Did you know that the life cycle of wood doesn't end with the tree?
Updated: May 23
Meet Will Phillips, Co-owner of Sandtown Furniture in Baltimore City
What started as volunteering on a Habitat for Humanity house project in the West Baltimore neighborhood of Sandtown led to a whole new pursuit of passion for former Under Armour employee Will Phillips.
As he became more involved in the demolition and rebuilding of 100-year-old rowhomes, he began to notice "all this beautiful old structural lumber that was cut from trees 100+ years ago." That's all it took, and Phillips was hooked. What someone saw as destined for the dumpster, he saw as a forestry product full of beauty and potential to reuse and extend its life cycle.
"Without even really knowing if it should be flooring or cabinetry or furniture, I just started salvaging it and started storing a bunch of it and pulling nails out of it and trying to figure out what it should be," says Phillips.
He connected with a partner who had a woodshop and good design sense, and they ended up building a couple of pieces and taking them to farmers markets under the Jones Falls Expressway/Rt 83 in Baltimore City. "We made some little business cards and a little fake it until you make it catalog," Phillips says. Immediately, people were drawn to the idea of salvaged wood. "From the very beginning, it struck a chord in people," he adds.
Alongside his partner James Battaglia, who leads product and design at Sandtown, Phillips has taken a side hustle in 2010 and turned it into a full-time career with endless potential for expansion, including a new 32,000 sqft-plus woodshop and gallery that embodies everything about the company and its wood-based ambitions. The company also operates a separate 18,000 square foot facility in Port Covington, used for milling and drying wood. Though their space has grown immensely from the little 6,000 sqft shop they started in, they still strive for the same resonance with customers.
"We still try to make sure we are creating that emotional connection where people buy a piece from us, and they get to be a part in the history, in the story, and understanding where it came from; understanding that it's a piece of Baltimore that got repurposed," says Phillips.
Going from one of the largest sports apparel makers in the nation to repurposing salvaged waste wood into quality furniture came down to Phillips' "genuine interest in the idea of creating something special, valuable, beautiful out of what would otherwise be waste." It was his fascination with the life cycle of wood, as simple as that sounds; from a seedling sprouting to what becomes a centuries-old tree, from the passing of that tree providing the wood transformed into lumber at the center of centuries-old homes in cities like Baltimore.
Phillips enjoys "the beauty underneath, that element of surprise and the variation in wood" harvested from what would be otherwise bound for the landfill. "Just the joy of that process, seeing what the wood is and seeing what it can be. Every time you do it, it's a little bit different," he says.
For the first eight years of Sandtown Furniture Company, they used nothing but salvaged pine, which had a rustic feel and a distinct aesthetic. Eventually, to expand the business and satisfy their creative interests, they "felt like getting into new woods was really important for Sandtown." White oak, ash, and walnut are now part of their hardwood lumber feedstock as they've gotten into more downed tree salvaging versus reclaimed pine lumber from buildings. "James is a really good designer and these new species have given him the chance to take our product design to a whole new level. It’s awesome to see how much our product has evolved over the last couple of years," adds Phillips.
The Sandtown co-founder points to Camp Small, a woodlot in Baltimore City that salvages all the trees that the city cuts down, as crucial in expanding their wood offering and building the knowledge they needed to succeed. "They were super helpful in getting us to the point where we understood how to look at a log and then how to mill them up," he says.
Another great partner that came much later in the company's history is Next One Up, a nonprofit organization in Baltimore City that works with young men from 6th grade through 12th grade. "They give these guys a lot of support academically, help them as they find their way," says Phillips. And he knows firsthand, as their first full-time hire at the company's sawmill came to them from Next One Up. Despite having someone with no initial training as a sawmill operator, Phillips explains that if the person has the right personality and is the right fit, "that we can teach that stuff. We're optimistic about the partnership we have with Next One Up," he says.
The way Phillips sees their woodworking, every piece is a work of art. There are the custom builds that his business partner James Battaglia does, as well as what's crafted by the incredible production team they have. "Every one of those is a creative endeavor to figure out how you treat the wood, marry the boards up, line the grain up," he says.
Phillips and Battaglia are most proud of the team they have, what Phillips calls a talented and committed group that is in it for the right reasons. With the tremendous amount of work they've done sourcing new wood and expanding their products and designs, he is excited for the future despite the ongoing covid pandemic. "We came into 2020 with a really clear plan and a really clear vision, and we didn't pivot. For us, staying the course and seeing that vision through was the best path," says Phillips.
Part of that vision is the new facility Sandtown Furniture Company is moving into in March, which was built back in 1885 and sat vacant for 10 years. "It’s this beautiful old brick building, a full city block long, with 50-foot ceilings and old arched windows. It needed a lot of love but we’re so excited to reveal the space once it’s finished. It's an embodiment of what we do on a really grand scale," he says.
One side of the new home for the furniture maker will be an 8,000 sqft retail showroom and gallery, with only a floor-to-ceiling glass wall separating the showroom from the woodshop, where customers can watch furniture makers live in action. Visitors will be able to shop for premium furniture in a polished well-lit space while looking through the glass to the other side where "sawdust is flying, and the production team is cranking," Phillips exclaims.
The company hopes to be running the sawmill five days a week by the end of 2022 and continues to work to spread the wisdom of wood as a forestry resource and natural building material. The life cycle doesn't end with the tree. The unique furniture made at Sandtown from reclaimed wood continues to store carbon indefinitely, and that's a beautiful thing. "We're always open, we're always available, and if you want to come see a real wood shop in action, then we're here for that," says Phillips
Pictured above Will Phillips and business partner James Battaglia.
Their long-term strategic plan? Under-promise and over-deliver. Humble and hungry.
Photo Credit: EDWIN REMSBERG PHOTOGRAPHS
Project Support: RURAL MARYLAND COUNCIL
LINKS TO LEARN MORE:
Washington Post Story- A furniture Maker Whose Pieces Tell a Sustainable Story
Next One Up
Maryland's Forests- Great for the Environment and the Economy
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