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Vancouver company EcoTimber uses trees logged from Panama Canal to make furniture
Vancouver company EcoTimber uses trees logged from Panama Canal to make furniture

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Vancouver's Rocky Mountaineer Station was treated to a temporary makeover last week, when it was filled with “live-edge” pieces of custom-built furniture: a mitred-edge cedar coffee table, “the waterfall table,” a hanging lazy daybed made of solid cedar, and the “love me, love me knot” table, a huge, heart-shaped piece with a break down the middle.

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What made the 40-piece collection special wasn't just the designs or the workmanship, but the materials themselves.

The company behind the exhibit, Coast EcoTimber, uses reclaimed, rescued and rediscovered wood from B.C.'s own backyard, salvaging pieces from the Sunshine Coast and the Fraser River Debris Trap. But it has recently expanded its reach, importing exotic tropical hardwoods from a submerged jungle in Panama.

Alana Husby, the self-described “lumberjill” turned furniture designer who founded Coast EcoTimber, is a fifth-generation B.C. logger, raised in the Haida Gwaii on the north end of the Queen Charlotte Islands, at a logging camp with her family and about 50 loggers. Ms. Husby decided that she, too, wanted to get into the family business – logging – and completed BCIT's one-year Forest Technician program. Then she went out into the field to learn, working at a dry-land sort, where logs are graded, sorted and cut. She was the only woman there, learning to run chainsaws, excavators and more heavy equipment to “manicure” the logs.

“The whole time I was at the dry land, I’d been obsessed with the waste pile,” Ms. Husby recalls. “Like, there’s a big pile of waste, and I would literally see a couch or a table or a desk when they’d see a big pulp log. I just got thinking, ‘That’s the direction I want to take this.’”

So five years ago, she set out to create a logging business that was unlike any other, founding Coast EcoTimber to source scrap wood from old buildings and materials from beachcombers and river salvagers.

“I think it was to make honey out of horsepoop, as my dad says: just take these scraps and remill them and sell them to architects, designers, developers. Really take wood from sources nobody’s ever heard about, because the story is the amazing part.”

The company started out by offering hand-selected, rare and unique timber that has been rescued, dried and custom-cut to clients who wanted unique floors, tabletops and furniture made from the raw material. They'd either sell the pieces as-is, or help find a company to cut and finish the project.

“I think when we first started, the green thing on a big level was just starting, so it was a bit of a hassle trying to convince people that this wood was great and the story was fabulous and everything else. But we definitely came in at the right time, because it was right when all of that started.”

Coast EcoTimber has recently decided to expand its reach – all the way to the Panama Canal. In 1913, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt dammed the Chagres River in Panama, flooding an old-growth jungle the size of Montreal in the process. Now, almost 100 years later, Coast EcoTimber is harvesting these perfectly preserved hardwoods – Canal Cumaru (teak), Canal IPE (walnut), Canal Espave, Canal Zapatero and Canal Cedro Espino – from the underwater jungle.

While one might think that wood left in water would simply rot, Ms. Husby explains that these trees have been completely submerged and preserved in fresh water.

“So there’s no chorido (rot), there’s no shipworm, and if its completely covered the whole time, no bugs can get in it, no insects, no disease, no lightning bolts, nothing to kind of open up the outside cambium of the log and let disease in.

“In the old days, say you wanted a ship mast, they’d actually bury the wood in mud to starve it of oxygen and almost cure it.”

Wood left under water for long enough will actually petrify, and these logs have been submerged for about 100 years, becoming so hard they have a burn rating of concrete, and they are almost entirely resistant to weather and termites.

“It’s so cool; termites would rather eat themselves than eat this wood. It’s amazing,” Ms. Husby says.

But it can be quite dangerous to harvest the submerged lumber, so Coast EcoTimber has partnered with a local company of divers in Panama, who guyline each tree individually, then go underwater with submersible hydraulic chainsaws. Once the tree is cut, it shoots up to the surface where the crew is waiting to hook it onto a barge.

While Ms. Husby has gone down to Panama quite a few times – her latest visit was three weeks ago and she plans to return next week – her “right-hand man,” Arnie Dewit, lives there full-time, managing Coast EcoTimbers Panamian interests. Mr. Dewit was actually the one who first discovered this treasure trove of exotic hardwood. Ms. Husby sent him down to investigate the possibility of importing the submerged wood, since the idea fit the company's business model so well. So far, they’ve invested about $260,000 in the small Panamian company by purchasing a few barges and equipment for the harvesting process.

“I think they liked that we’re a green company, too, and that we see the big picture,” Ms. Husby adds.

Surprisingly, there haven't been many political barriers to doing business in Panama. Ms. Husby says the Minister of Commerce and the Mayor of Cologne have been “very receptive” to Coast EcoTimber's foray into Panama. They even had a guitar made out of the Panamian wood and Haida Gwaii's Sitka spruce, and gave it to the Minister of Commerce, who presented it to the Panama's president.

“So they’re all talking about us. It’s really exciting.”

It was, however, a rigorous process to bring the first shipment of wood into Canada in June: the company had to work with an engineering firm to identify some of the “mystery logs.”

“Unlike B.C. with the reservoirs, there might be 1940s aerial photographs to show you the micro topography, to show you what trees were where. We don’t have that there.”

Then all of the wood had to be fumigated.

“And that’s good, I like that Agriculture Canada is tough on people, because you could bring stuff in and if people don’t fumigate, all of a sudden we’ve got their insects in our trees,” Ms. Husby points out.

She also brought a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) consultant down to Panama to have the hardwood certified, which means the material qualifies for LEED-certified projects. “It’s a big process – they make it very difficult – and we got it.”

Then it took about eight months of testing to figure out how to properly kiln dry and treat the wood, and what the material could be used for. Coast EcoTimber made the salvaged hardwood into veneer, timber, flooring, decking and siding, just to investigate the potential of the product.

“Before I put my (rear end) on the line, I really needed to prove the model,” Ms. Husby explains.

She ultimately decided to have the product shipped back home to be processed. “For me, I need to minimize my risks, and B.C. knows wood.”

A lot of time and effort has gone into getting this aspect of Coast EcoTimber's business up and running, and Ms. Husby admits there has been a huge learning curve.

“I don’t have some fancy-pants business degree, and so I’m sure it’s costing me more money than it maybe should have, but it is a labour of love, and we’re honoured to be working with this wood.”

The first shipment, which arrived in B.C. in June, contained about 7,000 board feet of the Panamian hardwood. Three more containers have followed since, and so far, Coast EcoTimber has shipped and processed roughly $350,000 worth of product. The finished decking and Zapatero siding sells for about $5.75 per board foot, while huge, raw, kiln-dried slabs sell for about $10 a board foot, though pricing depends on quantities. Now that Ms. Husby and her team are completely confident in the product, they are ready to move ahead “full-bore,” and they are fielding calls from people around the world who are interested in learning more about the product and how it can be used.

While designing the furniture collection was a fun project, Ms. Husby plans to refocus on architectural products that can be made out of the tough, durable and beautiful Panama wood. “I don’t know a damn thing about furniture, but I know the wood and I know the top furniture manufacturing places in Canada, and they’re here in Vancouver, so I plug in my wood and my sketches to them and they do what they’re good at.”

Ms. Husby designed the simple, rustic pieces, and hired furniture shops to collaborate and execute the creation.

John Schmidt, owner of Hycraft Design, a Delta, B.C.-based custom woodworking company, has more than 53 years of experience in the industry, and it just began working with Coast EcoTimber last year. Hycraft is one of the companies that Ms. Husby brought in to execute a few table designs for the furniture collection.

“I’m not a big one on salvaging, until now,” Mr. Schmidt admits. “It’s dense, very hard, especially the IPE, and then there’s another wood that I just love – the Zapatero – its gorgeous. I’m just waiting to get my hands on some, and I want to make a big piece of modern furniture with it, like a big wall unit.”

And while it isn’t the easiest material to work with, Mr. Schmidt said its density makes it ideal for exterior applications, such as siding and decking, which need to withstand the elements.

He says he has been seeing a growing appetite for reclaimed lumber and salvaged materials, and already has clients who are interested in having pieces made from the Panamian wood. “I think its excellent and I’m just hoping we can get our hands on some of this stuff pretty quick, and see what we can do with it.”

So far, Coast EcoTimber employs seven people at its head office in Vancouver, and another 40 people work at the Panamanian logging company.

“We are so excited to be able to show Panamanians B.C. forestry skills and help them develop a real lumber industry in Panama,” Ms. Husby says. “We have plans for expansion and we hope to employ 400 people with a dry land sort, kilns, sawmill and architectural wood product manufacturing facility.”

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