Old Doug fir puts a smile on this Bainbridge builder’s face

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Tom Salisbury loves using recycled old-growth Douglas fir beams for timber-frame construction

To get Tom Salisbury talking rapid-fire about the allure of using old-growth Douglas fir in timber-frame construction is about as easy as saying the word “wood.”

“Working with recycled Doug fir is everyone’s dream because it was dried maybe a 100 years ago, and you don’t have to worry about it twisting like green wood does,” he said, standing in the shadow of a large artist’s studio his company had just framed off Battle Point Road.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” he said, pointing at the sunlit three-story structure. “It’s not for everybody, but a beauty like that one is pretty special.”

Salisbury Woodworking’s mother lode is wood flooring, which accounts for about 80 percent of the Bainbridge firm’s business most years. But Salisbury, who started his company on the island about 20 years ago, has become increasingly involved with the many uses of salvaged Douglas fir.

It’s highly coveted by many specialty builders in the Northwest because of its strength, stability and eye-appeal. But also because the region has a corner on it. Seattle, for example, still has a plethora of huge warehouses and structures built before and after the turn of the 19th century.

“I’ve collected and sold recycled wood for at least 15 years, and it can be scarce at times,” he says. It’s all about supply and demand. For example, the market was down for several months in the 1990s after Bill Gates had contractors use tons of recycled wood to build his large complex in Medina, Salisbury said.

“When I first started out, old wood was almost as likely to be thrown in a landfill as saved,” he said. “A lot of it was stockpiled by demolition contractors who didn’t know its value early on. But that’s changed with its worth (about $6.50 per board foot for timber framing) now being two or three times more costly than new wood.”

In 1991 he bought 13 timbers – each measuring 14-by-32 inches in diameter and 30 feet long – salvaged from Pier 91. The fir timbers were the girders that sat atop the pilings, serving as the pier’s foundation and, after being recycled, the timbers that framed the 3,000-square-foot house he built on Baker Hill.

That event served as part of the beginning of a gradual move upward for Salisbury, who turned to carpentry in the 1980s when the native of Fairbanks, Alaska, became bored with his life as a professional skier in Telluride, Colo. The father of his wife, Cyndy, worked at Boeing so they eventually settled in Seattle, moving to the island a few years later.

“I got started in the business by putting cards on the bulletin board at the Jiffy Mart and a small ad in the Bainbridge Review,” he said. “We still do most of our work here, but we’ve done some big jobs in Seattle. We’ve benefitted from the boom.”

The economy’s downturn has led to some adjustments, he said, causing people to turn to more remodels than new construction or installing new floors.

“There’s no doubt the floor business does better during a recession than house construction, especially timber-framed ones,” he said. “But we haven’t had to lay off any of our employees (16-18 of them). We just put in some elaborate oak floors and stairs in a big condo complex in Seattle, so we’re doing OK.”

While both new and old woods are used in Salisbury’s timber-framing and flooring endeavors, he admits that working with recycled Douglas fir still gets him excited.

The company has built about 30 recycled timber-frame structures over the years and he considers it only a niche part of the firm’s workload, which increased to about $2 million in 2008 – its best year ever.

But he doesn’t see the old-growth market drying up anytime soon.

“There are many old buildings and structures with huge amounts of wood just waiting to be torn down for the next skyscraper,” he said. “It’s a bit of a luxury using it for timber framing, but we’re also doing more recycled wood floors.”

The company uses many different products for flooring, but one of its most popular is a 12-inch-wide Doug fir floor that Salisbury makes at its shop off Day Road. Much of it is “fall down” wood that was sawed off the end of recycled posts that will be used for timber frames.

Finding old wood that can be milled into the large trusses used in timber-framed structures is always a challenge, and Salisbury is always searching for it. Most of the recycled wood he uses comes from old-growth trees, including one that had 492 growth rings on it, he said.

Once Salisbury has purchased the old- or second-growth wood, he sends the salvaged pieces to a sawmill in the Puget Sound area that reworks it with a decontamination process and removes the metal it contains.

Preparing the wood for a large framing project like the one off Battle Point Road is tedious and lengthy. This job called for 20,000 board feet and had exactly 420 pieces of wood that went into it. Salisbury’s company had worked with the clients for about 18 months by the time a crane lifted all the pieces in place and carpenters went to work on the joinery.

Tom Bonifield, an island native who manages Salisbury’s timber-frame part of the business, works with designs by the architects (a Seattle firm in this instance) by using autoCAD to transfigure them into a draft that the company’s woodworkers then use to create the many pieces for the frame. The wood usually arrives from the sawmill as 10-by-10-inch posts that are 20 feet long and are planed on four sides.

In the Battle Point job, it took Salisbury’s woodworkers eight weeks to cut all the pieces and then another two weeks at the site.

“It’s a pretty complicated process,” he said, “especially on the bigger buildings. This one was so big and with the basement area there was more engineering than usual.”

But when a building is completed, Salisbury said, it’s such a gratifying experience that he can’t wait to get started on the next one.

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