By Tim Stonesifer The Evening Sun
|Wood-sided Post-Frame Building|
"The richness in some of the colors of the antique woods," he says, running his hands across a smooth table, "only time can do that. It can't be reproduced."
The Wonders of Wood
|Wonders of Wood|
But it's a passion that's since made Lowell Thomas your go-to guy for all things wood. That first barn, which Thomas took apart with his hands, soon led to National Barn Company, which provides a line of pole buildings and barns, custom-designed and delivered. And more recently it led to Patriax Log Structures, Thomas' company that for the last three years has offered log cabins built the way they were in America's early years, and often with wood from that same early era, reclaimed and reused by Thomas and his staff.
In that way, Thomas' love of all types of timber has led to a business that, by gathering and reshaping old wood, actually helps the environment, cutting down on fossil-fuel emissions that accompany the production of things like linoleum or insulation. And because the wood from older trees -- which were allowed to grow more slowly and develop -- is actually denser than newer growth, it's not only beautiful but also energy-efficient, he says. "There's none of those pink insulation strips here," Thomas says. "Wood the thickness we use rates twice as high for insulating."
And working from a single, simple principle -- "wood is good" -- Thomas has expanded from his early days, picking up new tools and techniques along the way, and eventually working on restoration and reclamation projects across the country and all the way to the bottom of St. Lawrence Seaway. There, at the bottom of that cold water, lies thousands of pounds of virgin timber, Thomas explains, all of it lost from the capsized pine rafts of early American settlers, who were in charge of harvesting the ancient wood and getting it on ships back to England. Feet-thick trees were hashed with the "king's broad arrow" -- a mark to denote its destination -- and loaded on the rafts. But because of the weight and density, often those rafts would split, sending both trees and traffickers to the bottom of the cold waters. There that wood remains, Thomas says, perfectly preserved, waiting to be brought back to light of day and maybe used as part of someone's house. It's one extreme example of what Thomas terms the "complete recycling" process his business helps create. It's how old wood can be reused to create a higher-quality, greener solution.
"We salvage, not demolish," he says. "We reclaim what was lost."
The Wood Business
Past as Future
Living in south-central Pennsylvania, we have a wealth of wood at our fingertips, Thomas says, placing that ax back on his thick, hand-hewn office wall. The wood from old dairy barns in the area is unique -- older and unlike any other in the country, and usually there for the taking. And 60 percent of Pennsylvania is still forest. That leaves plenty of room for growth, Thomas says, both at the business' bottom line and more importantly at the tree line, where wood can be gathered and used to create something special for customers, then replanted, renewed, sustained. For the next generation, he says, 12-year-old Gage looking on with a notebook and pen at the ready. Gage is spending this summer learning the ropes, his father says, the two walking across a dirt floor in the middle of an 80-foot-by-102-foot building on Thomas' property. Within that larger building, though, a smaller one was taking shape even as father and son looked on. Thomas uses that shed for "pre-building," a process that allows the company to fully construct, label and then deconstruct completely unique buildings on-site in Hanover. They're then transported to the buyer and reassembled, with about 50-percent less time spent on-site.
"We can completely customize the building," Thomas says, standing next to what will soon be a 30-foot by 46-foot log house and a two-car wooden garage in Gettysburg. "If a customer comes in and says they don't like one board, we can change it."
But what won't be changing, Thomas says, is a tradition of hard, hands-on work passed down to him by his father, who works for the company and who, on this day, is nearby using a hand-held metal detector to find nails in a 300-pound piece of old barn board. As he does, he deftly removes them with a hammer and chisel. Lowell Thomas Sr. says little, taking a break only to lift a pant leg and display the scar he got years ago when his overanxious son flipped one of those large boards over onto the back of his leg. Gage doesn't say much either, preferring to let his father -- and the family's work -- do the talking, as men with 2-pound hammers drive in another board, finishing a wall of what will be someone's home.
"We tend to believe the good Lord put wood here for a reason," Thomas says. "And we want to use it. We want to keep using it. It's America's ultimate antique."
And with that, Gage at his elbow, he goes back to work -- next to a sawmill, in a log-cabin office, behind a desk made from old barn flooring. Thomas sits quietly down next to an ax that glimmers like his green eyes when he speaks with quiet reverence of cherry and chestnut, cedar, oak and ash. A wood guy, he says, at your service.