When we started the renovation of our studio in the Scott’s Addition neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, a friend in construction recommended we talk to the guys at Surface Architectural Supply. As photographers of architecture and interiors, we were immediately impressed with the beautiful reclaimed wood surfaces in their showroom and the space itself.
When Alston Thompson Photography sat down with Kirsten and Hunter Webb, owners of Surface Architectural Supply, we asked them how they would explain the benefit of old growth timber to someone who may not know much about wood. Hunter likened it to a Stradivarius violin. While the craftsmanship of a Stradivarius is second to none, the wood is where the magic really happens. Antonio Stradivari hand picked the trees he used in the Fiemme Valley of the Italian Alps where spruce trees in that climate and that particular altitude form what is called “Il Bosco Che Suona” - The Musical Woods. Webb goes on to say “Old wood is different. Anyone who cares just understands that. When you see the tightness of the grain….what it’s really about is how the trees were allowed to grow.
"You can't fake 100 years of wind, rain, and sun."
Most of the stuff people are growing today is farmed, but a tree that grows up in a competitive forest doesn’t get as much light, it grows slower, the ring count is tighter; it’s reaching and growing straight because that’s where the light is. In a farming situation the trees don’t grow many branches, they grow up faster. Because it’s easier for them to grow, the wood is less dense. Using our reclaimed wood keeps this material out of the landfill, we are honoring the generations before us by reusing their captured energy in these materials. A lot of the things we have are unique; once they are repurposed there is no more like them. You can’t fake 100 years of wind, rain, and sun. I can spot the
‘distressed’ wood trying to be reclaimed wood from across the room. It’s all about taking what nature has done and polishing it a little bit."
Surface’s sweet spot is buying an old barn and reclaiming the lumber; floor joists, flooring, siding, everything. Hunter gets especially excited when he has the opportunity to salvage an old walnut tree. He’s a self-proclaimed wood hoarder. Especially when it comes to scarce and one-of-a-kind wood sources. Did I mention he likes walnut (his license plate says “WALNUTS”)? He’s taken an excavator to a golf course to salvage a walnut tree that was four feet wide and over forty feet tall, “I even dug up the stump, that’s where the good stuff is…” They received a phone call after Hurricane Sandy to see if they were interested in reclaiming part of the old Coney Island boardwalk. Kirsten laughed and said “the client who was interested in the boardwalk planks asked if we’d make sure to scrape all the gum off the wood.” You name it, they’ve seen it, gymnasium floors, bowling alley floors, the list goes on….
When Surface sources wood and brings it back to their facility their work has just begun. They have a passionate, energetic team that handles the millwork in-house. In other words, they don’t just do floors. They can mill trim, casing, shoe moulding, base board, risers, landings, nosing, balustrades, newel posts; build furniture, doors and casing, wall paneling, decorative joists, functional supports, corbels, mantels; and source hand hewn, rough sawn and milled surface beams. They recently supplied Shou Sugi Ban wall paneling for a major corporate client’s feature wall. Shou Sugi Ban is an ancient Japanese technique of scorching a wood surface, which makes it impervious to bugs and fire resistant. While it’s traditionally done with cedar, the technique can be used on other wood types. Kirsten adds, “It’s used in a lot of really modern environments. Juxtaposed with lighter wood and metal, it is absolutely stunning”.
Kirsten and Hunter were attending San Diego State when they met. Hunter was in graduate school and Kirsten was studying furniture design under Wendy Maruyama. After they graduated Hunter convinced Kirsten to return to his native Richmond. Hunter’s family home in Manakin-Sabot had the ideal woodworking shop, an old carriage barn that they added onto as the company expanded. They both love Richmond, “It’s a friendly, easy place to live….” said Kirsten. They’re also proud of Richmond’s unconventional vibe: “Did you know Richmond has more tattoo parlors per capita than any other city in the world?” The Webbs are anything but conventional. With a post and beam home furnished with modern, industrial chairs and tables that they designed themselves, the fact that they live in rural Manakin-Sabot and work in Scott’s Addition mirrors their business philosophy; to repurpose what is old in a contemporary application. For anyone not familiar with Richmond, Scott’s Addition is an industrial district developed around the 1920s and 1930s featuring colonial revival, classical revival, and art deco buildings. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005 and has been experiencing urban renewal ever since. It’s where all the cool kids want to be. In August 2013 the Webbs moved into their Scott’s Addition headquarters and never looked back.
Having the chance to watch the process and meet their team, it’s obvious they value bright people with great attitudes. “I look for passion. If it is apparent that a potential hire believes in something and has worked hard towards that goal, chances are good they will work towards our goals too. Honor, creativity, and work ethic are crucial. Being able to work with others on the team and be open to criticism to improve are a must.”
With a strong team and amazing clients like Richmond’s Tazza Kitchen and HKS Architects’ Washington, D.C. office, Surface Architectural Supply is poised for continued growth. They also have sales reps in Washington, D.C., New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and California.