Michael Costello knew right away that the heart pine in the old warehouse in Skowhegan was the real thing.

Not just because of the tight grain structure and exquisite color, but also because, even after more than 100 years, the wood still smelled of sap, a sign that it was extremely durable and resistant to water and insects.

“You can smell it as soon as you walk into the building if it’s the real old growth,” he said.

Costello’s family business, Costello Dismantling Co. in Wareham, Massachusetts, was hired to demolish the warehouse by its owner, shoe manufacturer New Balance. Costello’s crew used hydraulic excavators to strip away roofing material, floor decking and the walls so they could expose the structural beams, made from wood that came from trees four or five centuries old. They salvaged as much of the heart pine as they could and sold it to a dealer in reclaimed wood.

The wood from the warehouse, along with maple flooring from an 1840s-era textile mill in Biddeford, ended up getting new life in a barista training center run by a hip coffee company in SoHo in the heart of Manhattan.

Reclaimed wood from Maine is getting top dollar from homeowners, restaurants and businesses in the big cities of the Northeast as customers seek out both quality and beauty, and wood that has a story to tell. Whether it’s planks from an old barn repurposed into a farm-style table, white oak rescued from the bottom of a river that becomes tabletops in a high-end New York restaurant, or sturdy-but-beautiful heart pine from a church, mill or warehouse – reclaimed wood is trendy.

“Is it a trend?” challenges Doug Sanford, developer of the Pepperell Mill Campus, a complex of old mill buildings in Biddeford that is being transformed into apartments and commercial space and was the source of the salvaged maple flooring for the coffee house. “Or is it a continued sense of value because you can’t find those timbers anymore? There’s only so much of it. All lumber now is all fast growth, and harvested in short order. It’s all about how quick can you grow it.”

ONCE UPON A TREE

The clamor for reclaimed wood in commercial and residential design has its roots in both the environmental movement and in human nature: Everyone loves a good story, and old wood often comes with a history.

“It’s really become quite important that it has a provenance,” observed Kris Cornish, executive director of the Maine Wood Products Association. “They like the fact that they’re having their coffee on a piece of wood from a mill in New England that generated wool for uniforms at some point, and now it’s being re-used and not just trashed.”

The prime motivator for using reclaimed wood, however, is aesthetics, according to Marc Poirier, owner of Longleaf Lumber, which has a showroom and warehouse in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a lumber mill in Berwick. “If it doesn’t look good, there’s no point in putting it into a beautiful venue,” he said. “It’s got to look good first, and then the green aspect helps drive the business.”

For some people, having a story to go with their remodel “is extremely important,” Poirier said. His company buys and dismantles entire historic buildings, so they can tell the customer exactly where the wood originated.

But it’s not always possible to tell someone exact origin stories, since barn boards are often lumped together into big loads, at which point buyers choose them by appearance. Smaller operators often buy from brokers who are selling wood they acquired from demolition contracts, and they don’t have control over the sourcing.

Some Maine wood travels to big cities, some stays right at home. Todd Morrissette, owner of Deadhead Lumber, has made tables for a number of local restaurants in recent years, including the reclaimed red birch used in Bruno’s, Vinland, Liquid Riot (all in Portland) and all of the Luke’s Lobster restaurants (founded by Mainers) around the country.

Barn Boards and More, which has a storefront in Hallowell and makes furniture out of barn wood, has made tables for the East Ender, Bam Bam Bakery and Muse Paintbar in Portland, and Trattoria Athena and Enoteca Athena in Brunswick. Owners Brett and Amy Trefethen say they’ve also been doing a lot of business in New York City recently, including sending 21 tables and 2,000 board feet to a project for Muse Paintbar.

BARN TO BOROUGH

Mark White, a Portland-based fabricator for architects and retailers, made tabletops of reclaimed white oak – some of it from Maine – for Maialino, the Danny Meyer restaurant in New York City’s Gramercy Park Hotel. In September, 71 American chestnut tabletops that White made were installed in Tribeca Grill, a well-known restaurant co-owned by actor Robert DeNiro; the wood came from a dairy barn in Massachusetts.

Marc Poirier has provided reclaimed wood from Maine for several Boston restaurants. Brooklyn Burger Co. in New York used some of his barn siding salvaged from a barn in North Berwick. Even Applebee’s used some of his Maine heart pine as wall paneling when it built a LEED-certified restaurant in East Harlem. (The LEED certification process, he noted, includes tax credits for using reclaimed wood.)

Businesses that deal in reclaimed wood may sell many different kinds of wood, but Morrisette says barn board is particularly popular right now, especially used as accent pieces in second homes and restaurants.

“They’ve been doing it for years in Cape Cod,” he said, “but it’s now kind of moving north… and becoming a desired look in Maine.”

But barn wood doesn’t have a good yield. To build a 1,000-square-foot floor, Morrisette said, it takes 3,000 square feet of material. And the supply is getting more and more limited. The small operators who used to get paid to take barns down, making money on the side by selling the wood, now have to buy standing barns if they want the wood, Morrissette said, adding, “I used to be able to buy it by the truckload for a reasonable price, and now I have to pay top dollar and the quality has gone down quite a bit.”

Wood from historic industrial structures is also hot right now. Less popular, Morrissette said, are the sunken logs from lakes and rivers – deadheads – that he built his business on. Lost in transport as loggers carried them down Maine waterways, these logs have lain for decades perfectly preserved, protected from sunlight, pests and oxygen.

Curiously, their prime condition makes it more difficult to sell them. “With the sunken log, it’s really nice wood, it’s beautiful,” Morrissette said, “but people have trouble wrapping their heads around something that looks new as being reclaimed.”

The wood most often found in Maine’s historic industrial buildings is heart pine, which actually comes “from away.” Before the Civil War and Industrial Revolution, Poirer explained, Maine structures were usually built with local woods, such as spruce, hemlock and white pine. But after, large factories and warehouses required wood with a greater load-bearing capacity, and southern forests filled with longleaf pine trees that were several centuries old provided it.

While the wood didn’t grow here, after more than 100 years it became a part of the Maine landscape.

Costello, whose company took the circa 1895 Skowhegan New Balance warehouse down, said he thinks the building had always been a warehouse, perhaps once associated with a nearby mill. He said the building also contained some native pine, oak and hemlock, but those materials are harder to recover than the heart pine.

“We certainly make every effort we can, especially for the large dimensional piece, to recover them, but they tend to be less dense,” Costello said. “They splinter a little bit more easily, and it’s harder to recover them in a salvageable condition.”

The wood from the warehouse was sold to Poirer’s company, and it went through Longleaf’s Berwick mill. Along the way, the nails were removed, the wood cut to order and put into a kiln to dry. (The heat kills any insects.)

Just about all reclaimed wood must go through some kind of cleaning process when it comes in. Barn wood might be coated in cow and chicken manure.

“We get into buildings that are industrial buildings where sometimes machine oil or whale oil – that’s how old the building is – gets onto the wood and we have to separate all that out,” Poirier said.

Workers might use a wire brush on barn board, or do a little hand sanding, but every effort is made to preserve the original patina.

Poirier has also bought salvaged maple flooring from the Pepperell Mill Campus, a complex of 18 buildings that is being turned into apartments and commercial space. Most of the buildings were constructed from the 1840s to the 1890s, according to Sanford, the owner/developer.

ALL THE RAGE

If the maple flooring is so attractive, why not keep it? Sanford said some tenants don’t like the noise that comes with wood floors. Or part of a floor has buckled, so they take the whole thing up and sell the boards as salvage. Or adding cathedral ceilings requires a change in floors, too. A lot of the salvaged wood has ended up in New York bars and restaurants, he said: “That seems to be the rage.”

After the heart pine from Skowhegan and the maple from Biddeford went through the Longleaf Lumber mill in Berwick, it was sold to Counter Culture Coffee in New York City – 1,800 square feet in all. The maple was once again used as flooring, and the heart pine was finished with a Danish teak oil and used for all the countertops.

Jesse Kahn, who heads design of the company’s training centers, said that while it’s nice the wood has a story to tell, his primary goal in ordering it was to keep the barista training center in SoHo green.

“To be totally honest, using wood that was already in the Northeast, and was milled and refinished in the Northeast as well, just shrinks the environmental footprint that much more,” he said. “Certainly aesthetics are a part of the conversation, and it’s always great when your aesthetics and morals find themselves aligned.”

The popularity of reclaimed wood is not limited to American homes and businesses. Poirier says he’s sent wood all over the world, most recently to Japan. “Right now, design-wise, they’re really into rustic Americana,” he said.

With reclaimed wood so popular, what does the future hold? Won’t we eventually run out?

Poirier and Morrissette agree that while there’s still plenty of industrial wood, New England barn wood is a different story.

“It’s the dairy barns that are all going away,” Poirier said. “So in New England, I think there’s only a couple of decades left where that’s going to be a viable thing. But who knows? By then we might be salvaging 1950s subdivisions, and that will be beautiful.”