It’s nine in the morning on a cloud-covered day and Thomas Porter is sitting at a long, handcrafted table inside the showroom at his namesake company, Porter Barn Wood, just outside the warehouse district at 901 S. 7th St. To his left is a door whose front is covered in Lego parts. Further left, a wall of wooden swatches. To his right, an enormous dirt yard filled with reclaimed wood that’s been collected and transported from all over the country.
Pieces at a time, the wood will eventually be turned into tables, chairs, desks, doors, conference tables, signs — anything you can build with wood — and replaced with more. Some of it is a few years old. Some of it, a few centuries. And that’s what draws people in, whether it’s to take home and work on themselves or to have the Porter Barn Wood staff create something custom.
“There’s history to it,” says Porter. “And it’s fun to know this 200–300 year old piece of wood someone thought was useless is now extremely valuable because we’ve done something to it. We’ve put our personality on it. Our touch.”
For the most part, Porter can identify at least which county each stack came from, if not the exact barn. He’s understandably secretive about how he sources the arsenal of aged lumber, but not about the stories behind it. Or the one about how he got here.
Before all this happened, Porter was a massage therapist for 12 years. After doing some professional woodworking on the side, he and a friend had the idea to pull together some reclaimed wood and sell it on Craigslist. That lead to building furniture, which lead to social media, which lead to Porter’s very quick rise to popularity.
Of course, Porter’s story didn’t start there. “I went to an arts high school,” he says, “and I was home-schooled as a child, and that gave me a lot of opportunity to learn how to learn — in a different way than most people get a chance to.” He gives an example of a typical field trip. “We went down to Phoenix Brick and watched them go through all the kilning process and talk about, step by step, how to make a brick.” Then they went home and dug up some mud and made their own adobes.
Experiences like this taught Porter how to think like a craftsman. How to solve problems and get creative with the materials on hand. Eventually, he turned to the visual arts — “the hands-on stuff — sculpture, painting and drawing, graphic arts, things like that.” When the possibilities of wood caught up to him, he went all in.
That sense of artistry is now part of the backbone of Porter Barn Wood’s popularity. “We’re always taking it to the next level and building something unique,” he says.
As a result, Porter Barn Wood’s business has doubled each during of the last several years. This feat has included custom work, installations, large orders of reclaimed wood for flooring jobs, and even individuals looking for a lone piece of wood to turn into a single shelf, or a sign for a wedding. “The minimum order is the board,” says Porter. No matter what needs done, Porter Barn Wood’s staff and shop is equipped to do it. And no matter what it turns into, it’ll have a great story behind it.
Porter, who is also a songwriter, equates the result to a good song.
“Everybody’s visual, but if you can connect with them on some sort of sense of smell, sense of touch, something that took them back inward and then touched their heart — that kind of story, that kind of power, brings life to a piece of lifeless furniture.”
You’re not going to find history like that at Home Depot.
Hit the website for a look at the company’s countless projects. And if you want to check it out yourself, the yard’s open from 9am to 2pm, Monday through Saturday.
Now about that Lego door.
“Every kid that comes in here plays with the Lego door,” says Porter. Then he goes on to say the backside of the door is made from cherry wood from Johnny Cash’s old estate in Clarksville.
Because, of course it is. Because for Porter, you can’t even have a Lego door without a little extra awesome in it.
Images by Robert Hoekman, Jr.