Knock on wood: Dismantling old barns boon for new business

Prairie Barn Brothers, based in the Yorkton area

Now in his third year of business, Tyler Slowski has permanent proof he made it through the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic almost unscathed.

A rough, long, maroon scar runs between his right thumb and index finger, ending near his wrist in a snake’s head-type mark.

“That was a miter saw, right before COVID-19 hit,” he says while on site at his current barn-deconstruction project, at the northwest tip of Regina.

“I was rushing an order ... I thought, ‘OK, the whole country is going to shut down, I gotta get these guys their wood,’ right?”

He cut a piece, started lifting the still-spinning circular blade and reached under to clear the extra pieces.

“The saw didn't fully come up yet. Not thinking, I put my hand in there and I almost lost my whole hand.

“It's a good safety toolbox talk,” he says, serious with a touch of humour.

Neither the injury nor the pandemic has slowed Slowski's business, Prairie Barn Brothers, based in the Yorkton area.

Originally started in January 2018 by Tyler and his brother Nathan, the company sees western Canada’s rustic, abandoned barns as still holding value; a value that’s better realized when the barns aren’t dotting the landscape while getting battered by wind and rain.

Slowski and his crew deconstruct the barns, refurbish any salvageable wood, then sell it to buyers. Demand, he says, has been constant since the company’s early days, and especially halfway through 2020, pandemic be damned.

“The months of March and April were our busiest months of the year,” he says. “Last year I was offered 100 barns; I had to turn down 90 per cent of them because I just don't have the capacity.”

He and his crew regularly scout areas; they’ve worked from Manitoba all the way to Vancouver. Along with 13 barns, they've reclaimed old wood from 15 smaller outbuildings, plus two house demolitions. In 2020 they've finished five jobs so far.

A large chunk of the work comes from referrals — word of mouth or online through social media. That’s how Slowski came across the current project, his biggest one yet, the Harle family barn at the corner of Pinkie Road and Armour Road.

It was a 110-year-old behemoth with a second storey and a loft on top; it measured 126 feet by 68 feet (about the length of two bowling lanes by the width of one).

A timber-frame barn, it was built in 1910 using 300-year-old wood from British Columbia’s old growth forests — Douglas fir.

Slowski had just bought some lumber from Ken Harle, a son in the family whose own property is about a mile away, when Ken mentioned his family barn.

“He says, 'I've got to show you this,’” recalls Slowski. “When I saw it, my jaw dropped. I didn’t even know there were timber-frame barns in Saskatchewan.”

He says the family was well past using it for farming. “They were going to burn it, because it was already becoming a hazard. Kids were coming and partying in there, and they could light the barn on fire.”

He drew up a contract with the family, got insurance, filed the necessary paperwork with the Workers’ Compensation Board, filled his staff to eight people and went to work in June.

No longer a building, it's now thousands upon thousands of pieces sorted, stacked and piled on the Harle property, resembling something akin to a lumber yard.

Such a scene explains Slowski’s busy schedule and the scale of his work.

Pieces include timbers, dimensional lumber, wall board, shiplap, joints, braces, splinters, nails, 12-by-12s, 10-by-10s, eight-by-eights and other sizes. All of it needs to be measured and quantified in a variety of units: Linear feet, inches, quarter inches, half inches, square feet, board feet, dollars and cents.

“It's going to take me a week just to get all of the numbers,” he says, functioning as the de facto inventory and sales guy.

“When I first started in the business, I didn't come from a carpentry background. I was like, 'what are you talking about man? Can we just use linear feet and come up with a price?' Once you get at it and keep going more and more, it becomes a little easier.”

One board foot, for example, is a measurement of volume, equal to 12 inches by 12 inches by one inch; 12 board feet equal one cubic foot.

Slowski says the price per unit for a board foot depends on market demand. He’s now selling his wood at wholesale costs, putting away money for equipment purchases later; the lowest he’ll go is $2.50 per board foot. That means a 10-foot long, eight-inch by eight-inch piece of wood is 53.33 board feet, selling for $133.33.

He’s seen prices go as high as $15 per board foot, depending on demand and the wood’s value, which is based on structural strength and its longevity; Douglas fir holds more weight with less wood and staves off rot longer than spruce or pine, Slowski cites as an example.

The Douglas fir beams from the Harle barn fetched the highest value. Companies in Oregon and Montana were quick to buy them. They'll be used to build homes and as accent pieces in businesses' interiors.

Quantity-wise, wall board (what was siding on the outside of the barn) sees the highest demand in Western Canada, according to Slowski.

“We've got about 7,000 square feet just off this building.” Homeowners, contractors and home builders buy it to design walls, cabinets and decorative pieces.

As the summer months roll into the fall and winter, Slowski and his crew will move back to Yorkton and start up the other side of the business, building and selling customized home products out of the leftover lumber that doesn't sell straight out of the current Regina project.

Such pieces can be something as small as a chopping board, or bigger items like an entire cabinet set for a kitchen or a bathroom.

For his part, Slowski is glad to be turning a profit while extending the life of some very old wood, some which has origins hundreds of kilometres away.

“(B.C.) sold us all these timbers and all this wood from B.C. on the railway in the 1930s and 40s … There's a lot of barns built in the 30s and 40s in Saskatchewan and even the 50s … And now we're selling it back to B.C.

“They sold us the wood for a fairly decent price, we're selling it back for a little bit more," he says.
 

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