A craftsman carries on an Ottawa tradition by turning antique Valley lumber into rustic furniture
Although the Ottawa of today is known as a government town, our beginnings had a lot to do with the timber trade. Young Ottawa was made of wood, in more ways than one. Lumber was at the core of one of the biggest industries in the 1800s and employed thousands of men.
If it weren’t for the lumber trade and the city it helped build, Ottawa may not have been chosen to become Canada’s capital.
Building on that history, Matt Wallace, a graphic designer by trade, is taking pieces of the Ottawa Valley’s lumber history and turning them into handcrafted furniture. His work, packaged under the banner of naCoille Studio (pronounced
NA-Kwyllah, which is Gaelic for “of the wood”) is environmentally conscious and forward-thinking — a quiet appreciation of the city’s collective
It’s a creative re-use of a material that, unfortunately, not everyone values. He regularly fields calls from caring arbourists who don’t want to see stately — and often healthy — old trees bound for the chipper.
“There are so many people who just want to throw the wood out. It’s such a shame,” he says.
He starts with two different raw materials: some of his furniture is made from reclaimed lumber that has already been milled, and the rest from timber that finds its way to him in tree-form through a network of colleagues and friends. There are extra challenges with the latter.
“When you mill the tree you never know what it’s going to look like. It can be all rotten, or it can be perfect,” he says.
Choosing the wood is a bit of a personality test: Are you the kind of person who wants a pristine slab, or do you value the markings that trace the natural history and human use of the specimen?
He points to a slab of walnut that is destined to become a kitchen counter. At some point in its history, some spalting (a fungal stain) created an irregular splash of discolouration deep within the wood. But if you flip it over, the other side presents a pristine stretch of walnut. Some people (Wallace, for example) think the golden discolouration adds character. The client for this piece, however, decided on the “pretty” side.
This kind of decision, in either direction, stems from salvaged and reclaimed wood being rooted in our personal connection to it — where the
timber grew, or where the lumber was part of a structure.
“The wood is local,” says Wallace. “And if it’s reclaimed, I can pinpoint where the barns are from, when they were taken down; sometimes I’ve even had photos of the barns before they were taken down. “
Wallace’s basement and double-garage are filled to bursting, and he knows the story of each piece. Walnut is his favourite; he loves the richness and the variation. “You’ll never find two pieces of walnut that look alike, whereas something like pine tends to be kind of bland, and always looks the same.”
As for the reclaimed lumber, Wallace insists the wood was different back then.
“With the reclaimed wood, there are such different characteristics compared to the same species of wood today. The grain is tighter, the colouring’s different. Even the soft woods like pine and hemlock are a lot harder than they are now,” he says.
At this point, is not quite a full-time occupation, but Wallace is moving in that direction. Orders are coming in and he is looking for work space that can double as a small showroom.
“I’ve had a few people contact me, saying they’re taking down a tree or an old barn and asking me if I want this wood. I want to take it, but I can’t.”
He’s currently working on a conference room table made of reclaimed wood to be shipped to Toronto when it’s completed, as well as a pair of side tables with walnut tops.
“It’s neat to be dealing with wood knowing someone cut it down on their property 150 years ago to build their house or barn with it. And knowing very well that the tree at that time was probably 150 years old as well,” Wallace says.
“I love working with reclaimed wood that has come from here, knowing all the lumber history we have in Ottawa.”