumber and hardware to beautiful ends. Weilbacher is the kind of fellow you feel instantly at ease with.

He started working for his uncle’s construction company when he was just a kid and stayed in the industry for 30 years. He learned his craft from what he calls “the masters,” old timers who stressed quality over quantity and who lived by the motto: Do it right or don’t do it at all.

Weilbacher began re-purposing found materials as a hobby, but it quickly expanded it into a full-time job. Demand is now so great that he is busting out of his current location and seeking more space. During the time I spent with him I watched as he began the process of building a table for a client and a set of countertops for the new chain of Green Cactus restaurants opening in Greenlawn and Huntington. (Weilbacher has also worked for the Wine Bar in Northport and Ruvo in Greenlawn.)

He broke down the process of building a table in a few easy steps. Like many on the reclaimed materials circuit, he obtains most of his components from old barns that are being dismantled. He has several connections upstate that alert him when barns are coming down and he arranges to compensate each property owner either at a flat rate or on consignment.

Weilbacher calls his crew “my guys.” (They’re always, always “my guys,” it’s a construction thing.) He and his guys only deal with barns built before 1920 because younger barns don’t contain old growth lumber from America’s first forests. People on the circuit prefer the kind of wood that was planted before the new settlers arrived (those noobs grew inferior tress—less dense and not as durable). Weilbacher chooses solid pieces without any rot, and deals with many kinds of wood—fir, pine, oak, chestnut and poplar. The selected wood is then taken to his shop where cleaning begins. It is first sprayed with a degreaser, then scrubbed and rinsed, a process that is often repeated several times.

Once the wood is clean it is dried in direct sunlight. Weilbacher doesn’t believe in kiln drying, the modern way of drying lumber. He believes there’s a risk of the wood expanding and contracting, which he wants to avoid. He admitted that he uses indoor heaters to speed up the drying process in the winter, but added that this doesn’t affect the size and shape of the wood.

Once the lumber is dried it is tested with a moisture meter; it needs to be dried out to 15 percent moisture or less. Then it’s time to seal it. For a more finished look, a penetrating oil-based treatment is applied. When the client wants to retain the rustic patina of age, Weilbacher and his guys use a clear, water-based solution. Once the sealant is dry the frame for the table is made and then the legs are put on. Customers are given different options for the legs—beams tend to be the most popular choice, but it all depends on what look they are after.

For Weilbacher, it gives him the opportunity to merge love of both construction and carpentry. Contractors often recommend him and he relies on his work to speak for itself. It’s about connecting to the past and to something with a long story. At one point, Weilbacher turned to me and said: “If this wood could talk, huh?”

Indeed. It has seen world wars, generations, evolution and growth— cultural and societal shifts that have changed our entire planet. Our living spaces are silent observers of history. The people who first cut that timber are not around anymore to tell their stories, but the wood is. If we listen closely, there is a lot that can be learned from those old barn doors and wagon wheels—as well as from the people who are preserving them.