Wood with a Past

Posted by Renee Magyar on May 2, 2013

Jake Jacob - long-time member of Sustainable Northwest's FSC® chain of custody - gives wood a second life


Jake Jacob has been in the wood products industry for 30 years. Originally schooled as a marine engineer, his passion shifted from water to wood. Today he runs Pacific Northwest Timbers, a company that repurposes salvaged wood for use in homes and businesses. Trees are a way of life for Jake: he's an expert tree house and log home builder - and tree climber. 

Sustainable Northwest's Dimitra Giannakoulias conducted an interview with Jake in April 2013. The following is an excerpt.

SNW: Tell us about your wood products. What makes them different?

Jake: We specialize in post-consumer wood material that mostly comes out of old sites like industrial buildings, sawmills, warehouses, and other places. It's untreated, non-toxic, and excellent quality wood that can be repurposed for other uses.

The wood is often well over 100 years old. I'd say the average is 80 years old and in the Northwest it's primarily made of Douglas-fir.  Most of our products are repurposed for situations where there is exposure and visibility of the wood, usually in homes but also in businesses and commercial buildings. It's aesthetic and not meant to be covered up by sheet rock.

SNW: There's something very unique about Pacific Northwest Timbers. Can you tell us more about that?

Jake: We've recovered timber from a shipwreck. This is from a cargo ship, The Canadian Exporter, which sank off the coast of Washington almost 100 years ago. The wood was en route to South America, where people were building homes out of Douglas-fir, but it never made it. Fortunately, wood that's lying in salt water doesn't rot. In fact, people used to sink logs as a way of preserving wood - it keeps it straight, solid and stable. But exposure to dry air shrinks, warps and distorts it. So that wood trapped underwater for 100 years is now fully seasoned and incubated, it's great material for construction projects.

SNW: How did you get started in this business? What inspired you to do this work?

Jake: I was trained as a timber framer in the world of construction. When I started out we were using freshly harvested, green, unseasoned wood.  Over time, the timbers in a person's home would shrink and twist through air drying and the joinery would get compromised. So I got interested in seasoned, stable wood. I studied Japanese temple-building and timber framing and in Japan it's common to air dry wood for at least 8 years. When I looked for air-dried timbers in the United States, it wasn't available. So I got interested in old wood, basically in junk yards, salvage yards. I'd clean it up, re-mill it, then have a perfectly good piece of wood that had character to it.

SNW: What do you most enjoy about your work?

Jake: When I look at wood, I get a history lesson. There's a storied past. There are differences in the quality and structure of the wood, depending on the time and place that it comes from. It's fascinating to me. Customers, too, want to know where their wood comes from, and that makes me more curious.

Trees reveal what's going on in nature. They have lived through amazing phases of history on this planet. All the environmental changes that have taken place somewhere are indicated in the trees. I've learned so much from them.

Jake Jacob turns this...

Jake Jacob turns this...

into this...

...into this

SNW: What are your successes and challenges?

Jake: I'm proud that we're recovering stable wood and putting it back to good use. We help people understand the history of that wood and the honor they are giving to it. A lot of customers are thrilled to make old wood a part of their home.  They embrace that and I appreciate that. And if recovering these materials minimizes impact and sustains our forests, I'm all for that.    

As far as challenges, there's actually a glut of reclaimed wood in the market. And turning the wood around into a viable product is 3-5 times more expensive than buying new wood, so that affects demand. Also, the process of demolition still involves a lot of wreckage. Time is money, so a contractor will often bulldoze a site than carefully take it apart. The bulldozed buildings end up in the landfill or turn to scrap. One of my greatest challenges is to try to minimize that.  We're trying to move away from words like 'demolition' and 'wrecking' to words like 'dismantling' and 'deconstruction' so wood can get a second life.

SNW: How does FSC® membership help Pacific Northwest Timbers?

Jake: Every now and again we run into a customer who doesn't know or doesn't care whether their product is FSC® or not, and they wonder if it's less expensive. It's an educational opportunity - we tell them that it's more expensive for the wood not to be certified. It's part of that bigger fabric of building things from a nobler place. LEED projects are also more prevalent now. If they use recycled 100% wood materials, they'll get twice the points than if they were using 100% sustainably managed wood from a forest. Sometimes that's a driver for our business.

SNW: Final Words?

Jake: In the US, general construction is not held in high regard, but to design and to build well - this is a noble task. In this country we don't treat that with the nobility it deserves. In the world we work in, we have the opportunity to influence that kind of thinking a little more.

Visit the Pacific Northwest Timbers website or call (360) 379-2792. They are in Port Townsend, WA and offer products such as timber frame packages, flooring, paneling, trim packages, furniture-making material, fireplace mantels, and more.