Northeast Ohio’s history as an industrial center is a proud part of its past.
A Cleveland furniture maker is working to make it a proud part of Northeast Ohio’s homes and businesses, too.
Rustbelt Reclamation takes lumber and other materials salvaged from razed buildings and turns them into high-end furniture and accessories.
It’s a way of honoring the region’s history while repurposing materials into well-made, long-lasting pieces, which company President Deej Lincoln believes is real sustainability.
Lincoln — his real name is James, but he joked that no one in the company knows who James Lincoln is when callers ask for him by that name — said the company’s reclamation focus was almost a lucky accident.
He and a group of investors had bought a company in 2010 that made custom furniture, mostly for libraries, but they quickly discovered that working on public contracts subjected the company to project delays that could eat up profits. They realized they needed to develop products that would provide a more dependable revenue stream.
The company came up with a paper towel holder, a bottle opener and a cutting board, all made from reclaimed materials and all sold online. The items sold out almost immediately, Lincoln said.
Then the calls started coming in, he said: “Can you do a table? Can you do a bench? Can you do a bar? Can you do a whole restaurant?”
A concept was born.
The company was renamed Rustbelt Reclamation about a year ago, and today it produces two lines of contemporary furniture as well as custom pieces commissioned by businesses, such as reception desks, bars and restaurant tables. It also creates occasional furniture and accessories from the thousands of old foundry forms it rescued from a Cleveland foundry that was about to be torn down.
The 28-employee business is family-run. Lincoln’s brother, Brinton Lincoln, is the director of operations. Stepbrother Chase Horsburgh runs an office in Jackson Hole, Wyo., that sources materials from that area.
Building furniture from reclaimed materials is hardly a new concept, but doing it on a large scale is, Lincoln said.
Most furniture built from repurposed materials is created by artisans, who typically make unique or limited-quantity pieces. Often they do all the work themselves, sometimes right down to yanking the materials out of old buildings.
Lincoln said Rustbelt Reclamation strives for a medium somewhere between that artisan model and the assembly line. The company uses production methods and standardized furniture designs to reduce the labor and expense involved in reclaiming materials, he said.
“What we’re doing differently is we’ve applied scalability to it,” he said.
The process starts with removing nails from salvaged lumber, either manually or with pneumatic denailing guns. A metal detector and magnets are used to ensure all the fasteners have been removed.
The lumber is then planed and trimmed to make it square, to create uniform dimensions and to produce clean edges that can be joined tightly. Depending on what it will be used for, some of the time-worn patina may be left so the wood maintains its character.
Its moisture content is also measured, and the wood is left on racks to dry if necessary. That’s rare with old lumber, but sometimes wood is exposed to water leaks or rain when buildings are being dismantled, Lincoln explained.
The lumber is then stored according to wood species, lumber size and the place it was salvaged from. Every board is marked with its source, so its history follows it through the production process, Lincoln said. And everything the company produces is laser-etched with the place the wood came from.
A walk through Rustbelt Reclamation’s plant — appropriately, in a repurposed elevator factory on the city’s near East Side — is almost a lesson in history. There are sections of bowling lanes from an old alley in Mogadore. There are panels of Brazilian cherry that once served as highway sound barriers in the Chicago area. There are forms that were used to make fuel housings for Atlas rockets.
One section holds 3-inch blocks of flooring salvaged from the old Chrysler Stamping Plant in Twinsburg. “We didn’t get it all,” Lincoln said, “but we got what we could.”
The flooring was built in modular fashion by laminating inch-wide strips of hickory and pecan into blocks roughly 30 inches square, a design that absorbed the shock from the equipment and also made floor repair easier because only the damaged blocks needed to be replaced, Lincoln explained.
Some of the blocks have been cut into wedges, which allows Rustbelt Reclamation to create curved edges on furniture such as bar tops.
Lincoln said salvaging materials benefits both the environment and contractors hired to demolish buildings, who would otherwise have to pay to dispose of the waste. “Nine times out of 10, it’s going to be thrown away,” he said.
Rustbelt Reclamation has a crew that does some deconstruction work, but that’s not the company’s focus, Lincoln said. Instead, it buys most of its materials from subcontractors and brokers so it can concentrate on processing the wood and on manufacturing and marketing its products.
The pieces are built by craftspeople who work at stations marked by signs bearing their first names. Lincoln said the company tries to use all green finishes that show off the grain and character of the wood.
Little is wasted. Scrap wood is turned into bottle openers, rulers and other trinkets. Unusable scrap is turned into mulch for urban farms.
The company produces two furniture lines, Haymarket and Mather, which comprise mostly tables plus a few seating pieces and other items. The names have historical significance: Haymarket refers to the area just south of Cleveland’s Public Square where farmers sold hay and produce in the 19th century, and Mather honors a family that figured prominently in the city’s industrial and cultural history.
The furniture is high-end. A contemporary Mather dining table that seats eight sells for $6,000, for example. A chunky, straight-lined Haymarket coffee table is priced at $950.
The company also produces desk accessories, cutting boards and other small wood items, as well as a Limited line of accessories such as mirrors, lamps and stools created from odd pieces of salvage. The items can be ordered on the company’s website, www.rustbeltreclamation.com.
While some of the pieces bear the scars of age, others don’t look like they’re made from reclaimed wood.
But all have a back story, Lincoln said.
That’s what makes them special.
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also become a fan on Facebook at www.facebook.com/MBBreckABJ, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckABJ and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth. ;