Willie Drake, a self-described "accidental environmentalist," has been turning reclaimed lumber into flooring for nearly 40 years. He got his start when he and a friend were building a house in rural Virginia for a homeowner who wanted wood paneling made from "something unusual." They decided to use "wormy chestnut," undaunted by the fact that this once-plentiful species was wiped out by a blight in the early 1900s.
They located a large number of rough-cut chestnut boards in a barn in the mountains of southwestern Virginia, stacked there decades before by a farmer trying to salvage the wood after the blight killed his trees. They turned it into finished paneling.
Drake soon learned there was enough old lumber in Southwestern Virginia to make sourcing and producing finished paneling and flooring a full-time pursuit. He founded Mountain Lumber (mountainlumber.com) in Ruckersville, Va., in 1974.
To assess the viability of "often really awful-looking wood," he needed to be a timber specialist as well as a title-searching archivist. If a 150-year old abandoned factory was once used as a tannery, for example, the workers probably used heavy metals. These often migrated into the wood, making it unsuitable for reclamation. The wood has advantages: The planks can be as wide as 14 inches, and they have gorgeous depth and luminosity that can be found only in old wood that has been exposed to air for many decades.
Pete Nichols's special green-flooring products required vision and determination of another sort. A lifelong environmentalist, he has always loved the man-made engineered wood that American builders have used to frame houses for more than 30 years. Structurally, the engineered-wood products are far superior to the dimensional lumber sawn from logs that they have replaced. To him, its wood strands compressed in resin looked like fossilized plant matter suspended in amber, but builders, ever solicitous of their buyers' opinions, continued to conceal what many people characterized as "fake wood."
Nichols finally got his chance to explore the idea when he visited a Chinese bamboo flooring factory in the late 1990s. There he found technicians trying to do with bamboo what he wanted to do with wood: create an "engineered bamboo" flooring from bamboo scraps that was stronger, more stable and more beautiful than natural bamboo. Nichols soon joined them, introducing American technologies to perfect a flooring product they called "stranded bamboo." His firm, Engineered Timber Resources of Boulder, Colo., (etimberr.com) began selling it in the United States in 2001.