A large pile of wood leans against a wall in Darren Cunningham’s workspace. To the untrained eye, it’s just a pile of dirty and obviously worn pieces of old timber, ready for a burning barrel. But, to Cunningham, it’s reclaimed material he can turn into beautiful furniture such as the coffee table that’s against the opposite wall of his space. The coffee table’s top looks solid; not surprising, considering its source – a dairy barn, the last of its kind within the city limits.
Cunningham co-owns the Urban Timber Reclaimed Wood Co. along with his dad, and they’ve been crafting reclaimed furniture and selling wood tiles under the name for close to a year now. The father-son team, along with two other builders, operate out of a historic building – it was once a service garage for an oil field company – and the location is fitting considering Cunningham’s past. For the last five years, he’s also owned an organic chemical distribution company selling products that could have been used to clean the vehicles once stored in his current workspace.
On this day, Cunningham is busy crafting tables, benches and a hostess stand for Ampersand 27, a new restaurant on Whyte Avenue. When he’s not working directly with the wood, he’s gathering it from across North America. He’s part of the reclamation community that works across North America to preserve wood from crumbling buildings that, in some cases, date back centuries.
The hard wood he uses for flooring comes from the Eastern United States, where the old settler buildings are comprised of oak, chestnut and walnut. “They weren’t eccentrics; they just had the best wood in the world at their fingertips,” says Cunningham. He’s also worked with woods such as fir from grain elevators across the prairies, heart pine reclaimed from buildings dating back to the 1800s in Milwaukee and cedar from a barge at a wood mill in Idaho. Currently, he’s crafting tables using white oak from rail cars dating back to the early 1900s.
Cunningham’s work naturally generates nostalgia, and many customers ask him to make heirloom furniture out of wood from a family farm. That strong desire to pass on legacy extends to Cunningham’s profession itself. “I’m a woodworker, my dad’s a woodworker, my grandfather did woodworking, and his father as well,” he says.