July 21, 2013

Maine company reclaims sunken logs

Maine Heritage Timber Co. retrieves the logs from a 1,000-acre lake in Millinocket for wood flooring, wainscoting and furniture.

By Jessica Hall jhall@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Tom Shafer’s company, Maine Heritage Timber Co. in Millinocket, dredges timber from lakes and rivers like the raw tree trunks pictured above and uses the wood for flooring and furniture, pictured below.

Photos by John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Additional Photos Below

The company tried to make money selling the wood for pulp for biomass to run boilers. That sells for $30 a ton. However, wood with rich patinas and interesting history can sell as wainscoting for $89 per 40-pound bundle. The flooring retails from $9.50 to $14 per square foot.

"The wainscoting, we feel, will really help our bottom line. Not everyone can afford $10-a-square-foot flooring. But wainscoting adds a special look without a major investment," Shafer said.

Shafer estimates it could take 10 to 15 years to get through all the wood, which is a mix of spruce, fir, Eastern White Pine, birch, oak and maple.

"I want to be in every building supply store in the state of Maine," Shafer said.

Shafer sees his target customer as a hedge fund manager who wants something no one else has -- a unique conversation piece in the home that can be bragged about. Or the consumer who wants to make an environmental difference by buying reclaimed wood. Or a socially responsible business that wants to use recycled and reused materials.

"Our customers know they will pay a premium for it, but they love the beauty and love the story," Shafer said."We want the customer who will say, 'Do you know where this floor came from?' "

The woods in Quakish Lake were mostly softwoods that were cut and put into the water and floated down the river, where they were directed into the mill through underwater tunnels, said Robert Rice, a professor of wood science at the University of Maine.

The company, which employs 11 workers, plus Shafer and Sanders, has supplied materials for River Drivers pub in Millinocket, Sugarloaf's 45 North restaurant and a restaurant in Amelia Island, Fla.

The flooring is a so-called engineered product, also known as a laminate. There's a ¼-inch "wear layer" that's applied to an 11-ply Baltic birch. It wears almost the same as an all-wood product, and it's subject to less temperature and moisture expansion and shrinkage. Using only a "wear layer" or veneer of the reclaimed wood will allow the wood supply to last longer, Shafer said.

"It's great that they're recycling a natural resource that's been preserved unknown under water. It's a unique product. People who want unique things with a story -- nothing would fit the bill any better," said Viking Lumber President Dave Flanagan.

Viking plans to feature Maine Heritage Timber's products. The wainscoting has unique patinas that hopefully will attract customers who want a distinct look, Flanagan said. He said the flooring would work best in a living room or a dining room, not in a high-traffic hallway or kitchen.

"It's too valuable to use in a place where you're tracking muddy boots. It's not an industrial product. It's a decorative product with history," he said.

Rice said Maine Heritage Timber's assortment of wood has varying degrees of strength and density, depending on the species of tree. The cold water and lack of oxygen eliminate the organisms that would normally decay wet wood, leaving the sunken timber strong and untouched. In other parts of the world, wood has survived on the ocean floor for as long as 5,000 years, gaining a jet black patina, Rice said.

The Janka Rating -- or hardness rating -- on Maine Heritage Timber wood is about 10 percent less than fresh wood, Rice said, but it is still resistant to most dents and scuffs.

"This is wood that grew very slowly. A lot of growth rings per square inch make it more resistant to heel marks. But no wood floor is immune to stiletto heels," Rice said. "The people buying this wood are looking for a certain rustic appearance and an interesting story -- and there's definitely an interesting story behind this wood."

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Additional Photos

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Todd Bernier operates a long reach excavator at Quakish Lake near Millinocket as the company harvests its raw materials.

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Todd Bernier uses a long reach excavator to grab a load of sunken logs at Quakish Lake near Millinocket.

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Kris Willard and Joe Arsenault select and pack wainscoting.

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