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Steeped in Character

Retired barrels built to age wine, cure olives, or pickle cucumbers yield high-grade wood for new flooring, paneling, and trim

Wine barrels repurposed as wood paneling
Photo by Anthony Tieuli
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They're so deceiving. It's a stretch to imagine these fat-bellied wine barrels, tinged by the cabernet or zinfandel that was aged inside them, as having any potential as kitchen flooring material or living-room paneling. Their stained, curved staves don't offer the kind of almost-ready-to-install ease that timbers salvaged from a historic house or weathered outbuilding do. Yet the quality and age of the forest giants that coopers used to build these casks—cedar, oak, mature Douglas fir, and increasingly rare redwood—makes the seemingly humble vessels far too valuable to waste.

In fact, old barrels and tanks offer some of the highest-grade lumber currently available: Each stave is free of knots, because even one knot would have meant leakage. And the strong quartersawn boards have the tight, moisture-resistant grain of slow-growing trees harvested between 90 and 120 years of age—placing them in a league above the 45- to 60-year-olds typically culled for building lumber today. Long used to make barrels, casks, and floor-to-ceiling tanks designed to cure olives, steep pickles, age whiskey, and, famously, impart flavor and richness to fine wines, the reclaimed boards maintain the subtle marks and ­aromas of the former cargo.

In California alone last year, more than 200,000 of the vintage oak barrels used to age the region's celebrated vinos were retired from duty. Most of them were either halved to become planters at the end of suburban driveways or, worse, turned into kindling. But not every retired oak barrel or out-of-work redwood olive tank is doomed to an undignified end. Recognizing their value as high-grade raw materials, lumber reclamation companies have begun to seek out, dismantle, dry, remill, and reuse old barrels, casks, tanks, and vats for use as one-of-a-kind flooring, decking, architectural moldings, and any number of wine-cellar accoutrements. "The tight grain of the wood, the patina created during the aging process, and the cooper stamps on the boards have all left a legend revealing where this wood has been," says Rick Merwin, president of Fontenay, a wood-reclamation company based in California's Napa Valley region. It's the sort of history that appeals not only to wine connoisseurs but to everyone who appreciates the kind of character that can only come with age. —NR
They're so deceiving. It's a stretch to imagine these fat-bellied wine barrels, tinged by the cabernet or zinfandel that was aged inside them, as having any potential as kitchen flooring material or living-room paneling. Their stained, curved staves don't offer the kind of almost-ready-to-install ease that timbers salvaged from a historic house or weathered outbuilding do. Yet the quality and age of the forest giants that coopers used to build these casks—cedar, oak, mature Douglas fir, and increasingly rare redwood—makes the seemingly humble vessels far too valuable to waste.

In fact, old barrels and tanks offer some of the highest-grade lumber currently available: Each stave is free of knots, because even one knot would have meant leakage. And the strong quartersawn boards have the tight, moisture-resistant grain of slow-growing trees harvested between 90 and 120 years of age—placing them in a league above the 45- to 60-year-olds typically culled for building lumber today. Long used to make barrels, casks, and floor-to-ceiling tanks designed to cure olives, steep pickles, age whiskey, and, famously, impart flavor and richness to fine wines, the reclaimed boards maintain the subtle marks and ­aromas of the former cargo.

In California alone last year, more than 200,000 of the vintage oak barrels used to age the region's celebrated vinos were retired from duty. Most of them were either halved to become planters at the end of suburban driveways or, worse, turned into kindling. But not every retired oak barrel or out-of-work redwood olive tank is doomed to an undignified end. Recognizing their value as high-grade raw materials, lumber reclamation companies have begun to seek out, dismantle, dry, remill, and reuse old barrels, casks, tanks, and vats for use as one-of-a-kind flooring, decking, architectural moldings, and any number of wine-cellar accoutrements. "The tight grain of the wood, the patina created during the aging process, and the cooper stamps on the boards have all left a legend revealing where this wood has been," says Rick Merwin, president of Fontenay, a wood-reclamation company based in California's Napa Valley region. It's the sort of history that appeals not only to wine connoisseurs but to everyone who appreciates the kind of character that can only come with age. —NR
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New Furniture From Vintage Wood

 

New Furniture From Vintage Wood

Wine barrels repurposed as wood paneling
Photo by Justin Hulse
Wine barrels face retirement when their wood becomes too neutral to give flavor and aroma to their contents. That's when the casks' tight-grained, knot-free boards become ripe for reclamation. The hue of the salvaged wood hinges on the type of grape juice stored in the barrels as well as the amount of time the liquid has had to penetrate it; red wine and long aging result in a deeper wood tone.
Storage benches and coffee tables, folding chairs and kitchen islands, beds and mirror frames: If it can be made from wood, it can be made from reclaimed barrel wood. In his shop in Northern California, furnituremaker Whit McLeod designs and produces a line of Arts and Crafts-inspired pieces using salvaged oak wine casks. "The old quartersawn oak has a beautiful burnished hue and has been dried for up to a year—sometimes more—which makes it less prone to shrinkage and a lot more stable for furniture construction than most new lumber on the market," says McLeod, who hand selects and remills wood reclaimed from local wineries. The results—a collection of handmade dining tables, ottomans, and a full range of seating, including, since you asked, toilet seats—are one of kind. And because no new trees are cut down to build them, they are easy on the earth.

—Katherine Stuhler
 
 

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