CAPE ELIZABETH, Maine — If Ryan Deane was around when Henry David Thoreau went to the woods, the scribe’s modest Walden hut would’ve been a tad cooler.
At the end of a winding dirt road off Route 77, wood artisan Deane is putting the finishing touches on his trial 13-by-20-foot cabin made of heritage hardwood. When complete, the snug space with a loft, kitchen, sitting room and deck might be the ideal place to write the great American novel. For inspiration, you need only glance around.
Ceilings, counters, floors, stairs — every square inch is a glowing tribute to the warmth of seasoned pine, hemlock, fir and cedar.
No board was purchased at a big-box lumber yard. Each was curated, piece by piece, from barns on their last legs, farmsteads on the edge of collapse and historic town structures minutes from the wrecking ball. The past is etched into each scuff and splinter.
“I love the intrinsic beauty of wood — the rings and the richness of the colors, the years in the patina of the sheathing on the outside of the barn that’s been sunbaked and weathered,” said Deane, whose business, Down and Back Wood Salvage, adds these touches to homes, restaurants and businesses.
Tucked away in Cape Elizabeth, with no sign or visible street number, his salvage yard couldn’t be more difficult to find. But they do find him. Couples midway through kitchen renovations seeking that perfect beam get a tipoff. His under-the-radar yard is filled with planks, beams, boards and doors. Across the state, excavators about to level a property and homeowners with teardowns text him, “Want to come take a look?”
The lanky redhead steps in to cull the best.
“I saw the value and beauty of wood and wanted to acquire it for a project,” he said of his first job six years ago at a Harpswell farmstead.
He was struck that the building was freighted with living memories that he thought shouldn’t be casually carted off to the dump.
“Neighbors stopped by and wanted a piece of the barn because they worked there,” Deane recalled.
The erstwhile tile installer kindled to the qualities of this living material.
“Its beauty has warmth and character,” he said. “I love all-natural materials. For instance, mixing wood with stone is a neat look.”
From reclaimed beams and boards, he’ll make bars, walls, mantles, shelves and kitchen islands.
“Tables, barn doors that slide — anything that looks old is in demand,” he said.
Even in new homes, people want that vintage feel. Like a locavore chef, he knows where to go to get the goods to feed that rustic hunger.
“Care-worn floorboards have a softness because of hundreds of years of boots and ongoing work,” Deane said. You can’t find that at Home Depot.
Lining his salvage yard, which features a hoop house and back-country feel, are piles and stacks of planks in all sizes. They are weathered, gray and come in various shades of molasses. Inspecting one that likely will be sold as a mantel, he notes “how it was worked, the tools they used.”
A structural beam from a house that’s about to be razed could become a counter in a condo.
“A lot of times it doesn’t look like much — dirty, unusable wood,” Deane said. “Once you take the skim off it, you can get a finished, cleaned up and oiled look.”
Deane finds choice, salvageable specimens of lumber and combines them effectively in harmonious environments. To him, old wood is better wood.
“These houses are 200 years old. Someone decided it’s not worthwhile to renovate it because of the cost as a whole. But these buildings are still straight and standing and tall. That says something about craftsmanship.”
Don’t call it a tiny house
“When I hear the term tiny house, I think of the houses that are on wheels or can be movable,” he said outside his upcycled cabin, which he hopes will trigger demand.
“In terms of limitations and width, I don’t feel 8 feet [by] 6 inches is livable,” he said. “Going with a touch different footprint, an extra few feet changes the feel. But micro homes are phenomenal. For me, they are just a little too small.”
Compelled by his love and appreciation of quality wood, the craftsman hopes his not-so-tiny, 100 percent local, Maine-foraged homes take off.
On a tour of his cabin, the salvage maestro does some quick math. “Some of this wood withstood 200 Maine winters,” Deane said, estimating the walls, counters, ceilings, loft and stairs came from a half-dozen places. His chunky amber stairs were once rafters from the old Brunswick Police Department building.
The steps leading to his deck came from the library down the street. A chair rail in his yard might become cabinets.
“Everything about it is custom. It’s truly a mix that culminates different projects I’ve worked on through the years,” he said. “Each piece has its own history.”