How much wood can Woodchuck salvage?The Globe grain elevator stands 15 stories over St. Louis Bay in Superior. Decommissioned in 1989, it still carries the pungent scent of its forgotten cargo. Inside, the wooden boards that make up 133 grain bins bear corrugated grooves born of a century of grain cascading down them.
By: Nina Petersen-Perlman, Duluth News Tribune
The Globe grain elevator stands 15 stories over St. Louis Bay in Superior. Decommissioned in 1989, it still carries the pungent scent of its forgotten cargo. Inside, the wooden boards that make up 133 grain bins bear corrugated grooves born of a century of grain cascading down them.
This structure, the biggest grain elevator in the world when it was built in the late 1880s, contains the equivalent of an entire forest of antique, old-growth white pine in its walls.
Now, 120 years after it rose over the bay, the building is being deconstructed as carefully and slowly as it was built. Instead of its parts going into a landfill, Wisconsin Woodchuck LLC, which salvages old-growth lumber, will recycle 6 million board feet from the Globe elevator and two neighboring structures for use in new homes and other buildings.
Employees of the Superior-based business are about halfway done with the painstaking process of dismantling the main building, which they started in July 2006. Woodchuck CEO David Hozza said he originally estimated the takedown of the main building would take a year.
He didn’t account for how difficult it would be to remove the metal superstructure and 4,400-pound metal pulley wheels, nor for the vast amount of wood inside the building. The template for the building showed fewer inside walls than there were, Hozza said.
“There was much more wood than we anticipated,” he said. “We’re finding bins within bins.”
Before taking on this project, Hozza, a former investment banker, said everything he knew about wood came from what he learned in an eighth-grade shop class. In 2004, Gordy Oftedahl, who owns the property, enlisted Hozza to help him find a bank to finance his proposed conversion of the land on which the Globe elevator sits into an RV park and marina; the plan is still in the works.
“They all said the same thing — we will not touch the project until the buildings come down,” Hozza said.
Sure the wood would have resale value, Hozza jumped into the architectural salvage industry and created Wisconsin Woodchuck. He contracted to do the work with Oftedahl, who still owns the land. The company closed on the main building in April 2007. It purchased one of the two neighboring structures, used for passive grain storage, in December, and will close on the third building soon.
On a sunny morning earlier this month, a crew perched on top of the building used chainsaws to cut through 8-by-12 and 8-by-24 slabs of nailed-together boards. A crane carried the slabs to the ground, where another crew separated and pulled nails from the boards, using metal detectors to ensure they found as many as possible.
All the wood is kiln-dried to kill any critters that may have made their home in the lumber. Some of the wood is sold as-is, but much of it is hand-sanded and oiled before it goes to customers.
It’s a huge task — one that has Woodchuck’s competitors applauding them for taking it on.
“They’re very brave,” said Peter Krieger of Duluth Timber Co., which does similar work salvaging industrial wood across North America. “It’s a lot of work. It makes me tired just thinking about it.”
On top of Woodchuck’s challenge of disassembling the building is the challenge of unloading their product onto a shaky housing market. Woodchuck President Judy Peres said the timbers — the long beams that supported the structure — have sold themselves due to their scarcity. Tall specimens of white pine just don’t exist anymore after massive deforestation of the area, she said.
But the dimension lumber — boards pancaked and nailed one on top of another to create the bin walls — has been tougher both to get out of the building and to sell.
“It’s staggered parts,” crane operator Butch Zillmer said. “You have to take one part off, then the other.”
Because the wood is largely being sold to people with expendable income who are building second homes in places such as the Canadian Rockies, though, Peres is confident the housing slowdown won’t affect the company too badly.
Phil Bjork, owner of Cambridge, Minn.-based Great Northern Woodworks, used Woodchuck wood — he estimated about 40,000 board feet — to build a large timber-frame home for clients from Colorado.
“The nature that it is antique and it’s from a timber supply [that] perhaps the world will never see again — the historical impact of what the building was and being able to make it live again is very appealing to people,” he said.
Byron G. Ellingson of Minneapolis is using the dimension lumber to remodel the floors of a bedroom and living room in his cabin on Bone Lake, about 7 miles east of Forest Lake, Minn. He also is using slabs of grain-eroded wood as accent pieces around his fireplace.
“I took wood from the old grain chutes so it’s sandblasted across 100 years. I’ve never seen anything quite like it,” he said.
Antique wood may be more expensive, he said, but it’s of a much higher quality than what comes out of today’s tree farms.
“The grain is much denser in older wood,” Ellingson said. “You don’t get grain structure in a tree that’s fully grown in 20 years.”
Woodchuck has formed a subsidiary called Old Globe Wood, which is processing the dimension lumber into planks for flooring and paneling. Old Globe uses penetrating oils and beeswax to finish the wood, which helps to bring out the antique appearance, Peres said. If it gets marred in some way, you can just rub some vegetable oil into it to restore—and possibly enhance—the wood’s finish, she said.
“It makes you realize how alive the wood is,” Peres said. “It’s very different from taking a stick of wood and covering it with polyurethane. Then it’s like dead wood, covered with plastic. This is live wood. It’s breathing. You can feel the pores and you can smell it.”