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Salvage Works: Turning old barns and deconstructed buildings in lumber gold

Preston Browning, owner of Salvage Works, with some deconstructed lumber. (Salvage Works)

Well before the city of Portland passed an ordinance last summer requiring houses built before 1916 to be salvaged for re-use, Preston Browning was passionate about reclaimed lumber.

Browning has been attracted to wood since he was a 13-year-old kid working construction.

As an adult, he became even more enamored with old, antique wood -- the kind you might find in a dumpster or covering the walls of an old barn.

“Partly it's the aesthetic -- the age and the character of the wood, the patina as it were. It's just really rich and warm,” Browning said. “On top of that there's sort of the history behind it, the stories that come with it, the old photos of old barns and old houses.”

Seven years ago Browning acted on that passion, creating a business called Salvage Works in North Portland. It's there that he and 12 workers are turning that old wood into everything from interior wall cladding, to tables, mantle pieces, shelving and furniture.

It's also a retro lumber yard for anyone who wants to buy wood that has a history that can stretch back to the 1850s. They can barely keep up with the demand for tight-grained Doug fir, cedar and pine.

“You see on really the earliest barns all hand-hewn beams, very rustic, very beautiful well-aged material,” Browning said. “We sell a lot to contractors and fabricators who are building the interiors of restaurants and bars, coffee shops, offices, that sort of thing.”

Anyone who's been in a recently remodeled or newly built bar or restaurant in Portland has likely seen the kind of wood that fills Salvage Works' 25,000 square foot complex. The deconstruction ordinance -- and plenty of deteriorating barns -- will keep them and Salvage Works in old wood for years to come.

“It provides jobs, it keeps material out of the landfill and really provides this amazing material that you just can't find anymore,” Browning said of the ordinance.

Browning also spends a lot of time scouring the Northwest for wood to salvage, whether it's old Portland homes, commercial buildings or aging barns up and down the Willamette Valley and in eastern Oregon.

“Most of the lumber for the barns was being built by hand, it was cut by hand, it didn't come from a mill,” he said. "There's only a few of the old barns in the Willamette Valley left. Sadly, many are disintegrated -- that's a liability and they have to come down. But at least that beautiful old material will get preserved.”

Portland city officials say more than 300 single-family homes are demolished each year in Portland. The new deconstruction ordinance will affect about a third of those, diverting 4,000 thousand tons of material that would have been discarded to be re-used and reclaimed.

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