Duluth artisan reclaims history by turning heirloom wood into furniture
“Artists like Clancy, they validate, in a sense, the true spirit of Duluth and of being a Duluthian.”
Clancy Ward maneuvered long strips of wood on his workshop table.
He held pieces up close, angling and matching tiny grooves on the ends, ensuring the correct fit in the large wooden puzzle that would become a kitchen island.
Ward is the owner and artist behind Saltwood Furniture Co. , a Duluth business that specializes in reclaimed and heirloom wood projects.
Along with residential work, Ward’s creations can be found all over Duluth, at Frost River Trading Co., OMC Smokehouse and Lake Avenue Restaurant & Bar.
“Clancy is all over the taproom; there's not a corner that he doesn't have a hand in somewhere,” said Pepin Young, director of taproom operations at Bent Paddle Brewing Co.
Young appreciates Ward’s willingness and ability to create a space that combines the historical and contemporary. He’s really in tune with his medium, Young said, noting that all the heirloom pieces Ward worked on for the brewery came from the original building.
“Artists like Clancy, they validate, in a sense, the true spirit of Duluth and of being a Duluthian,” Young added.
“He’s a guy who’s bringing art and culture to the community in many ways,” said Tom Hanson.
The co-owner of Duluth Grill, Corktown Deli and Brews and OMC Smokehouse was introduced to Ward in 2008. “As a restauranteur, we were definitely trying to do things differently than corporate restaurants. We were trying to build an identity,” Hanson recalled.
Since then, Ward has built Duluth Grill’s tables, the foyer shelving and the hostess stand out of reclaimed wood, and some outdoor seating out of tree trunks. He knows their business and what they're looking to achieve, Hanson said. And he can deliver without hand-holding or taking away from his own creativity.
Going with locally made furniture fits Hanson’s values in more ways than one. You own something that’s one-of-a-kind, you’re supporting somebody who is honing a craft and making a living from it, and: “I think we have a lot of people supporting us, and we have to push that money right back into the community.
“It’s bringing authenticity to our city,” Hanson said.
READ MORE ABOUT NORTHLAND ARTISANS:
A Clancy Ward original sits near the fireplace in the Bent Paddle taproom in Duluth. Ward designed and created this chair out of pickle tank cypress. The name for Ward's small business, Saltwood Furniture Company, comes from the salty brine used in the pickle vats. The leatherwork was handmade by Candace LaCosse of Hemlock Leatherworks in Duluth. (Samantha Erkkilafirstname.lastname@example.org)
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Before moving to the Midwest, Ward studied design at an Oakland, California, art school. His path shifted on the job, where he was introduced to Japanese-inspired work using timber frames and reclaimed wood — a new practice in the early ’90s. He apprenticed for two years at this shop before moving to Portland, Oregon, where he built and remodeled houses and furniture. It was a changing time in the craft. People started fighting clear-cut logging and were beginning to look at salvageable buildings and saving big trees, Ward recalled.
“I was watching the world of reclaimed lumber kind of birth itself out here,” he said.
He moved to Port Wing, Wisconsin, where he built his family’s home. He eventually moved and started working for Max Taubert at Duluth Timber. When the timber company closed in 2017, the materials and machinery were sold, everybody left, and Ward had to figure out what to do.
“When I started my business, it was an emergency," he said. “When the timber company closed, I was, like, ‘Do I get a job at the cabinet shop or do I start a business?’”
He had some timber, a few machines, and people were still coming to the site looking for help, so in 2018, he went for it.
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In Ward’s shop at 1400 W. Railroad St., he has pieces of fir, redwood and cypress resting against one wall.
He houses a kiln for drying wood outside the shop, and inside, he built an office with a small platform stage — a prime spot for hosting a few virtual shows, which he did this past year.
Ward also offers milling and knife sharpening at Saltwood. During the pandemic, he saw an increase in his repair services. Offering these other services, and assembling his pieces, makes for a nice break for creativity.
“You can have a eureka moment when you’re doing production,” he said.
Ward’s design process starts with the material, the client and their vision. He once made a bed using trim from a client’s childhood home. For another job, he built a kitchen using wood from dog sleds.
He primarily uses wood from pickle and wine tanks, large vats 8-12 feet tall and 20 feet in diameter. “They’d store water, pickles and salt brine in there, which is where I got the name,” Ward said.
The wood is easier to get because with salt in it, few people want to work with it. He uses a lot of glue and epoxy to avoid rust by mixing metal with salted wood, and he runs a metal detector over the pieces before exposing the wood to his machinery.
Bullets are a common discovery.
By the time he sees the wood, it has been through a lot. It’s had a life already. There are nail holes, bolt holes or splits. But every time you cut into this material, it’s like opening a present, he said.
“It’s talking to you. It informs you about what to do with it. It informs you about what it wants to be. It’s alive. It’s been cut down, dried and turned into buildings and taken down from those buildings and sawed into flooring and then put in a scrap pile.
“It’s more than just wood to me at this point,” he said. “I want to treat the material with the respect it deserves.”
But Ward is no purist. A recent job called for purchased wood to build a set of stairs, and he also designed and built a pair of end tables for Frost River out of scrap wood he found in the shop. There’s a character in there, and you’re using your ability to make it into something cohesive, something that makes sense as opposed to throwing it in the burn pile, he said.
Asked about challenges on the job, Ward relayed a common saying among woodworkers: “It’s not how you build it, it’s how you repair it that matters.”
There are hazards in the building. Ward has to pay attention, be efficient but not rush. Everything’s sharp in the workshop, everywhere you turn, and sharp objects cut skin. But you can’t be afraid of the machines, Ward said; you just have to respect the equipment.
As far as the future, Ward kept it simple. It has been a challenge to get to this point, and now that he’s here, he wants to stick around.
“It’s nice to get woken up to the fact that you’re doing what you’ve been striving to do your whole life," he said. "Even if it’s hard, even if the rest of your life isn’t perfect, it’s really important for me to remember that.
“I know things are going to change, or not always be the same. I want to walk into the same shop every day for a little while, at least.”
- More info: saltwoodfurniture.com