WILMINGTON, NC – What connects welded art and submerged logs? Start with a creative mind.
Then follow the connection with Chris Metz, owner of Old Growth Riverwood. Before starting his business 14 years ago, Chris worked as a welder for a company that recovered submerged logs. His job included welding an American industrial crane with a grappling hook onto a boat. The setup was used to rip pine logs – and the occasional cypress tree – from a river.
Logs were debarked to improve their ability to float about 100 years ago, but many of them sank anyway. Chris learned a lot about wood and business while working for the company that closed. With his experience, he started a similar business.
Today, Old Growth Riverwood salvages, salvages and reuses not only river logs, but also pine wood from former cotton mills and tobacco processing sheds. It transforms wood into high-end moldings, steps and decorations, as well as mantels, tables, bars, chairs and more.
The detailed work Chris now does with wood is completely custom. Customers bring him photos or ideas, and he grabs them. (Working with wood is quite different from working with metal, but Chris also has a portfolio of welded garden art forms.)
Old Growth Riverwood has two full-time employees: Chris, 55, and his wife, Terrie, 55. To keep up with orders, Chris employs two to four regular part-time workers.
Chris doesn’t actually salvage the wood he salvages. He obtains the necessary permits and then contracts for the recovery of river logs (“plots”) and the demolition of old buildings and structures.
Chris contracted to dry the cut wood from the pellets until 2010. That year he invested in his first kiln from Kiln-Direct in Burgaw, North Carolina. The end-loaded mini wood dryer can hold 2,500 to 3,000 board feet. This was a prototype model that Kiln-Direct developed to see if there was a way to serve the mini kiln market. Just like Kiln-
Direct’s other small kilns are gas-fired and use electricity for controls, ventilation and air circulation.
Chris added a second oven from Kiln-Direct in 2020. It has a capacity of 9,000 to 13,000 board feet – Kiln-Direct’s standard small model. This model is also available in a wide and/or deep version with a capacity of up to 20,000 board feet of 4/4 lumber.
Given that Old Growth Riverwood is located in Wilmington, NC, which is along the east side of the Cape Fear River and 30 miles from the mouth of the river, it might seem likely that Chris would choose Kiln- Direct. After all, the furnace company’s offices and manufacturing facilities are just 30 miles north of Wilmington.
Yet that is not the story. “I didn’t know they were in Burlaw,” Chris said. “Actually, I live in Burlaw.”
Chris was looking for ‘efficiency and competence’ when he started considering oven suppliers. Much research led him to Kiln-Direct.
“It was right at the top of my list of anything you were looking for,” said Kiln-Direct’s Chris. And that’s how he made his choice.
It was a good decision, explained Chris. “They exceeded my expectations from day one. We get a quality and stable product.
Chris has been impressed with the interest the Kiln-Direct team has shown in his business. He works regularly with Maury Wilkinson, but Kiln-Direct owner Niels Jorgensen has visited the Old Growth Riverwood facilities on several occasions.
“I know he’s the owner, but he was more than happy to come,” said Chris of Niels. “Their relationship with you is so great. They have come out with a superior product.
Old Growth Riverwood’s new larger lumber kiln was recently dedicated to kiln drying for a new client under a special arrangement. This customer imports teak wood from Brazil and Chris’ company dries the wood.
Teak wood fascinates Chris because of its moisture content. When the wood is removed from the shipping containers, it has a moisture content of 16-18%, which kiln drying will reduce to 8%. The wood has already dried out somewhat in transit, losing gallons of water that spill out of the containers when opened.
The salvaged pine is sawn to 8/4 thick and then air dried for 90 to 120 days; it is put on sticks and topped with a metal lid and dried to 20 to 22 percent humidity. The material is then kiln-dried for about 14 days to a final moisture content of 8%, a point that eliminates pitch and lessens the gummy nature of the wood, Chris explained.
Pine and the occasional cypress are the current predominant wood mix at Old Growth Riverwood. Most pines come from old structures. Only about 25% of the company’s wood products come from logs taken from the Cape Fear River.
Old Growth Riverwood leases one acre of land for its operations. Sawing and milling takes place in a 3,800 square foot building.
Chris outfitted his factory one machine at a time with a determined effort to get the best he could afford in every moment. The sawmill is a Timber Harvester model 3025 portable band sawmill, which was purchased in 2008 with 300 hours logged as a demonstration. It shares many features with a portable Cooks Saw, which Chris liked as he had worked with a Cooks Saw and liked it a lot, but it was beyond his price range.
The production line that Chris relies on is completed with a Diehl resaw, a Weinig five-head moulder, a CNC router and an Extrema planer-sander.
Since starting his business, Chris estimates he has cut nearly a million board feet.
Wilmington is North Carolina’s main seaport. It is part of New Hanover County and has a population of 120,000. With its access to Cape Fear Beach, Wilmington is a popular location for visitors and residents year-round. And the greater Wilmington area is about three times larger.
Old Growth Riverwood benefits from the bustle of its surrounding community. The company works for contractors, making stair treads for example, and for architects and designers who work for high-end clients, such as banks and other businesses. When customers of corporate clients see the type of wood products Chris has supplied, they often ask for a recommendation. There is also more routine work. Recently, the company has worked for 30 restaurants from start to finish, including tables, bars and floors.
Sustainability is of utmost importance to Chris. “We see so much going into landfills,” he said. “I just want things not to be wasted anymore. We can reuse many things in life.
Logs pulled from the Cape Fear River after being under water for a hundred years or more are as useful today as they would have been when the trees were first harvested. They were preserved by the relatively cool water and low oxygen levels.
There is also little waste from materials recovered from tobacco dryers and cotton mills. “We’re trying to salvage everything,” Chris said. “I’m going to glue one-eighth strips.”
Keyrings, coasters, cutting boards and more are made from the smallest waste. A wood-burning stove in the store is fueled by scrap wood in the winter.
Chris is originally from Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington, DC. The partnership he and Terrie have in their business allows him to do most of the sawing and manufacturing while she takes care of the customers, payroll and logistics.
“We certainly like to do everything with spiritual direction,” Chris said. “We want to do things with integrity and God in our hearts. We are very spiritual here.
The alliance with Kiln-Direct goes beyond the use of their products, Chris explained. “They are like an extended family. Niels is such a generous person. He has a passion for his business as I have for mine.
Using Kiln-Direct ovens goes beyond being a customer. “The partnership they form with you is second to none,” said Chris. “Niels and Maury are very competent, very helpful. If I could have five ovens here they would be from Kiln-Direct.
Kiln-Direct offers kilns ranging in capacity from 9,000 to 20,000 board feet. Heat recovery systems on vents, fuel gas and computerized controls are standard. Available upgrades include an integrated moisture control meter and internal wood temperature sensors. The heat source can be configured with hot water or optional steam. The company also offers firewood ovens and ovens for the heat treatment of pallets.
Chris is very satisfied with the professional path he has followed. “I love coming here and taking this old wood and turning it into a treasure,” he said. “I like working with my hands. I like to redirect. I am blessed.”
Welding and fabrication are still a part of Chris’ life as he does his own maintenance and renovation work at Old Growth Riverwood. Welded art isn’t currently in the picture, though.
“When I was welding, I was doing a lot of custom stuff – yard art,” Chris explained. He has since transferred this creativity to wood.
The inventiveness was noticed very early. Two years after launching the business, Old Growth Riverwood received the 2009 Best of Business award from the Small Business Commerce Association.
Chris and Terrie have long enjoyed cruising and following NASCAR. The complexity of 2020 forced them to rethink their travels and they spent time at home, more with their grandchildren. The change of pace went well, said Chris.