Tom Shafer’s business is mining trees. It’s not really harvesting; maybe re-harvesting.
“Recovering a forgotten forest” is his company motto. He likes to think of it as mining. And Shafer’s not just selling lumber to panel offices, restaurants and your home den or man cave. He’s selling history. He’s selling green.
Shafer, a former stock trader, and his business partner, Steve Sanders, founded Maine Heritage Timber in 2010 to exploit a vast trove of sunken logs in Quakish Lake in the economically ailing North Woods town of Millinocket, Maine.
It is a long way from Wall Street, but it’s apparent talking to Shafer that the man has a passion for his product. And, in a sense, he’s still selling, just not stocks.
Quakish Lake covers 1,000 acres. For over a century, it served as a vast holding pond for the Great Northern Paper Company’s huge mill. Millions of logs were floated into it to await the pulping process, and many of them sank. Bathymetric surveys show the lake holds hundreds of thousands of cords of wood, both hardwood and softwood, said Shaffer.
While many of Maine’s lakes have a wooden legacy of the great river drives lying in the mud of their bottoms, there are no others like this, Shafer said. “It’s the honey hole of honey holes.”
Shafer and Sanders began by getting a raft of permits and permissions from the owners of the mill, from the state, from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and from Katahdin Forest Management, which owns the right-of-way. “It was an extensive process,” Shafer said.
The original business plan called for selling most of the logs for paper pulp, with a small milling operation to turn the best of the best into lumber. But with the closing of the local Great Northern Paper Company pulp mill right around the time Maine Heritage Timber was getting started, the partners had to retool their business plan and became a producer of “heritage” lumber for use as paneling and flooring, with scraps and low quality offcuts sold as biomass.
The lake’s timber is a product of the log drives of the 1800s and 1900s. Much of it is virgin timber, with tests showing that some of the trees began growing as early as 1500. Most of the softwood is spruce and fir in four-foot pulp lengths. The hardwood is mainly tree-length stuff that was felled and left to be covered by water when a dam was put in and Quakish Lake was expanded from 400 acres to 1,000 acres in 1899, Shafer said.
“The thing I find most interesting is it was basically a natural resource that is coming out in log form. You have this lost product that has been underwater, in some cases for 150 years. And the only thing that’s happened to it is time and water have transformed the patinas in the wood into something that others try to duplicate with chemicals, but find it difficult to do,” said Shafer.
Instead of feller-bunchers and forwarders, Maine Heritage Timber has a fleet of 11 (10-by-40-foot) barges, 15 industrial sized waste containers, a tugboat, and an excavator with a log loader-type grapple. The excavator and containers are parked on the barges and towed into the lake. The excavator fishes the logs from the water and puts them into the containers. Then they’re towed to shore and loaded onto trucks for the mile-and-a-half trip to the company’s sawmill.
Once there, the logs are loaded onto a shaker screen to scrub off the worst of the mud and rocks and put through a debarker. “It’s a process that’s extremely labor intensive. It takes five men to run that,” said Shafer. Logs smaller than five inches are set aside for chipping. The good stuff is sawn 1.375 inches thick. It then goes to Pride Manufacturing in Burnham, Maine, for drying.
While the retrieval and milling are unconventional, it’s in the drying that things get especially tricky.
Robert Rice, a professor of wood science and technology at the University of Maine’s School of Forest Resources, worked with Shafer to develop drying schedules for the lumber. Compared to freshly cut green wood, submerged wood isn’t supersaturated with water, Rice said. The tree’s cells, after all, can only hold so much.
“But, depending on the depth to which they’ve been sunk, some of them are subject to decay over time,” Rice said. Deeper, colder water inhibits decay; wood from shallower, warmer waters will still see some decay. Quakish is a relatively shallow lake and much of the wood shows some deterioration. But it’s the decay that makes it unique, and it can be a challenge to preserve its integrity in the drying process.
“We approach the drying fairly carefully so that any defects, or ‘character’ as Tom would call it, within the log is preserved,” said Rice. Tests showed that the lumber needed extra time in the dryer to avoid what Rice describes as a “pressure cooker” effect, where evaporating water simply destroys the fibers.
“We go slowly and dry the wood more carefully,” said Rice. “The final temperature is about the same, the ramp rate to get there will take us an extra day or two compared to normal spruce-fir dimension lumber we would dry in a kiln.”
The resulting product is not structural by any means, but a unique decorative lumber, said Rice.
Maine Heritage Timber started out wall paneling and a line of flooring created by resawing the lumber and then bonding the thinner stock to half-inch structural plywood, focusing on commercial customers. The company is still doing all that, but has stopped pushing the flooring. Shafer said there’s too much competition in the flooring market, customers seem to want oak more than pine and spruce, and the margins aren’t all that good. “People that seek us out, we’ll still sell to them, but we don’t push it,” Shafer said.
They also still do the wall paneling and a line of furniture, including conference tables, directed mainly at commercial customers — restaurants, bars, offices. Customers span the continent, from Maine to Florida to California. “We have a few national accounts in the hospitality space,” said Shafer, including By Chloe, a vegan restaurant chain which started in New York City, and Mainly Burgers in Boston.
About 18 months ago, Maine Heritage Timber got into the DIY market in a big way with the launch of its new Timberchic line of stick-on wall coverings. The company’s river-reclaimed wood is sawn an eighth of an inch thick and the panels are backed with double-sided tape. No nails are needed. The product retails for $10 to $13 a square foot.
“We needed the scalability. It was totally a commodity play,” said Shafer. “While we were growing the furniture and millwork side of the business it became clear that we could not survive with custom design and build as a stand-alone platform. So we went back to the drawing board and came up with Timberchic.”
Timberchic comes in seven different stains and is sold on websites such as Amazon, Wayfair, Home Depot and Maine Heritage Timber’s own website. Shafer said sales were initially slow when the product was released in the spring of 2016, but last summer sales began picking up. Right now Maine Heritage Timber is selling Timberchic in the U.S., but he has plans to eventually expand to Canada and Europe.
When he’s talking up his line of products to prospective customers, Shafer isn’t just selling them a wall covering with a nice patina, though. He’s selling them the whole Paul Bunyanesque story: the vast virgin forests, the tough lumberjacks toiling in deep snow, the daring log drivers dancing across a river of logs on calked boots, and the old growth trees resurfacing more than a century after the people who felled them died.
“The story makes it so powerful. People love to tell stories, and our story is 100 percent true,” Shafer said.
He also pushes the “green” product angle. After all, he said, you can’t get any greener than bringing up logs preserved at the bottom of a lake. “We save a thousand acres of forestland from being cut every year we operate,” Shaffer said.
Another green selling point: Maine Heritage Timber is also restoring Quakish Lake, now “nothing but a landfill of wood.” And another: They sell their waste as bark mulch and biomass fuel. “As far as being sustainable and a green project, well, there is nothing greener than what we do. It really is that simple,” he said. And, by the way, they’re creating badly needed jobs in a historic paper mill town without an operational paper mill.
Even with a unique, green product Maine Heritage Timber has yet to attain profitability. Shafer said they hope Timberchic will get them to the break-even mark in 2018. “We are just about break even cash flow-wise, but we did add quite a bit of new millwork machinery and a 22,000 square foot facility (purchased in the beginning of 2017) that will house our production of Timberchic. Total cost was an additional $700,000,” he said.
Maine Heritage Timber has already removed about 75,000 cords of wood from Quakish Lake. But Shafer estimates there is still more than 500,000 cords on the bottom of the lake, years and years worth of raw material. “It’s not going to run out soon,” he said. “But once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Joe Rankin writes on forestry, nature and sustainability. He lives in Maine.