From Orangeville to Osaka

Century Wood Products of Orangeville, Ontario works entirely with reclaimed
wood—mostly from old barns—turning out flooring and other rustic looking wood
products, and has developed a strong market for its products in Japan.

By Paul MacDonald

You never know what’s going to come from exhibiting in a trade show.

Several years back, Pete Van Veen of Ontario wood products manufacturer Century Wood
Products struck up a conversation with the representative of a Japanese import/export firm at a
trade show. Things developed from there with the Japanese company, to the point that
upwards of 25 per cent of Century Wood’s production is now being shipped to Japan.

“They looked at what we were turning out, and felt it would sell in Japan,” explains Van Veen.
“They’re buying a mixed bag of products from us—barnboard, 4x4s, flooring, old rafters and a
lot of beams. They tend to like the smaller beams and the smaller sizes of lumber versus the
larger beams and bigger lumber we sell in Canada. They like the rustic look, complete with
worm holes, nail holes and knots.”

If Century Wood Products was producing standard wood products, chances are the Japanese
company would not be interested. It already has plenty of lumber suppliers. But because
Century Wood has developed its business completely around manufacturing wood products
from old reclaimed wood, the company has found a market niche—and success overseas.
It may look old, but it’s new: C

entury Wood’s manufacturing facility (above) is built completely from reclaimed wood.
Above, inset, is the Century Wood team: Pete Van Veen (left) Jim Stienstra and Bill Van Veen.
While other forest companies may look to their forest licences for a source of standing timber,
the wood source for Century Wood is standing, too—though it’s usually standing as part of a

Century Wood Products started operating in 1997 when Jim Stienstra— soon to be joined by
Pete Van Veen and his brother, Bill—seized an opportunity to source and process reclaimed
timber for export to the Netherlands. The rustic wood, cut into one-inch flooring, was a hit there.
“We saw other people taking down barns, removing the nails from the wood and shipping it to
Holland by container,” says Van Veen. “We shipped a couple of containers of wood, but
weren’t really making much money. So we thought, well, if it can sell over there, it would
probably sell here too. We didn’t really do any market research. We kind of just went at it—it
was a lot of hard work.”

Operations started in a small building near the town of Fergus and, over the years, Century
Wood Products has steadily expanded its markets. So much so that the company recently
upgraded its manufacturing operations and moved into a new facility near Orangeville,
northwest of Toronto.

The only wood that goes through the company’s mill gate is old wood. In fact, when Century
Wood was building its new 14,000 square-foot production facility, almost all of the wood used
in its construction was reclaimed—the only “new” wood on the site was for fencing and

While they do custom work, such as doors, mantles and thicker pieces for stair stock, Century Wood specializes in turning out mostly one-inch stock, for flooring. The barns that are the source of much of the stock are purchased and taken down by local Mennonites. “When we started the company, we took down a couple of barns, but we didn’t really know how to do it, and nearly got killed,” says Van Veen. “We decided to leave it to the experts.”

When the company started out, finding the barns was another challenge. “Every time we received an order, we had to go out and find the wood, and do the whole job. We had times when we had an order and couldn’t find the wood. Sometimes we spent more time sourcing the wood than producing it.” To put it mildly, they were happy to contract out the wood sourcing.

The de-nailing and initial cutting is done at small Mennonite mill operations dotted around this
region of Ontario, with the trim work and finishing done by Century Wood. “The money is in the
finished product, rather than in the cutting of the wood from the barn, so we focus on that. We’ll
rip the wood and finish it.”

They started out doing all of their own milling, using a Wood-Mizer LT 15. That mill still gets
used pretty much every day for the timber handled in the Century Wood shop. They do the denailing using a metal detector. The only wood that comes through the mill gate at Century Wood Products is old wood (left) primarily from barns, but also from older industrial-type
buildings. The company specializes in turning out mostly one-inch stock (below) in various widths, for flooring.

Most of the flooring they produce is one inch, but the widths vary from four to ten inches. The bulk of production falls in the range of between six and ten inches. “The width is based on what we can get out of the piece of wood.” Most of their wood comes from barns, but they also get wood from older industrialtype buildings, as well. If they need certain species, oak for example, they will go down to the US, where it is more plentiful in barns and industrial buildings.

Each type of structure generates its own species, Van Veen notes. “Certain species, like Douglas fir, yellow pine and white pine, come out of the old factories, but the hardwoods—the ash, elm, beech, maple—all come out of the barns.” They’ve sourced wood from knock-down buildings in Toronto, Hamilton, Detroit— and even New York City. “We get it from everywhere. In the case of New York, it was a three-storey apartment building that was coming down in Brooklyn. We went down to see it and the southern yellow pine was in pretty good shape.”
They keep a reasonable amount of wood in stock.

“In this business, it’s not like you can just pick up the phone and order up some reclaimed Douglas fir, and get a building knocked down next week,” says Van Veen.

“The whole process takes time, to get the barn or building, to get it knocked down, and to get
the wood. So we have a fair bit in stock to fill orders. We know what sells the best and keep that
in stock.”

Century Wood started out doing all of its own milling, using a Wood-Mizer LT 15 (left, with Jim Stienstra at the controls) that still gets used pretty much every day in the shop. The de-nailing and initial cutting of the reclaimed wood is now done at small mill operations in the area.

Considering the type of wood they are using, it’s not surprising that the operation is left with a
lot of residual wood—about 50 per cent. They are currently giving it away as firewood, plans
call for the installation of a Bio-Blast wood-fired boiler, manufactured by PEI’s Grove Wood
Heating, to heat the shop and kilns.

In terms of marketing reclaimed wood, it is definitey a niche product. The company has had success at trade shows, especially design shows. “Many of the people we are dealing with are architects, designers and builders. It works out better talking with them at design shows rather
than going into the general home shows.” They work to develop business relationships with the architects and designers, and generate repeat business. The business they do with individual home owners tends to be one-time deals, though they welcome that as well.

Most of their market is in Ontario, although they have sold some product into Quebec, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and even BC. A lot of the flooring and associated wood products are sold into the Toronto market, typically going into high end houses.

“That’s where the architects, the designers and big builders are.” They also see a good
number of sales into top end cottages in Ontario’s Cottage Country. Once customers have
decided they want rustic flooring, the product pretty much sells itself, reports Van Veen. “By the
time people come in to talk to us, they have pretty much made up their mind what they want.
There is no other flooring on the market that looks like it—a lot of people like the look and don’t
mind spending a bit of extra money.”

They’ve had customers who will specify that they want their house built with reclaimed lumber.
The framing, of course, can’t be done with reclaimed lumber, but most of the finishing details
can be done with reclaimed wood. “Our customers do some pretty cool stuff with our

There is a bit more involved working with reclaimed wood. Although all the flooring is tonguein-groove, it’s not a matter of just slapping it into place, as with mass produced flooring. Some
customers also choose to mix up the widths, giving the finished floors a unique look. “That is
pretty true to what used to be done in the old houses around here— they would use whatever
wood they had, and cut the widths accordingly.”

Century Wood Products is poised for further success with the new facility—it’s a huge
improvement over their previous building which, ironically, was a former barn. And as for future
stock, Van Veen does not see that as being a problem. “There are still a lot of old barns out
there. I don’t think they all went up in 10 or 20 years, and it’s not likely they’re all going to come
down in 10 or 20 years.”

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