Yes, they have clocks up here, but they're not slaves to them. They have deadlines and deliverables, but they don't check them on BlackBerrys or iPhones. They have inventory – boy, do they have inventory! – but quantities and location aren't on a computer spreadsheet: nope, it's all inside Allan Bousfield's grey and grizzled head.
Historic Lumber, just outside of Acton, Ont., is the kind of place that sets its own pace.
Need historic barn board for a flooring project? How old, what length and how much, Mr. Bousfield will ask, then consult his mental Rolodex before leading you to one of the dozens of orderly piles on his five-acre property. Need a 56-foot-long beam? How about most of a brick farm house? And was that red brick or buff? Maybe you just need doors, doorknobs and vintage escutcheons – he's got those, too.
Oh, and stories to go with everything.
"Anybody could buy some barn board, set up a store and say 'This is authentic barn board,' but the beauty of most of what we have here is that I've been doing this for so long I know the places most of it came from," says the 61-year-old, "so the story is accurate to the point of saying 'It was a farm, it was dated 1855, we found the date in the house, this was the barn.'" And customers love it, he adds: "Now it's going in their home and it's going to be part of their history."
The history of Historic Lumber begins 38 years ago, when Mr. Bousfield and his young family were living in an Acton subdivision. The suburban experience and this farm boy just didn't gel, however – "I hated every minute of it" – so a big treed lot on Sixth Nassagaweya Line was purchased. When his father sold part of the family farm to the hydro company, Mr. Bousfield relocated the barn to his lot and turned it into a workshop, then built a house using century-old brick that was salvaged from a house near his father's place; when he ran out of brick, he found a school to take down.
With material left over, he decided to sell it: "It's just our way," he offers. "It's not something I planned; I didn't go out and start the business just to recycle." Besides, in those days, "recycle" wasn't the buzzword it is now. Even though he'd continue to dismantle old houses and barns, his early customers were "people that had an old farmhouse, or farmers that were repairing stuff, and they were buying cheap." Inventory could be had much more cheaply back then too, since subdivision builders were only too happy to watch Historic Lumber drive away with the old wood and brick obstacles to their progress. And when a new development was announced, Mr. Bousfield would "go shopping" in that area.
Eventually, with his son John helping, inventory grew to the point where Mr. Bousfield could be more selective in what he salvaged. And while he continued to prefer the "crashing and banging" of demolition, the younger Mr. Bousfield discovered an artistic side, so the business was expanded into custom millwork and furniture.
"The techniques that he's picked up are from the experience of taking houses down," he explains, "because it's mortise and tenon joinery, it's old pegs, [it's] what lasted and what
didn't – "
" – you can learn a lot," adds the soft-spoken 41-year-old.
Today, John Bousfield's wonderful, sculptural creations are showcased on the main floor of the family home: "live edge" tables, big wardrobes dressed in milk paint, dining tables and hewn-beam mantles. You'll also find Allan's wife, Brenda, ready to assist.
In the workshop, a set of new, old-looking kitchen cabinets and an island with a sexy, hammered copper sink await delivery to a big Muskoka cottage. While there's a price tag of over $50,000 attached, these pieces are all hand-cut and assembled, perfectly symmetrical, sport dovetailed joints, are finished by John's wife Lindsay, and there isn't a scrap of chipboard to be found – putting these in the same league as other custom kitchens. Also, says Mr. Bousfield, "It doesn't have a year to it, it's just old.
"In 20 years, people will come into this cottage and look at the kitchen and say 'Wow, what a cool old kitchen!' – that's it."
And while Historic Lumber will install everything from the kitchen they build for you to the barn board floor it sits on – heck, they'll even build an addition to your house – Mr. Bousfield makes one thing clear: "It has to have character, it has to be old and it has to utilize materials: those are my criteria." In other words, call someone else if you've got a big box store project in mind.
He does, however, encourage just about anyone to come up if raw material is what's needed, since he's bursting at the seams with inventory. Now that harried big-city folk have finally come round to recycling and sustainability, this shouldn't be a problem. It might be a good idea, however, to leave your BlackBerry in the car.