Transforming Old Wood into New Business

Peerless wide-plank floors and panels made from reclaimed wood is the specialty of Birmingham-based Riverbottom Pine.

Kim Turner at the Riverbottom Pine showroom displaying some of the many ways he can bring wood into a home project. Photos by Art Meripol

During his early days in the construction industry, Kim Turner, owner of Birmingham-based Riverbottom Pine, served as a carpenter for his father, a contractor who renovated homes in Mountain Brook and Homewood.

Turner’s father had the challenge of matching the historic styles of the homes’ original molding and other woodwork. He approached his son to help him find a solution to perfectly recreate the old millwork’s stately patterns in a more affordable way. “Modern millwork just didn’t look the same, and, of course, the homeowners wouldn’t have been happy with mismatched molding,” Turner says. “Reproduction woodwork was available from a large supply company my father used, but the prices were hefty and had to be passed on to the customer.”

Turner’s father first asked him to create a reproduction of an old oak trim piece for a historic home renovation, which Turner did in his basement at home. He then started producing molding and other woodwork for his father’s house projects.

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Not long after, in 1996, Turner had the opportunity to install salvaged river bottom-recovered pine in a home in the upscale Greystone residential development in Hoover. Wood at the bottom of rivers and other bodies of water does not rot and can last for hundreds of years. “The Greystone project was my first big side job and led to my naming my new company Riverbottom Pine,” Turner says. “Today river bottom wood isn’t easily available, and what’s out there tends to be prohibitively expensive, so these days we primarily work with reclaimed wood and storm-fallen trees. But the legacy of our original name continues.”

Reclaimed wood adds unique touches on wall and ceiling. Photo courtesy of Riverbottom Pine

Riverbottom Pine recovers, mills, installs and finishes wood, providing customers a full-service process for flooring, wall treatments, ceilings, stairs, mantels, countertops, barn doors and tables in styles ranging from rustic to formal. Its products are being used in such diverse locations as stylish downtown Birmingham lofts to renovated historic Potomac River locks under the auspices of the National Park Service.

“You won’t find too many businesses that do everything from the harvesting to installing the finished product,” Turner says.

The growing company also now sells wholesale to other reclaimed wood vendors. An internet search shows an abundance of companies that supply or install reclaimed wood, proof of its growing popularity.

“You could say we supply some of our competitors,” Turner says.

His company ships raw reclaimed logs, which can help builders win Forest Stewardship Council certification or credits toward Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. Even if they opt not to seek certification, they can demonstrate that they’ve followed guidelines.

“Using reclaimed wood gives you bragging rights,” Turner says.

Riverbottom Pine is particularly known for its wide-plank flooring, but can mill flooring of any width and length. According to the company website, which features a variety of striking photographs depicting the wide range of its work, “We mill, install and finish more wide-plank floors than anyone in the Southeast.”

Striking grain patterns from reclaimed wood allow these barn doors to make a bold statement. Photo courtesy of Riverbottom Pine

In recent years, sliding barn doors for residential and commercial use have become especially popular for both their look and versatility. Demand for barn doors manufactured by Riverbottom Pine has increased so much that it has made them one of the company’s top categories.

“Our mix has varied over time, but these days about 50 percent of our business is flooring, 40 percent wall skins and 10 percent barn doors,” Turner says. “We are structured for flexibility, so that we shift our mix as demands change.”

For the past decade, Riverbottom Pine has participated in the Birmingham Inspiration Home, a luxury show home organized annually by Birmingham Home & Garden Magazine. This past year, Turner’s company supplied the reclaimed oak seen in the home, which is located in Homewood. “Our products have been a popular part of the Inspiration homes,” Turner says. “Reclaimed wood has a singular look that sets it apart and creates an ambience like nothing else can.”

Although his company, which does business across the country, has some large accounts, no job is too small, Turner says. The company is periodically employed to transform a storm-fallen tree from a family’s property into wood paneling, a table or other use. “People who feel a nostalgic tie to their trees, maybe even from childhood memories, come to us so that we can provide them with something from it that will last the test of time,” he says.

Turner says he’s proud Riverbottom Pine, which employs approximately 20 workers on a 12-acre mill site, is part of the growing green movement to recycle and reuse. His team, many of whom are skilled craftsmen, get a lot of satisfaction seeing old wood being given a new life. “We are going to keep riding this green wave, because it’s only going to build,” Turner says. “Using reclaimed materials will likely be mandated in some cases at some point in the future.”

Reclaimed wood started becoming popular as early as the 1960s, as homeowners and designers began seeing its potential to add something special to interiors, while being environmentally friendly, Turner says. The colors, textures and grain patterns of old wood batches are unusual and striking. When reclaimed wood comes from old-growth trees, as it often does, the quality of the wood — including hardness — can be superior to wood harvested from young forests.

Being able to tell a background story of where a room’s wood came from adds to the perceived value and interest of old wood. Reclaimed wood with notable histories may come from old pallets, shipping crates, barns, mills, boatyards and salvage yards, among other sources.

“Interest in the wood just kept growing steadily from the ’60s,” he says. “Then beginning in 2000, you began to see a real upsurge in the popularity of reclaimed materials. That’s only going to grow.”

One misconception about reclaimed wood, Turner sometimes hears, is the belief that it is less expensive than newly milled virgin wood product. Unfortunately, because of the cost to find, gather and process the old wood, sometimes available only in small batches, the prices to produce and buy reclaimed wood are higher.

“Even so, the demand continues to increase, because it’s a highly desirable product that cannot easily be reproduced,” Turner says.

Kathy Hagood and Art Meripol are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. She is based in Homewood and he in Birmingham.

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