By JAN NORMAN / THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Ben Bonin and Collin Gibellino search rural America for centuries-old barns that are on the verge of falling down.
For property owners the old structures are attractive nuisances for young kids, property tax burdens and eyesores. Bonin and Gibellino see them differently.
True American Grain in Laguna Niguel buys barns originally built in the 1800s, such as this one in Michigan. The company tears the barns down and sells the reclaimed lumber, doors and hardware for residential remodeling and commercial interiors. The hand hewn wood has a unique look and a historial story to tell, the owners say.
One man’s hazard is another man’s business opportunity.
Bonin and Gibellino are partners in True American Grain, a Laguna Niguel supplier of what is called reclaimed or vintage wood that is used for residential and commercial interiors.
In a little more than a year, they have torn down five barns in Tennessee, Ohio and Michigan and resold the wood for interiors in several homes, a shopping mall in Las Vegas, a couple of restaurants and a cheese shop.
The company’s slogan is “giving new life to old America.”
Strolling through one of three local warehouses, Bonin pointed out beams that still bear the hatchet marks of 19th century farmers who built the barns to house dairy cows in northern Michigan. Boards from Tennessee tobacco barns are destined for a home being remodeled in Pelican Hills. A barn door in the corner will soon go to a wine bar in Las Vegas.
“Each piece of wood has a back story, where it came from, what it was used for,” said Gibellino, who keeps a jar filled with handmade nails that have been removed as barns were torn down. “It’s a conversation piece, unique.”
The partners, who tear the barns down themselves with the help of locals they hire, salvage everything they can from brick-sized blocks of wood to metal pulleys that they convert into track lighting.
“Every piece has a home,” Gibellino said.
Reclaimed wood “is very trendy; it’s popular to do repurposed furnishings,” said designer Sherrie Jordan, owner of Incorporate Orange in San Juan Capistrano who has used True American Grain products in wine bars and shops. “Environmentally friendly interiors are popular in California. You can tell right away that it’s authentic.”
Bonin, 36, was a general contractor who specialized in building with reclaimed wood. Gibellino, 25, started collecting old barn wood while in college in Ohio. His step father made it into custom furniture.
The two men thought their combined expertise would make a viable business and allow them to help local communities where many of the families have pre-Civil War roots.
Bonin found their first barn, an 1820 wreck about 45 minutes from Knoxville, Tenn., on the Internet. The partners paid $10,000 based on photos and flew back to dismantle the structure.
In order to save as much wood as possible, such a barn cannot merely be bulldozed. Bonin described the tear-down process as “reverse construction” that can take more than a week. No two barns were built the same way so he spends a day surveying how they originally were raised.
They hired the property owner’s son, Joey Spence, to help them. His family has lived on the land since the 1800s, and he has since scouted other barns in the area for True American Grain. Spence didn’t own a vehicle or a phone, but he was such a good worker, the company bought him a truck and cell phone.
“These people are so nice in these rural communities. They bring us cookies,” Bonin said. “We want to give back to the community and use local guys to fumigate the wood or rent equipment.”
Reclaimed wood is not cheap. Prices vary by type of wood but are in the range of $6 to $10 a foot. In the first three months of 2012, True American Grain has doubled its 2011 revenues.
While other brokers buy and sell old barns, Bonin and Gibellino aren’t too concerned about having a lot of competition for collecting and selling reclaimed barn wood.
“It’s not an easy business to start; there’s so much that goes into it,” Gibellino said. “After we tear down a barn there are 20 steps before the wood can be sold.”
Since that first Internet purchase, Bonin and Gibellino have taken 1,200-mile road trips through the Midwest searching for barns. They’re planning to go to Oklahoma where Bonin knows of barns from relatives.
Their previous suppliers also tell neighbors that True American Grain is looking for dilapidated barns.
When the pair returned to Orange County with their first truckload of wood, Bonin used his construction industry contacts to find buyers. Austin Hardwoods in Santa Ana was the first to agree to carry some of the wood. It’s also sold through Frost Hardwood Lumber in San Diego, Peterman Lumber in Fontana and Kelly-Wright Hardwoods in Anaheim.
True American Grain is displaying its products at an alternative building materials show at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium this weekend and will be at the O.C. Green Fair at the Santa Ana Civic Center on May 17.
While the company is a product supplier, not a builder, Bonin also used his contracting expertise to build a restaurant interior for designer Jordan.
“They had this amazing wood, so I gave them pictures of what I wanted and they did it,” she said.
Bonin has been slightly surprised that the commercial market for reclaimed wood has been stronger than residential remodeling. “But when you think about it, the recycled look is so desirable and one developer may do larger projects.”