Transformative touches

Susan Irish (right) and her business partner, Sonya Detournillon, sand and polish a piece of antique furniture in their workshop after painting it.

The design magazines have been buzzing about reclaimed wood lately, but reclaimed wood has been a trend long enough in Charleston that it’s amazing there’s any wood left to claim, let alone reclaim.

“Yeah, I can’t afford to think about it, but I have asked myself, one of these days, will it all be gone?” admits Vann Cochran, owner of Salt Wood just off of S.C. Highway 41 in Mount Pleasant.

Others are more optimistic.

Michael Moyer and Will McKibben, owners of Past to Present Decor, say they get frequent calls from construction sites.

“Sometimes guys call from construction sites, they’ll tell us they’re tossing a bunch of stuff and do we want anything,” Moyer says. “Or, we go dumpster diving. If somebody is redoing an old house, we’ll peek our heads in and tell them we can lighten the load in their dumpster.”

And, what’s happening to all this old wood?

It’s getting a new life as furniture, as decor, as something quite different than how it began.

For Susan Irish and Sonya Detournillon, who started a business called Beachy Keen in 2013, reclaiming wood means reclaiming old furniture made out of wood and painting it so that it has a new life as a sage green or aqua blue piece, distressed and designed to look “beachy,” Detournillon says.

“People come to Charleston because they’re tired of being cold, like I came from Boston. They want a new look, but they want it to look like it was assembled over time, like it has a lived-in feeling,” Irish says. “They want to put a glass down on the table and they don’t want to fuss with coasters. They want furniture that has the illusion of being treasures handed down.”

Beachy Keen rescues thrift store and other furniture that has “good bones” and will refinish the furniture with custom paint.

“What sets us apart is we mix our own colors. The paint is not a typical paint; it has plaster in it,” says Irish, a former interior designer who studied color mixology with a professor who had a doctorate in color theory.

Beachy Keen puts that color theory to work when they find a piece of furniture that they like.

“We’re not going to put paint on junk,” Detournillon says. “The drawers have to be working, it can’t be water-damaged. We’ll do some repair, but the piece has to have good bones. “Sometimes, we have designers buy $1,500 end tables and they’ll come to us and say, ‘paint this.’ When we’re finished, the piece looks custom because it matches the decor.”

She and Detournillon, former neighbors, operate Beachy Keen out of their homes in Sylvan Shores and on Johns Island, respectively. They have a booth at the Six Mile Antique Mall in Mount Pleasant.

At Past to Present Decor, Moyer and McKibben work out of a two-car garage converted into a workshop. They refuse to paint their wood.

“No, everything is in the original color it was painted,” McKibben says. “Once we sand into it, the color comes out.”

Past to Present makes frames, mirrors, wine racks and headboards. They convert door frames into big mirrors and play with different grains of wood to make patterns. Past to Present is at the Charleston Farmers Market on Marion Square on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month and also sells online.

Cochran of Salt Wood also doesn’t like to paint the wood he finds, although he has on the rare occasion when a customer asks.

“We’ve had some reclaimed barn wood,” Cochran says. “Something happens to wood when it’s hanging out in the sun for years and years. It develops a nice patina. We skim off the dead, weathered wood, but we leave a lot of the charm. We call it comfortable but with charm. You can’t send splinters into a household, but you still want wormholes and saw marks.”

Working from a “treasure pile” of wood pieces donated, found or purchased, Cochran says half the fun is the hunt for the treasure.

“I have an informal supply chain at best,” Cochran says. “Someone tears down a barn, they sell to my guy and he says, ‘I’m in town, how much do you want?’ That sort of adds to the fun of it. You never really know what you’re going to get.”

Cochran makes custom pieces of furniture such as benches from wood he finds or has given to him, or that he has purchased from people who have dismantled barns and buildings. Although he doesn’t usually paint the furniture, he does oxidize it.

“It gives a unique finish. We don’t color or dye the furniture, but we use household vinegar to dissolve steel wool. We do that for about a month and then we use it on the furniture. Red oak turns black, white oak turns a brown color. And then we wax it,” Cochran says.

The appetite for reclaimed wood is growing among natives and tourists alike, but tourists have to contend with one fact that locals don’t: reclaimed wood is heavy.

“Sometimes, I have to turn tourists away,” Moyer said. “The shipping is ridiculous. It can be $180 for a mirror. That deters a lot of people. But I do still have a lot of tourists who drive through, and they’ll take our stuff with them.”

Giving the wood a new life in someone’s home is what drives all three businesses.

“We’ve taken somebody’s junk that they’ve discarded, breathed new life into it and it gets a new home. It’s almost like re-homing a puppy, it’s very satisfying,” Detournillon says.

“It’s nice to see people liking the things you do,” McKibben adds.

“I always ask to get a picture of the barn or building (my wood) comes from,” Cochran says. “The fun of it is to know the story, and I always ask. Then (after a piece is commissioned), we deliver it to their house. I want to see where it’s going, where it’s going to live. There’s a lot of love in it. I take a photo. We repurpose a piece of furniture that is hopefully handed down and the story continues. That’s the fun of what I do.”