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A Legacy of Lumber

KC Weaver stands in front of stacks of curing elm wood.

KC Weaver stands in front of stacks of curing elm wood.

Special, hard to find wood will be used to make one-of-a-kind tables.

"Funny thing happened on the way to retirement…," Daryl Weaver begins, but then he gets distracted.

A client just walked into Tontin Lumber, Inc. (565 Godfrey SW in Grand Rapids). No, an old friend. Both, actually. By now, after 30 years of business, most of Tontin Lumber, Inc.'s, clients are old friends. Weaver rises from his desk and shoulders up to his client, his friend, and the two head back into the recesses of the building, where the woodsy scent of sawdust powders the air and the machines send up a rhythmic roar.

KC Weaver takes over. That's KC, his first name, he explains, which stands for nothing but KC. "When I sign up for online sites like Facebook or LinkedIn, they tell me that's not a real name," he chuckles. KC is Daryl's eldest son, part time at Tontin Lumber, part time at Grand Rapids Community College where he teaches American history. When he sits down at his desk, made of Tontin lumber, he is living history.

"I've been running around this place since I was a kid," the younger Weaver says. "Playing with adding machines, telling people they're fired." Another chortle.

Pride is evident, alongside the penchant in father and son to do things in an original way. Do it in a unique way or die, that's a lesson they learned here at the beginning, but relearned in 2008, when the economy nationwide took a serious dive.

"2008 hit us extremely hard," Weaver says. The 50,000 square foot building nearly went silent. Originally a space for eight businesses, the elder Weaver had rented a small corner, then expanded, then kept expanding, finally buying the entire building. Producing lumber was a good business -- until it wasn't.

"We had a trucker drive in and ask if he could park his rig here," Weaver says. He points at the immense logs still present in the parking lot, stacked high. They are called butt logs, the first log cut above the stump of a tree, darker and denser that the rest of the tree. "The trucker asked about all of these butt logs, what we do with them."

Weaver points to a section of a log where the bark has chipped away. Beneath the bark, the wood is marked with a crazy, wiggling pattern. "That's from the ash borer. It's an insect that kills the tree, but leaves good lumber beneath."

The trucker asked if he could take the logs away, musing that someone might have use for them. An idea was born. As a sideline to keep the business alive, Tontin Lumber collected downed trees that the City of Grand Rapids had been grinding up into sawdust after the trees died from ash borer disease.

"We have always catered to the local market, instilling the mantra of keeping money within Michigan at every turn," says Weaver. "With the economic downturn, we needed new solutions to old problems. One of the ideas entailed seeking out one of the primary tree services for the City of Grand Rapids and asking them what they did with the downed trees. They ground them up! We quickly struck a deal that is mutually beneficial and now Tontin Lumber is recycling our trees."

Instead of downed trees going into the chipper, Tontin Lumber, Inc., repurposed the trees with a portable sawmill on site.

"Our first batch of ash lumber returned from the kilns earlier this summer. What does this mean? This means that you could buy a complete floor, or another project of reclaimed ash, 100 percent sourced from the city of Grand Rapids. Reduce, recycle, reuse. How local and awesome is that?"

Tontin Lumber, Inc., employs about a dozen employees, three of them salaried. Repurposing the downed trees, along with the moldings the company creates and the custom work done for high-end homes, are the core of the company's business and what kept them afloat through the economic downturn and is bringing them up to thriving levels today, says Weaver.

Stacked in the back rooms are boards cut with what Weaver refers to as a "live edge," an edging of unpeeled bark and areas still showing the crazy squiggles tracing the paths of the hungry beetles. He glides one hand lovingly along the length of the boards. He pulls another board, smooth and white, from the pile.

"This is wood from northern Michigan," he says. "Every board here has a story to tell. You won't find that at the big chain store on the corner."

Tontin Lumber, Inc., custom work can be seen at several area business, such as Maria Catrib's newly renovated restaurant, all done with "rescued ash," as Weaver calls it, and in the long bar at Founder's Brewing Company, the counter at Two Beards Deli, and many other local businesses. Butcher blocks are a new addition, soon to appear on an Etsy online store, along with table tops.

The elder Weaver returns to his desk after walking his client and friend to the door. The younger Weaver is inspired to tell another family story. "As a kid, I would ask my father: Dad, if you own a company, you must make lots of money. Why don't you wear a suit to work? My dad, you know, he's like a bohemian hippy sage, the shabby homeless guy walking around this place. Dad replied: I'm my own boss, that's why I don't wear a suit to work."

Daryl Weaver gives a belly laugh. "KC's the vocabularian in the family," he purposefully misspeaks. Then he adds, "My wife kicked me out of the house because of all the sawdust I brought in. I'm not retiring."

The wide-belt sander brought into the building in 1983 is still there, still working. So are the Weavers.

Photography by Adam Bird
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