WILMINGTON, North Carolina – What connects welded art and submerged logs? Start with a creative mind.
Then, follow the connection to Chris Metz, owner of Old Growth Riverwood. Prior to starting his company 14 years ago, Chris worked as a welder for a business that salvaged submerged logs. His work included welding an American industrial crane with a grapple to a boat. The setup was used to pluck pine logs – and an occasional cypress – from a river.
The logs were debarked to improve their ability to float some 100 years ago, but many of them sank anyway. Chris learned a lot about wood and business working for the company that closed. Tapping his experience, he started a similar business.
Today, Old Growth Riverwood reclaims, salvages, and repurposes not just logs from rivers, but also pine timbers from old cotton mills and tobacco processing sheds. It transforms the wood into high-end moulding, treads, and design flourishes, as well as mantles, tables, bars, chairs and more.
The detailed work that Chris now accomplishes with wood is all custom. Clients bring him photos or ideas, and he takes it from there. (Working with wood is quite different from working with metal, but Chris also has a portfolio of welded garden art forms.)
Old Growth Riverwood has two full-time employees: Chris, who is 55, and his wife, Terrie, 55. To keep pace with orders, Chris employs two to four part-time regular workers.
Chris does not actually salvage the wood he reclaims. He obtains the necessary permits and then contracts for the retrieval of the river logs (‘sinkers’) and the demolition of old buildings and structures.
Chris contracted for drying lumber cut from the sinkers until 2010. That year he invested in his first kiln from Kiln-Direct in Burgaw, North Carolina. The end-loaded mini lumber kiln holds 2,500 to 3,000 board feet. It was a prototype model that Kiln-Direct developed to determine if there was a way to serve the market for mini lumber kilns. Just like Kiln-
Direct’s other small lumber kilns, it is heated with gas and uses electric power for controls, venting, and air flow.
Chris added a second kiln from Kiln-Direct in 2020 It has a capacity of 9,000 to 13,000 board feet — Kiln-Direct’s small standard model. This model also is available in a wide and/or deep version with capacity up to 20,000 board feet of 4/4 lumber.
Since Old Growth Riverwood is located in Wilmington, North Carolina, which lies along the east side of the Cape Fear River and 30 miles from the river’s mouth, it might seem likely that Chris would choose Kiln-Direct. After all, the kiln company’s offices and manufacturing facilities are just 30 miles north of Wilmington.
Yet that’s not the story. “I didn’t know they were in Burgaw,” said Chris. “I actually live in Burgaw.”
Chris was looking for “efficiency and proficiency” when he began considering kiln suppliers. Lots of research led him to Kiln-Direct.
“It was just at the top of my list of everything you’d be looking for,” said Chris of Kiln-Direct. And that’s how he made his choice.
It was a good decision, explained Chris. “They’ve exceeded my expectations from day one. We get a quality and stable product.”
Chris has been impressed by the interest the Kiln-Direct team takes in his company. He works regularly with Maury Wilkinson, but Kiln-Direct owner Niels Jorgensen has been to Old Growth Riverwood’s facility many times.
“I know he’s the owner, but he has been more than happy to come down,” said Chris of Niels. “Their relationship with you is so tremendous. They put out a superior product.”
The new larger lumber kiln at Old Growth Riverwood has been recently dedicated to drying for a new customer on a special arrangement. That customer is importing teak lumber from Brazil, and Chris’s company is drying the lumber.
Teak wood fascinates Chris because of its moisture content. When the lumber is removed from shipping containers, it has a 16 to 18 percent moisture content, which kiln-drying will reduce to 8 percent. The lumber has already dried somewhat in transit, shedding gallons of water that pours from containers when they are opened.
Salvaged pine material is sawn to 8/4 thickness and then air-dried for 90 to 120 days; it is put on sticks and topped with a metal cover and dried to 20 to 22 percent moisture. The material is then kiln-dried about 14 days to a final 8 percent moisture, a point that takes the pitch out and alleviates the gummy nature of the wood, explained Chris.
Pine with the occasional cypress account for the current predominant mix of wood at Old Growth Riverwood. Most of the pine comes from old structures. Only some 25 percent of the company’s wood products come from logs that were retrieved from the Cape Fear River.
Old Growth Riverwood leases a one-acre site for its operations. Sawing and milling take place in a 3,800-square-foot building.
Chris equipped his mill one machine at a time with a determined effort to get the best he could afford at every juncture. The sawmill is a Timber Harvester model 3025 portable band mill, which was purchased in 2008 with 300 hours logged as a demo. It shares many features with a Cooks Saw portable sawmill, which Chris appreciated because he had worked with a Cooks Saw mill and liked it very much, but it was beyond his price range.
Filling out the production line on which Chris relies are a Diehl straight-line rip saw, a Weinig five-head moulder, a CNC router, and an Extrema planer-sander.
Since the inception of his company, Chris estimates he has cut nearly 1 million board feet.
Wilmington is the chief seaport in North Carolina. It is part of New Hanover County and has a population of 120,000. With the access it provides to Cape Fear beach, Wilmington is a popular spot for visitors and year-round residents. And the greater Wilmington area is about three times larger.
Old Growth Riverwood benefits from the bustle in its surrounding community. The company does work for contractors, making stair treads for example, and for architects and designers who work for high-end customers, such as banks and other businesses. When clients of customer businesses see the kind of wood products Chris has supplied, they often ask for a referral. There’s also more routine work. Recently, the company did work for 30 restaurants start-to-finish, including tables, bars, and floors.
Sustainability is of utmost importance to Chris. “We just see so much going into landfills,” he said. “I just want to not see things be wasted anymore. We can repurpose a lot of the things in life.”
The logs pulled from the Cape Fear River after being underwater a hundred years or longer are as useful today as they would have been when the trees were first harvested. They have been preserved by the relatively cool water and low oxygen levels.
There is little waste from the material salvaged from the tobacco barns and cotton mills, too. “We try to salvage it all,” said Chris. “I’ll glue up one-eighth strips.”
Keychains, coasters, cutting boards, and more are made from the smallest scraps. A wood burning heater in the shop is fueled by scrap wood in winter.
Chris is a native of Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. The partnership he and Terrie have in their business has him doing most of the sawing and manufacturing while she takes care of customers, payroll, and logistics.
“We certainly like to do everything with a spiritual guidance,” said Chris. “We want to do things with integrity and God in our hearts. We’re very spiritual here.”
The alliance with Kiln-Direct goes beyond using their products, explained Chris. “They’re like extended family. Niels, he’s such a giving person. He’s got a passion for his business like I’ve got for mine.”
To use kilns from Kiln-Direct goes beyond being a customer. “The partnership they build with you is second to none,” said Chris. “Niels and Maury are very knowledgeable, very helpful. If I could have five kilns here, they’d be from Kiln-Direct.”
Kiln-Direct offers kilns ranging from 9,000 to 20,000 board feet capacity. Heat recovery systems on vents, gas fuel, and computerized controls are standard. Upgrades available include integrated moisture control meter and internal wood temperature sensors. Heat source can be configured with hot water or steam as an option. The company also offers firewood kilns and kilns for heat-treating pallets.
(For more information about Kiln-Direct and its products, visit www.kiln-direct.com, email email@example.com, or call (910) 259-9794.)
Chris is very happy with the professional path he has followed. “I like coming in here and taking this old wood and turning it into a treasure,” he said. “I like working with my hands. I like repurposing. I’m blessed.”
Welding and fabrication are still part of life for Chris as he does his own maintenance and refurbishing at Old Growth Riverwood. Welded art is not currently in the picture, though.
“When I was doing welding, I was doing a lot of custom stuff – yard art,” explained Chris. He has since transferred that creativity to wood.
The inventiveness got noticed early. Two years after the company launched, Old Growth Riverwood received a 2009 Best of Business Award from the Small Business Commerce Association.
Chris and Terrie have long enjoyed taking cruises and following NASCAR. The complexity of the year 2020 forced them to rethink their travels and they spent time at home, more of it with their grandchildren. The change in tempo has been fine, said Chris.