Risen from the scrap heap
Phoenix Materials Inc.December 20th, 2001
John A. Osbornes ears perked up earlier this year when he heard that the boyhood home of late guitar legend Jimi Hendrix might be demolished to make way for a Seattle condominium project.
The Spokane woodworker didnt have strains of Purple Haze in his brainit was more like thoughts of purple scrap wood.
Osbornes year-old company, Phoenix Materials Inc., makes cabinets, tables, and a variety of other products out of wood and other building materials salvaged from old structures. The company, which also goes by the name Old Door Cabinet Co., tracks down the origins of all the wood it usesas best it canand includes a written story about the woods original use and a certificate of authenticity with each of the finished products.
Scraps from Hendrixs old home never became available. Unfortunately for Osborne, someone bought the housepurple kitchen cabinets and alland moved it intact, dashing Osbornes hopes for building unique new products that would have come with a whale of a story.
Regardless, Phoenix Materials has plenty of good tales waiting to be told with old building materials waiting to be used once again.
Some of the stories are more mundane than others, but the stuff is always really cool, Osborne says.
Phoenix Materials 2,000-square-foot shop is located along North Walnut Street just off Northwest Boulevard. A tiny showroom at one end of the building holds a few samples of the companys handiwork. Hanging on one wall is a cabinet, 2 feet wide by 3 1/2 feet tall, that Phoenix Materials made from wood that originally was part of a turn-of-the-century house in a remote part of southern Oregon. The house originally belonged to what Osborne describes as a Native American princess whose father was a tribal chief there, and the wood is weathered to the point that only spots of the original dark brown finish remain on the light board and leave a look similar to that of a leopard print.
That hanging cabinet is priced at $1,200.
Nearly all of Phoenix Materials business thus far, however, has been custom jobs generated mainly by word-of-mouth in the Spokane area, and many of those jobs have been substantially larger than the cabinet. For example, Phoenix Materials built an Old West storefront faade for a rundown storage shed behind a customers home southwest of Spokane. The faade was constructed out of old, faded barn wood, although in this case Osborne was uncertain of the woods origin.
The companys first job involved building a screened-in back porch for Osbornes parents home on Spokanes North Side. The company made the porch out of the hardwood flooring salvaged from an old stage at St. Patricks Elementary School in East Spokane, and it carries sentimental value for Osbornes parents, since he and his three siblings attended the private Catholic school and performed on the stage as youngsters.
Though word-of-mouth business has kept Osborne and Phoenixs other two employees busy, he says hes talking with high-end specialty retailers in the Spokane area about carrying some of his products, though none has agreed to do so thus far.
Phoenix Materials also plans to launch a Web site to market its products. Osborne declines for now to disclose the companys sales figures.
While the products made by Phoenix carry high-end prices, the wood shop where theyre made is much more modest. The 50-year-old building, made out of wood from a century-old downtown warehouse building, is sparse and is heated by a large wood-burning stove. On days when air quality is poor, the stove is unlit, and the shop stays cold.
Above the shop, a loft holds an inventory of building materials, including heavy, wooden bathroom-stall doors from an old downtown Spokane hotel, windows from an old office building that had graced the main street of St. Maries, Idaho, and boards from a 100-year-old Palouse farmhouse, among other items.
Osborne salvages building materials from sites throughout the Pacific Northwest, as well as in the Southwestern U.S. He also has bought items from such sources as Brown Building Materials Inc., of Spokane, and a man who lives south of Spokane who has what Osborne describes as a Home Depot of old building materials.
With one project that Phoenix Materials expects to begin soon, the company is crafting a corner curio cabinet and some small wooden boxes out of vintage materials that a Spokane Valley woman is supplying herself. Those supplies came from her grandparents old house, Osborne says.
The symbolism of the phoenix in the companys name is clear. The mythical phoenix rises from the ashes of his father. Similarly, the discarded building materials used by Phoenix Materials are revived for new uses.
Osborne, however, takes the analogy further. He says that in the myth, the phoenix carries the ashes of his father as a tribute to him as he flies across the sky. Similarly, Osborne contends a new product memorializes the structure from which it came.
I dont want to get crossways with preservationists, but when something cant be preserved intact and in place, this is a great way to preserve it, he says.
In some cases, wood for Phoenix Materials products is used just as its found. Other times, its treated, stained, or painted. When possible, the company uses old fasteners and nobs in constructing its furnishings, and if it uses new nails or fasteners, it works to ensure they arent visible.
Working with older materials is somewhat trickier than building with fresh boards, Osborne says. He says the old boards vary in thickness and width, which makes it harder for a craftsman to achieve spacing and squareness. Also, the old wood is hard and dry, so all structural connections must be pre-drilled and nails must be blunted and hammered by hand.
Osborne says, Just like in a Fortune 500 company, the board tells you what to do.
Prior to starting Phoenix Materials, Osborne worked for 18 years for Dix Corp., a Spokane specialty general contractor. He started out with that company as a craftsman, but worked his way up to marketing and sales manager before leaving last year.