Many see beauty in something old, faded and worn — but few can find uses for it.
Blayne Wyton does both.
His four-year-old company, Morden-based Prairie Barnwood, does a brisk business handcrafting fine furniture from boards, beans and posts salvaged from old barns in the Pembina Valley.
The idea came to him during a road trip a few years ago as he was admiring the character and patina of wood of old barns, said Wyton, a cabinet maker and refinisher of antique furniture.
“I often make the joke it was sort of like when God told Noah to build the ark,” he said.
He couldn’t wait to get back to Manitoba to find a barn and turn its wood into country-rustic style furniture, he said.
Today, he and six other craftsmen produce dining tables, chairs, beds, living room furniture and accessories, countertops and flooring in a 9,000-square-foot facility on the edge of town. Their products are sold online (www.prairiebarnwood.com) to customers throughout western Canada.
All the wood is salvaged from barns, wooden structures, and dilapidated homesteads landowners agree to have taken down, including one house that yielded some very valuable oak. It is then pressure-washed, treated if required, and sorted by size and grade.
The first was a barn from near Rosengart, an old pitched roofed structure dating back to the 1920s. Some of it became small hall table — and the beginning of much bigger things. So far they’ve taken apart about 25 barns in the Pembina Valley, all found through word of mouth, said Wyton.
Usually some of the building is rotted beyond usability, and more can be destroyed in the deconstruction process, but there’s still plenty of good wood to be had.
“You can typically get anywhere from 50 to 80 per cent usable lumber,” said Wyton.
Owners often view their old building as “a piece of history” and may have an emotional attachment to it, but they often don’t see much value in the wood itself.
That’s where Wyton begs to differ — and has proven with handcrafted furniture appealing to buyers precisely because of the character and patina derived from the wood’s knots, burrs, and nail holes.
“What’s so interesting about barn wood is that the value is actually in the wear, and almost the abuse, that the wood took over the years,” said Wyton. “That’s actually what makes it so beautiful in furniture.”
It’s valuable for another reason — there isn’t much old-growth fir around anymore, said Wyton. The tight grain of old timber makes it quite different from what you find in lumber yards today.
“Nowadays when you look at a board, it’s a wide grain, and it makes the wood softer,” he said.
While barn wood is fairly easy to find right now, Wyton has already noticed a decline in the amount of useable wood.
“We’re definitely pushed by Mother Nature.” he said. “Rot is probably our biggest competitor.”
As well, the inventory of old barns is diminishing as landowners clear homesteads to make fields bigger.
Tommorows heirlooms today
Furniture made by Prairie Barnwood borrows from the designs of William Morris and his Arts and Crafts movement, which Wyton has long admired. It suits reclaimed wood perfectly, he said.
“It blends into a modern home but it has that authentic look with a lot of character to it,” he said.
No two pieces are alike, there’s no assembly line at the company, and the finished products reflect the talents of the craftsmen. Wyton said he doesn’t even like to talk in terms of ‘employees.’
“I like to say we all work together,” he said. “Right now we have six people and myself, and each person basically runs a different department or section of the company.”
Everyone enjoys the craft of creating unique pieces that are essentially “tomorrow’s heirlooms today,” he said.
“There’s an artistic element to this — the thing has been to find the job that fits the person, not the other way around,” he said.
“When people start working in the back, I always ask them, as a piece comes up, ‘Don’t just build a piece of furniture. Build a story. Think of a story. If you build a bench, maybe that bench sat outside a general store in 1910 and there was an old man that sat on it every day.’”
The business also fits in with the modern era. Two years ago it won an award for outstanding contribution to green initiatives and sustainable practices under the Community Led Emissions Reduction Program from the MSTW Planning District (the towns of Morden and Winkler and RMs of Stanley and Thompson).