Woodworking business rooted in nature

Partners transform old barns into new furniture

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Some see Vermont’s many falling-down barns and buildings as eyesores or safety hazards. Raphael Groten sees raw material for his craft.

Groten is the owner of Barnoire Furniture & Cabinetry, a Williston business that uses wood from old barns and other dilapidated structures to produce new tables, hutches and cabinets.

Groten recently restarted the business after a yearlong hiatus. He and his business partner, Scott Lamer, feel Vermont is the perfect place for an environmentally- friendly business that trades on tradition.

“Part of this work for me is a model for how we can live on the earth,” Groten says. “We don’t just have to go to the lumberyard and buy new wood that’s been cut down. We have all this old wood.”

Indeed, Barnoire is perhaps the ultimate recycling and preservation business. The wood comes from buildings that are at least 100 years old. Those buildings were often constructed using trees from old-growth forests, Groten notes, adding hundreds more years to the wood’s age.

That’s not to say that demolished buildings produce ready-to-use lumber.

“You have to understand when we look at this wood … it’s this pile of lumber covered in dirt and cobwebs and pigeon crap,” Lamer says. “And then you clean it off and you sand it down and all these amazing patinas come out.”

Groten uses wood from barns and other old buildings for his furniture, but he doesn’t tear the barns down himself. He buys much of his wood from a supplier in Charlotte.

He selects the best wood for the most visible parts of the furniture, using the less aesthetically pleasing pieces for structural components. He calls the choicest wood “character pieces,” which may be a board marked by a lumber mill’s saw or a beam scraped by a bear’s claw.

He tries to preserve the wood’s original character by applying a light touch, using only saws and sanders. Form follows function, with wood selected based on what best fits the piece being built. A barn door, for instance, makes an ideal table top.

Prices range from as little as $45 for a picture frame to $3,500 for a stained glass hutch. The idea, Groten says, is to offer reasonable prices while recognizing that the products are hand-crafted art.

Many of the pieces incorporate animals. The backrest on a bench in Groten’s yard, for example, is shaped like a bear.

“When I use animals in my work, a lot of it is working with them as totems in the Native American way …,” he says. “There’s a spiritual connection with animals that I have.”

He also feels a spiritual connection to the wood itself. “The truth is the wood speaks to me, too,” Groten says. “I’ll be pulling an old, rusty nail that’s been there for 200 years, and the wood just goes ‘ah, thank you.’”

Barnoire is apparently the only business in the state using old wood to produce custom-made furniture, according to Kathleen Wanner of the Vermont Wood Manufacturers Association. But she says the state has many, many small businesses working with wood.

“I would venture to say there isn’t a small town in Vermont that doesn’t have some small producers or small shops,” she says.

More than 18,000 people are directly or indirectly employed producing wood products in Vermont, according to a 2000 report by Williston economist Jeff Carr.

Groten, 32, is married and has two young children. He grew up in the Poughkeepsie, N.Y. area.

There was a woodworking shop in his house, and Groten learned the craft from his father and both his grandfathers. “So I was always woodworking growing up, working with tools, working with my hands,” he says.

Groten came to Vermont in 1992, attending the University of Vermont and studying music and philosophy. After graduating, he worked in a record store and as a musician. He has recorded a CD with Guagua, a local jazz band.

Groten also worked as a house framer, but concluded that finish carpentry was more to his liking. In 2001, a Burlington woman asked him to build an armoire using wood from a barn on her property. Barnoire was born.

Groten built a word-of-mouth business, but a lack of financial resources kept production limited. Last year, his wife, Courtney, was accepted into the Rhode Island School of Design, so the family moved and Groten put the business on hold.

Lamer, 27, grew up near Portland, Me. He attended Skidmore College, majoring in anthropology. After that, he lived in Italy and Alaska before moving to Vermont about three years ago.

Lamer says he had always wanted to be a carpenter. A few years ago he saw a feature about Barnoire on WCAX-TV. Lamer called Groten and ended up working for him as an apprentice for the summer.

The men were reunited this year in a bit of synchronicity. Lamer was enrolled in the School for International Training in Brattleboro. One assignment involved writing a feasibility study for a new business.
Lamer tracked down Groten and asked if he could make Barnoire the study’s subject. As it turned out, Groten had recently dusted off his own business plan and planned to return to Vermont.

For now, the men work out of Groten’s house off Vermont 2A, near the Williston-St. George line. The home showcases Groten’s creations, with custom-made furniture and cabinets throughout. The workshop – actually a garage – is filled with old wood, which spills out into the driveway.

But Groten and Lamer are trying to move beyond word-of-mouth advertising by actively marketing their business. Barnoire products are on display at Floral Gallery in Maple Tree Place in Williston. Last weekend the men exhibited work at the Green Festival in Washington D.C., which bills itself as the world’s largest environmental exhibition.

“Our vision – in a few years, maybe sooner – is to find an old barn and fix it up and use it for retail or studio space,” Lamer says. “We always have our eye out for old barns.”

Barnoire is located at 245 Lincoln Road in Williston. The business can be reached by calling (888) 660-BARN or by visiting www.barnoire.com