The Stories These Walls Could Tell

“People love the finished work, but they also love the story that came along with it,”
Jason Biondo, left, and Donnie Disbrow crafted this massive live-edge table in a Montauk client’s house from an old-growth eastern white pine using a technique called bookmatching, in which a thick slab is cut down the middle and fitted together so that both sides of the piece are almost mirror images of each other. They built a kitchen island in the house from the same tree. Carissa Katz

If these walls could talk. . . . It’s a cliché everyone has heard, but when you’re dealing with lumber salvaged from a 170-year-old textile factory in Eufaula, Ala., a 19th-century barn in Elizabethton, Tenn., or a 200-year-old barn from Greencastle, Pa., that cliché takes on a whole different meaning. It’s not what happens in a room that’s the story; it’s the actual walls and how they got there.

Donnie Disbrow, who owns the Antique Lumber Company of Montauk with Jason Biondo, has been “in every little town that you can imagine” from rural New York to Florida and half a dozen other states sourcing materials that will become wide-plank flooring, accent walls, custom countertops, kitchen islands, and the like for clients on the East End.

“People love the finished work, but they also love the story that came along with it,” Mr. Biondo said at the company’s Montauk showroom earlier this month. “They’ll forget the species of wood before they forget the story behind it.”

The search for these materials, whether salvaged lumber or massive old-growth logs, has to be done in person, and there are probably fewer than 200 companies in the country that do it, Mr. Disbrow said. “Every order is important, so the samples we show our customers have to be precise. . . . You find what you need and you jump in your truck and go get it.”

Mr. Disbrow, originally from Sag Harbor, calls Mauldin, S.C., home now, but he is up and down the eastern United States several times in a month gathering and trucking salvaged hemlock, eastern white pine, and oak, as well as massive old-growth logs from Tennessee, Georgia, Pennsylvania, the Carolinas, Alabama, Florida, and West Virginia, to the Antique Lumber Company’s warehouse in Hagerstown, Md., where it is cured, kiln-dried, and milled before finding its way to customers here.

“There are enough barns just in upstate alone to keep me and Donnie going for the rest of our lives,” Mr. Biondo said. After a lifetime working with wood and 15 years in the antique lumber business, Mr. Disbrow has a solid network of salvagers, loggers, and fellow wood connoisseurs he can turn to for whatever,, a particular project needs. “Donnie is the bloodhound, and also the sawyer,” Mr. Biondo said. “He turns these big old gnarly plants into kiln-dried, tongue-and-grooved, milled flooring.”

The showroom floor and walls show a patchwork of possibilities — from the barely altered rough-hewn boards of an ancient barn to floorboards polished to reveal the rich character of a tree that was harvested a century and a half ago and probably grew for at least a century before that. “If you go to any regular lumberyard and buy a piece of oak, you’re not going to see this,” Mr. Biondo said, pointing out the fluid grain of a finely sanded wallboard. “A floor installation from us is 100 percent unique.”

Mr. Disbrow, who dropped out of high school at 13 and went to trade school in Florida to study cabinetry, had a showroom in Water Mill before partnering with Mr. Biondo two and a half years ago. He is also an inventor, having patented a tangle-free air hose that is going into production early next year.

A licensed contractor who also runs Hammerhead Construction, Mr. Biondo has been a builder in one way or another since he was 17, but he studied sculpture in college and his artistic talents have proven as important to the company’s success as his carpentry skills. “This isn’t just cookie-cutter finish carpentry,” he said. “You have to incorporate an understanding of fine carpentry . . . but you’ve got to have an artistic, creative side. You have to impress your customers with your sketches, and they have to trust you.”

Mr. Biondo recalled one project, an accent wall made of old hemlock floor joists that were originally 20 feet long. The customer liked his drawings and gave him complete artistic license, so he had Mr. Disbrow mill the joists to different widths and thicknesses and then stacked them up. He liked the effect so much that he repeated it in his own house with the scraps.

“It makes sense to have a showroom in Montauk . . . the visual really gets you,” said Mr. Biondo, who lives in the hamlet and is the one most often at the showroom. “Jason and I have a good partnership,” Mr. Disbrow said. “He runs the customers, I run the wood.”

Montauk’s ever-increasing popularity has been a boon for the company, bringing a new, younger set of home buyers to the area who, Mr. Biondo said, “aren’t afraid to take some risk with installs.” There’s a new appreciation for the square modern house, a sort of third wave following in Charles Gwathmey’s footsteps, he said. “We walk in and start warming them up with a 200-year-old barn board wall. We get rid of the cheesy floors from Lumber Liquidators, and that’s where the furniture comes in.”

The Antique Lumber Company crafts furniture and built-ins from repurposed wood as well as live-edge tables, countertops, shelves, and kitchen islands — “live edge” meaning the natural edge of the tree is incorporated into the finished product.

“It’s never the same thing two days in a row,” Mr. Biondo said. One client wanted his beach bungalow in Ditch Plain to look like it had post-and-beam construction. They needed 20-foot-long beams; Mr. Disbrow tracked them down. On another recent renovation, they used barn boards from Tennessee for accent walls and a functional barn door leading to the master bedroom. Rustic wide-plank floors were new white oak from Georgia, milled with an old technique that leaves circular marks on the wood.

In a new house in Montauk’s Culloden Shores, the Antique Lumber Company did ceilings out of hemlock from the exterior of one barn, and brought in decorative hand-hewn beams from a separate 19th-century barn in Pennsylvania. They installed a live-edge counter in the powder room, a massive live-edge eastern white pine kitchen island, and built an even larger dining table milled from the same enormous tree.

“I know a whole bunch of loggers,” Mr. Disbrow said. “Whenever there’s a log that’s 50 inches in diameter, a normal sawmill, they don’t want logs that big because they can’t cut them.” It can take two years from the time a tree is cut down and slabbed until its moisture content is low enough for it to be kiln-dried, and only then is it ready to be used for a table, countertop, mantel, or shelving.

“We live in a world where everybody wants things instantly,” Mr. Biondo said. “Our clientele has to have an understanding of the patience factor.”

Such pieces are stored and dried at the facility in Hagers­town, a Mennonite-owned operation that Mr. Biondo described as “a community center for wood geeks.” They share a gigantic warehouse with other companies and can process all their wood on site. The Mennonites in Hagers­town, known for fine wood craftsmanship, “are a big part of our business,” Mr. Biondo said.

The Antique Lumber Company is responsible for the revamped interior of the Point Bar and Grill in downtown Montauk, where Mr. Biondo covered the walls and bar with wood from the above-mentioned barn in Greencastle, Pa. People can also see his craftsmanship on an episode of HGTV’s “Vacation House for Free,” which will air in December. Hammerhead Construction and Thomas Lavin Construction were general contractors on the project, working with a handful of other local firms, including Peter Cappola’s Magnolia Landscaping, to transform a ho-hum Montauk house. “The antique lumber aspect was what got us the job,” Mr. Biondo said. He made a functional barn door and wrapped all the beams with antique lumber. “I wish I had a television production team to do all my renovations. They handle all the b.s. for you. It was a pleasure.”

“I love this whole thing that we’ve created,” Mr. Biondo said. “Donnie and I opened the doors and let this thing carve out its own path.”

A floor made from salvaged oak at a house on Montauk’s East Lake Drive
A live-edge cherry slab in a Montauk powder room in Culloden Shores.
An accent wall from antique hemlock milled to different lengths and thicknesses in Mr. Biondo’s own houseJason Biondo
Hand-hewn oak beams salvaged from a barn in a Ditch Plain renovation.