Heirloom hardwoods get new life at Bristol business

BRISTOL — Vermont Tree Goods — a new Bristol business being launched by sawyer/woodworker/entrepreneur John Monks — was literally born out of the ashes.
A devastating fire on Thanksgiving eve 2010 left Monks and his family with little more than the clothes on their backs.
For Monks, a long-time homebuilder, all that remained of the equipment he had built up over three decades were a few scaffolds.
“It was literally 30 years’ worth of contracting tools gone in one night,” he recounted. “They were there in the evening when I left, and the next morning they were not there, along with all our furniture and all of our other belongings.”
 When Monks set about making new furniture for his family, he discovered that one of Vermont’s most unique resources was literally being left to rot: enormous hardwood trees, 100 to 200 years old, cut down by tree services from yards, fields, cemeteries.
“After sort of the ashes settled, I set out to replace some furniture that I had built that had been in the fire, and I wanted to build a single-piece table made from the biggest log I could find,” said Monks. “So I set out to find a tree that might work for that and I started talking to some tree services and discovered that there were quite a few large-diameter logs that they were more than happy to sell to me.”
Commercial mills are set up to process into lumber 40-60-year-old forest-harvested trees that grow straight as they compete for light, not these ungainly giants, said Monks. So with no market, Monks found that all that maple, cherry, butternut, ash and walnut was simply being discarded.
“I couldn’t let go of it,” he said.
Monks’ new idea was to create a business based on turning these one-of-a-kind enormous trees into custom slabs of lumber, ready to be built into custom furniture.
“What sets Vermont Tree Goods apart is our ability to produce very large pieces of wood, and therefore we’re able to produce furniture with very large pieces of wood … We can make a table top from just a single piece of wood,” Monks said.
“If we weren’t doing it, all of this stuff would be left to rot. It would be burnt just to make it go away. Or some of it would have been turned into firewood.”
For Monks, that was unacceptable.
By the next summer, Monks had received his first load of logs and started cutting planks. He began to look for a bigger chain saw.
“I started cutting them with a handheld chain saw making my own planks. And then I got basically the biggest chain saw I could find, got an eight-foot-long bar for it, and got a helper handle for the far end. My rather fearless brother-in-law held the far end of the saw and I held the other end and the two of us starting cutting planks with this large, gas chain saw.”
Monks added, “You need to be somewhat fearless to grab on to the end of an 8-foot-long chain saw. That chain’s coming right at you at 70, 80 miles an hour, but he’s the sort that’s willing to do that.”
Monks worked out of a converted horse facility with a dirt floor, “no heat, no bathroom,” and “the zoning wasn’t right.”
Because it can take a large slab of hardwood up to two years to air dry, Monks’ goal was to build up his inventory and take the long view.
“It’s like planting an orchard,” he said. “You’ve got to be looking down the road. You’ve got to have a long term. I knew it was going to take a long time to dry and I was just cutting and cutting and stacking it up with the hope that it could get to the point where I’d have enough inventory that I could get the financing that I would need to launch a formal business.”
In 2014, Monks won a grant from the Vermont Farm and Forestry Viability Program that enabled him to work side by side with a business consultant and create a formal business plan. Business plan in hand, Monks then won a business development grant from the Vermont Working Lands Enterprise Board and then in rapid succession received loans from the Addison County Economic Development Corp., the Vermont Economic Development Authority, and the town of Bristol’s revolving loan fund.
He had also found an almost tailor-made space, up for rent just two miles from his home in Bristol: a vacant heavy equipment repair facility, complete with an overhead crane already installed that could move heavy trucks or heavy trees anywhere in the facility.
“I felt like I won the lottery when I walked in here and saw it,” said Monks.
Monks purchased a bucket loader, installed a Nyle lumber drying kiln and then constructed a custom-built electric chain saw mill of his own design, with help from landlord Paul Choiniere.
“This mill is very much a one-of-a-kind,” he said. “It’s a design that I came up with. Unorthodox is probably a good way of describing it.”
Vermont Tree Goods began milling in its custom-designed production space in January 2016.
Alongside Monks the company now includes lead sawyer Natt Harkins, a head mechanic, and part-time marketing and web-design employees.
This Saturday, May 28, Vermont Tree Goods will open its showroom in downtown Bristol. People can stop by from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 27 Main St., Monks says the showroom will be the place for people to come and see what the company makes, look online at available trees and slabs and discuss ideas for custom products.
Standing in the cavernous production space itself, one is surrounded by giant trees and giant tree slabs and stacks and stacks of wood, carefully labeled by date and species: butternut, black walnut, cherry, ash, red maple, sugar maple, red and white oak.
For many of the felled monarchs, Monks knows that tree’s exact story. That enormous, 180-year-old sugar maple was cut down from a Route 116 picnic area along the New Haven River. That particular red oak was cut down a year ago in the Bristol cemetery. A massive cottonwood resting outside came from a family farm in Monkton.
“It’s very primal, the appeal of trees and wood,” Monks said.
Monks is drawn to the unique characteristics that trees acquire as they age and how that comes to be reflected in the wood — in details like the “curling” light and dark patterns caused as an enormous limb compresses a joint on a trunk or the contrast between the dark brown heartwood and the cream colored sapwood in a black walnut.
He’s also drawn to the way such trees connect us to times past.
He gestures to the imposing sugar maple from the 116 picnic area: “We can go over there and touch the wood in the center of that tree, and the wood we’re touching there is almost 200 years old. That’s almost as old as our country is; so then to have a piece of furniture that has that heritage …
“All these trees have history. And part of what we’re able to do is preserve and extend the history of these trees. You’re talking about 100- to 200-year-old trees. If they could talk, they could tell you things. And ideally by us turning them into furniture, they’ll live effectively for another 100 or 200 years.
“Trees are great,” Monks concluded. “I feel very fortunate to be working with them every day.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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