Ancient Chinese secret: Mountain Lumber hauls it in

At Mountain Lumber, using old wood is nothing new. For 30 years, the Ruckersville-based company has scoured the nation for condemned old buildings, swooping in to "reclaim" the wood and put it to use.

But the wood from 200-year-old barns and other American structures is relatively new compared to the company's latest international venture: 400-year-old Chinese Elm.

Mountain Lumber owner Willie Drake first heard about the ancient wood from an antique-dealer friend several years ago. But after looking into the possibility of importing the logs from dismantled historic Chinese buildings, Drake got tangled in communist Chinese government red tape– no export of "pure raw material" allowed. In order to get the wood, Drake would have to allow Chinese workers to process it first.

"That pretty much put the kibosh on the deal for a long time," says Mountain Lumber spokesman David Foky, "because we're really particular about what we cut, and how we do it."

Undeterred, Drake continued to contact the Chinese bureaucracy until one day the policy changed. Over the course of two trips to China earlier this year, accompanied by a translator and an expert in ancient Chinese porcelain who once worked for famed New York auction house Sotheby's, Drake purchased 12 shipping containers of timbers. Each tractor-trailer-sized container holds approximately 100 of the massive pieces of wood.

The purchase of each timber, says Drake, had to be negotiated individually from Chinese merchants– and often their entire families– who often possessed only one.

"It's not like doing business here," he laughs, recalling merchants loading rejected timbers into his container and then threatening a " removal fee" if he pointed out the "mistake."

Eventually, Drake says, he got used to the foreign business style. But chances are he won't be going back anytime soon.

"We bought all of the high quality timbers that we could find," says Foky. "Our educated guess: This is it."

"I will probably use it in the future," says Jay Dalgliesh, an architect who is one of Mountain Lumber's steadiest customers for its bread and butter product: reclaimed heart pine. Dalgliesh praises the ancient Chinese Elm for its durability and beauty.

Dalgliesh's clients, like most of Mountain Lumber's customers, are looking for something "different and interesting." A piece of the Ming Dynasty could certainly qualify. Often, those clients have the budget to back their interests, and that's a good thing.

The ancient Chinese Elm comes with a hefty price tag– from $15.50 per square foot for three to seven-inch-wide planks to as much as $19.50 per square foot for six to 10-inch planks. That's nearly double the cost of certain types of new hardwood flooring.

Oak floors at Floor Fashions of Virginia, for instance, start at about $7 per square foot, with other hardwoods, such as cherry, running as much as $14 per square foot, according to manager Joe Deane. Installation is another $2.50/sq. ft.

Foky acknowledges the Chinese Elm isn't necessarily a bargain.

"It's in the more expensive range of what we sell," he says. But, he adds, "You're dealing with transportation and procurement costs."

And for critics of reclaimed wood, who say it encourages the demolition of historic structures, Foky has a quick reply.

"We never are the ones who cause a building to come down," he says. "The community decides to save or not save the building. At that point, we come in to make sure that these limited resources are not wasted."

And there's an environmental benefit in using reclaimed wood as well.

"In 30 years," Foky boasts, "we haven't cut down a single tree."

The massive logs await processing.



A Mountain Lumber employee feeds a board into a molder, a machine that planes the boards and cuts the tongue and groove on the sides.



Each board is inspected for quality. Imperfections are cut out.



Chinese workers in flip-flops move a giant elm log which can weigh as much as half a ton.