Historic Homes & More - Bob Vila

Category: Historic Homes & More

All You Need to Know About Compost Tea

Brew your way to a hardier, healthier garden using this guide to compost tea.

When, Why, and How to Use Compost Tea in the Garden

Photo: istockphoto.com

Even greenhorn green thumbs know that applying compost to soil helps plants fight erosion, pests, and disease. But were you aware that you can boost compost’s benefits with a natural liquid plant food made from decomposed organic matter? This “tea” is prepared by steeping compost in water, adding unsulfured molasses to nourish beneficial microorganisms, and then aerating the solution for a few days to create a brew teeming with billions of healthy microorganisms. Applied to plants or soil, these “good” microorganisms migrate onto leaves and roots, where they consume or crowd out “bad” microorganisms that cause disease. Beef up your garden’s defenses by getting the full scoop on this beneficial brew and making your own compost tea today.

Top 5 Benefits of Compost Tea

This valuable brew…

1. Contains higher concentrations of beneficial bacteria and fungus than solid compost. These microorganisms increase the biodiversity of soil and boost the defense mechanisms of your plants against erosion, pests, and disease.

2. Improves soil’s ability to retain water, lowering watering requirements for plants.

3. Can be applied to and readily absorbed by either plant leaves or soil, which makes it more versatile than solid compost, which can only be applied to soil.

4. Is an environmentally friendly, sustainable plant food, unlike synthetic fertilizers whose chemicals can harm plant ecosystems, lead to fertilizer burn (from over-fertilization), or run off into nearby water sources.

5. Is available ready-made for purchase, yet is simple (if a bit messy!) to make at home if you already do your own composting or vermicomposting. Regular compost is the product of traditional aerobic composting, in which soil microorganisms break down food waste into solid fertilizer. An alternative method, vermicomposting relies on worms and soil microorganisms to break down food waste into solid fertilizer containing worm waste.

Consider Commercial Compost Tea

For a mostly no-fuss way to nurture your plants, commercial compost tea—readily available at garden centers and online—is your best bet. It’s usually sold in one of three forms:

• Tea bags ($10 to $20 per pound) that must be steeped in water;

• Soluble powder that must be mixed with water ($10 to $20 per pound);

• Liquid concentrate that must be diluted in water ($20 to $30 per gallon).

Compost tea bags (such as Malibu Compost Bu’s Brew Compost Tea, which is available on Amazon) are the cleanest, easiest option because there’s no measuring required. You need only soak the single-serve tea bags in water overnight, then remove them and mix the results for several minutes to create a frothy, oxygen-rich solution. Pour it into a watering can, spray bottle, or pump sprayer, and then apply to your plants or soil at the application interval specified on the packaging.

While compost tea powder (such as Organic Plant Magic Instant Compost Tea, available on Amazon) is messier to work with than tea bags, it can be used immediately after dissolving in water—no overnight brew time. Simply mix the powder with water in a five-gallon bucket per the ratios on the packaging, then apply to plants or soil with a watering can, spray bottle, or pump sprayer.

Compost tea concentrate (such as Botanicare Pure Blend Tea, available on Amazon) has no solid particles, so it’s the most effortless option—and therefore, often the priciest. All you do is mix the concentrate with water in a five-gallon bucket per the ratios on the packaging and apply with a watering can, spray bottle, or pump sprayer to plants or soil.


When, Why, and How to Use Compost Tea in the Garden

Photo: istockphoto.com

How to Make Compost Tea at Home

After a small upfront investment in an aquarium pump, gang valve, airline tubing, and air diffusers known as airstones (all available at home centers for less than $40 total), do-it-yourself compost tea is the least expensive option and recommended for anyone who already composts (or plans to). The remaining supplies are bottom-dollar if you don’t already have them on hand. Keep in mind that the complete brewing process takes three days, so plan ahead.

MATERIALS AND TOOLS Available on Amazon
Mature compost
Threeport gang valve
Fivegallon bucket (2)
Hose cutter
Clear plastic airline tubing (at least 10 feet in length)
Aquarium pump
Airstones (3)
Watering can (optional)
Plastic scoop
Plastic sandwich bag
Garden hose (optional)
Unsulfured organic molasses
Long stick (a few feet in height)
Nylon stocking

How to Make Compost Tea

Photo: istockphoto.com

If not using commercial compost, determine if the compost in your bin or pile is mature (unlike “raw” or unstable compost, mature compost is largely free of “bad” microbes that can harm plants). Put a small amount of compost in a plastic sandwich bag and give it a sniff. Then seal the bag and leave it undisturbed for three days. Upon removal, it the compost smells the same, that’s a sign that the biological process of decomposition is complete and the compost is mature; if it smells worse, waste is still actively decomposing and requires more time in the bin/pile.

Prepare an aeration system to create desirably earthy-smelling compost tea (instead of the foul-smelling mess you’d make without a continuous oxygen supply). Hang a three-port gang valve over the lip of a five-gallon bucket. Using the hose cutter, snip one piece of airline tubing (at least a few feet long) and attach one end to the aquarium pump and the other end to the gang valve.

To finish the aeration system, cut three additional segments of tubing, each with a length equal to or longer than the height of the bucket. Attach one end of each of the three segments of tubing to one port on the three-port gang valve, then plug the open end of each of these tubes with an airstone (a porous stone typically used in aquariums to gradually diffuse air into the tank) and rest the plugged ends of tubing at the base of the bucket. The gang valve will channel air from the aquarium pump to the tubing connected to the airstones, while the airstones will diffuse this air into the bucket to supply microorganisms in the compost tea with oxygen.

If you have well water or water collected in rain barrels, skip this step. Municipal water, however, will contain chlorine that can kill beneficial microorganisms—it must de-chlorinated before adding to compost. Fill an empty five-gallon bucket with water to within three inches of the top and run the aquarium pump for an hour to evaporate the chlorine. Then, turn off the pump and temporarily transfer the water into a watering can or separate five-gallon bucket.

Using a plastic scoop, add one gallon of loosely packed mature compost to the bucket, making sure to cover the plugged ends of the airline tubing. Next, using a watering can, separate bucket, or a garden hose connected to a rain barrel, fill the bucket with water to within three inches of the top. Then, pour two tablespoons of unsulfured molasses into the solution and stir with a stick until incorporated. The molasses will feed the beneficial microorganisms in the compost and also enrich the tea with iron.

Start the aquarium pump and let it run continuously for three days. Twice daily, vigorously stir the tea with a stick to help stimulate microbial activity, making sure that the plugged ends of the airline tubing remain submerged.

After three days, turn off the aquarium pump and remove the tubing from the bucket. Let the compost tea dwell for 10 to 20 minutes to slow microbial activity.

Enlist a friend to hold a nylon stocking open over a second, empty five-gallon bucket while you pour the compost tea from the first bucket into the stocking to strain the tea. The stocking will collect the solid compost, leaving between two and two-and-a-half gallons of nourishing, earth-scented compost tea in the second bucket. For best results, use the tea within an hour of completion; it will still be usable for up to two days, but, beyond that, the microbes will die off and a foul odor will develop.

Apply Compost Tea Correctly

When, Why, and How to Use Compost Tea in the Garden

Photo: istockphoto.com

• Houseplants and flowering plants are perfect recipients for compost tea, but you can safely use it on fruit or vegetable plants; the tea is totally organic and eco-friendly, so no worries about introducing toxins into your diet.

• Use compost tea as either a foliar spray to leaves with a spray bottle or pump sprayer; or, for deeper penetration, as a soil drench administered to the base of the plant with a watering can. There’s no strict limit on how much you can dose your plants, though foliar sprays are usually applied until the point of run-off (when the tea drips off the leaves). For soil drenches, it’s common to apply between five and 10 gallons of compost tea per 10,000 square feet of soil. Any leftover compost tea can be used to moisten your compost bin/pile to promote beneficial microbial activity.

• Apply compost tea on cool, clear days when the temperature is above freezing and below 80 degrees Fahrenheit. You should ideally apply in the early morning or late evening, as microbes are more likely to die off in the intense midday heat.

• Applying the tea at the time of planting or transplanting boosts plants’ defenses against disease-causing pathogens. But you can also apply it successfully to seedlings or established plants during the growing season. A good rule of thumb is to re-apply compost tea every two to four weeks during the growing season.

Video: America’s Most Photographed Homes

At the intersection of architecture and American culture, you'll find these amazing houses.

American architecture might not be as old as the kinds you’ll find on other continents, but it certainly is stunning. If you need proof, look no further than these beauties. Here you’ll find some of the most photographed homes in the United States—and maybe even the backdrop for your next selfie.

For more amazing architecture, consider:

The Secret Histories of 15 Grand Old American Mansions

Living Remotely: 12 Stunning Homes in the Middle of Nowhere

The 12 Most Infamous Goofs in Architecture History

Bob Vila Radio: How Old Is Your House?

If cats have nine lives, an old house probably has more than you can count. You don't have to travel far to find out more about your property's past—and you might be surprised at what your search turns up.

You might not think of yourself as much of a detective, but piecing together the history of your house is easier than it looks. With a little research, you can find out when it was built, who else lived called it home, and more.


Photo: istockphoto.com

Listen to BOB VILA ON THE HISTORY OF YOUR HOME or read on below:

mp3 file

Start the search at your local tax assessor’s office for a list of past owners and a record of your home’s property value. Next, head to your county clerk’s office to request three files: the Registrar of Deeds, the Tract Index, and the Grantor-Grantee Index.  These three documents will tell you when your home was bought and sold, or if any lawsuits or liens have been filed.

Want to see what changes have been made to the original structure?  The local building inspector’s office can help you with that. Enlist a clerk’s help to find any permit applications filed for remodeling or new construction on the property.

If you’re interested in the materials used to build your home, check your town’s fire insurance maps, which can date as far back as 1870. Your local library might also have maps of the surrounding area, or old pictures of your home. While you’re there, look through old newspapers to see if your address pops up in the real estate listings—or the police blotter!

Bob Vila Radio is a 60-second home improvement radio tip of the day carried on more than 186 stations in 75 markets around the country. Click here to subscribe, so you can automatically receive each new episode as it arrives—absolutely free!

A Man Who Remakes Vintage Relics into Modern Marvels

See how one man's light bulb moments transform an eclectic assortment of unused housewares into brilliant lighting displays for today's one-of-a-kind home.

Stonehill Design - Jason Aleksa

Photo: stonehill-design.com

Jason Aleksa is no stranger to the shop. His grandfather founded a machine shop in the 1960s, which his father then took over until retirement. Growing up, Jason spent a lot of time sweeping the floors and watching his dad pull white-hot pieces of metal out of the furnaces. As he got older, though, he started making things for himself. Fast-forward to today: The 33-year-old now runs a small business in Fairfield, CT, called Stonehill Design, where he crafts unique home goods that boast both history and heart.


Stonehill Design - Fan Lamp

Photo: stonehill-design.com

How did you get started making these home accents?
I’ve always made things myself. We had a lot of tools—a milling machine, band saw, and drill press—in the shop. Having those tools available just makes it easier. When I was 14, my dad and I bought a 1968 Volkswagen Beetle with the intention of fixing it up and that being my first car…and he’s still working on it!

You can pick up a piece of furniture in a store going $1000, or you could spend a few days, buy some materials, and make something of better quality yourself. That idea was instilled in me at a young age. It’s not always about how expensive things are, or how fancy it is. If you can make it yourself, that’s more important than how much something costs. You know where it came from, you know what went into it and how hard it was to make.


Stonehill Design - Antenna Rotor Lamp

Photo: stonehill-design.com

Why do you choose to upcycle old items?
I make original pieces, but the majority of what I do is repurposing. I’ve always had an appreciation for the amount of work that went into making some of these things. Take an old 1920s radio speaker, for example—you just don’t find things like that anymore. I could probably reproduce that somehow and make something that looks like it, but these things are still out there. You can go find them. I think that’s half the fun: poking around in a flea market and finding something that you never would have thought to use.


Stonehill Design - Starry Night Lamp

Photo: stonehill-design.com

Where do you find the vintage components you use for your projects?
I have a few different places. There are some antique shops that I frequent, with owners who always know the certain things I’m interested in. But sometimes people will just bring me things. They’ll be cleaning out a garage and they’ll say, “Oh, I found this. Do you want it?” There’s a whole network out there to find what you’re looking for.

Granted, some of the pieces are not very desirable in their current state. They’ve far outlived their purpose. Nobody needs an antenna rotor control anymore, but 50 years ago somebody put a lot of thought into the design of this thing. And then over those 50 years somebody saved it, packed it away in an attic, and kept it in really nice condition. It’s kind of neat to take something like that and make it into a piece that someone else will appreciate for another 50 years.


Stonehill Design - Gumball Machine Lamp

Photo: stonehill-design.com

I’m especially curious about the gumball machine lamp. Tell me a little about that one.
I’ve made a few of those. The original one came from an antique shop out on Cape Code, where my parents have retired. It was in working condition, and I thought that it’d be awesome if I could figure out a way to remake it and have it still operate.

So it’s both a functional light and a functional gumball machine. I created a lens by sandwiching antique marbles in between two panes of plexiglass in the front. Then I put an LED bulb in the back and managed to mount and wire it around all the mechanical workings of the gumball machine so that it could still work.

At the first show that I displayed it, some kids came up to it with nickels. I had forgotten to put anything in there because I didn’t even think someone would want to use it, so I had to disappoint a few children.


Stonehill Design - Typewriter Lamp

Photo: stonehill-design.com

Have there been any designs you’ve made that just didn’t work?
I definitely have. Usually when I find myself struggling, I just set it down and work on something else. I’ve bought pieces where I think, ‘Oh, I’ll totally use this.’ Then I get it home and really look at it, and nothing comes to mind. So I set it aside for a while. I’ll continue to subconsciously work on it in my head a little, though, until one day when know exactly what I should do. You can’t just force your way into the design; you have to let it come to you every once in a while.


Stonehill Design - Crosley Dynacone Radio Speaker Lamp

Photo: stonehill-design.com

What’s next for you?
I have a full-time job, so I’m creating on the side. The ultimate goal is for this to become my full-time gig. I do a lot of shows, so I get the opportunity to interact with people and see their reactions to the things I’ve created—that really keeps me wanting to make things.


To learn more about Jason’s work, visit the Stonehill Design website.

One Man’s Journey from Wall Street to the Workshop

Life behind a desk isn't for everyone. Here's how one creative builder traded his in for a worktable.

Jeremy Medow - Tungsten Customs

Photo: Tungsten Customs

When Jeremy Medow left behind life on Wall Street for a new start in Connecticut, he didn’t know that he would end up building clocks for a living. But now he’s lucky enough to do just that, in addition to crafting lamps, custom furniture, and a host of other products under the name Tungsten Customs. As someone who had a lifetime of experience with electronics and computer programming, learning how to combine circuitry with woodworking came as second nature—and produced beautiful results. We caught up with Jeremy to learn more about what makes him tick.


Tungsten Customs - Nixie Clock

Photo: Tungsten Customs

I understand that Tungsten Customs started as a hobby. Can you tell me about that?
I actually went to school for math, and I worked on Wall Street for seven years. Eventually I left because I was just not really feeling that anymore. When I left, I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do. I realized that I had kind of always been tinkering and building things. I had (to some limited extent in my Manhattan apartment) built a few lamps out of old vintage pipe fixtures, and I realized that I enjoyed doing that—I liked physically making things. So I thought that I might as well give that a go as a business.

I’m more or less working 50 hours a week in my own workshop. It’s fun. The work I used to do was very intellectual and societally not very useful. It’s not that what I do now is any more useful, but I make something and then somebody buys it and they enjoy it. It’s a nice feeling to take raw materials and then turn them into something more functional and more beautiful.


Tungsten Customs - Converted Lantern

Photo: Tungsten Customs

What was the first thing you made?
At first I was just buying old railroad lanterns on eBay. I took out the wick and the oil tank, added a lamp socket and a switch, and upcycled them into incandescent lamps.

I quickly moved away from that. I liked upcycling things, but it was a bit trendy. Plus, I liked the idea of making things from scratch a little more. So I started moving into furniture first, and then, about a year in, I realized that I wanted to introduce electronics to the business. That’s when I launched my first clocks.


Tungsten Customs - Converted Fan Lamp

Photo: Tungsten Customs

How was making a clock different for you?
The woodworking part is relatively distinct from the electronics part. I had always known a little bit about electronics, and I found a lot of resources on the Internet. My nixie tube clocks use the old vintage tubes that were produced 40 to 50 years ago. You can buy premade circuit boards to power them, but I decided that I wanted to do it all myself. So I learned how other people did it, and then I sat down and designed my own circuit boards. I had them printed by another company, and I bought the components and did all the soldering myself. Only now have I outsourced all the creation of the circuit boards and the assembly—that’s now being done at an assembly plant in Massachusetts.

For the first couple hundred clocks, though, I did all the soldering myself. At the same time, I would go get the lumber, plane it, rip it, joint it, cut down blanks, router out the insides, and then do lots and lots of sanding for finishing. So the clocks were sort of created in two parallel streams, and then at the end I would just attach all the circuit boards, buttons, and plugs, and put it all together.


Tungsten Customs - Nixie Tube Clock Side View

Photo: Tungsten Customs

What attracted you to the idea of using nixie tubes?
I came across nixie tube clocks on the Internet—like so many other things. And I’m absolutely not the first person to make nixie tube clocks, but for whatever reason the material seems to attract people who have a very different aesthetic than I do. Most of the nixie tube clocks that I found were made from laser-cut acrylic or metal and they just looked geeky, for lack of a better word. I like midcentury modern design a lot, so I thought that because nixie tubes are from that era and they have a nice incandescent glow, that they’d look better set in wood. That’s how I had the idea to start making those.


Tungsten Customs - Sunrise Clock

Photo: Tungsten Customs

What were your early clocks like?
The first clock that I wanted to make was a nixie tube sunrise alarm clock. My wife was waking up early for school at that point and she said to me, “Hey, can you make me one?” and I said, “Yeah, probably.” There’s no audible alarm, but when the timer is hit, the light bulb slowly dims from off to on, so it simulates the sunrise. It’s a lot more pleasant to wake up slowly with light than it is to wake up to a blaring alarm at 5 a.m.


Tungsten Customs - LED Clock

Photo: Tungsten Customs

What have you learned about building things since you started?
It’s remarkable to me how much the quality of my goods has improved simply by improving my process. It looks as if I hadn’t discovered sanding yet when I first started, and now my products look a lot more polished. One important thing I did early on was figure out template routing. So rather than use crude hand-cut templates (which were then clamped onto the wood), I figured out a way to design a laser-cut acrylic template that I could weld together. It gives me a much firmer hold on the workpiece. Now I can create more product quicker and at a much higher quality than I would otherwise be able to do.


Tungsten Customs - Nixie Radian

Photo: Tungsten Customs

I noticed you had a new clock on Kickstarter. Is that what’s next for you?
The Kickstarter campaign finished successfully a couple of days ago, and I just started production on them. It’s a passion project for me. I had always wanted to use the nixie tubes to make an analog clock, but could never figure out how. Then I saw those long nixie tubes, and it dawned on me in one of those half-asleep moments that that’s how I would do it! They should be made and ready to order in the next two to three months.


To find even more amazing clocks, or to commission a custom piece, visit TungstenCustoms.com.

This Woman Brings Your Imagination to Life—with Paint

A wall mural adds a touch of magic to any home. Here's how one artist makes it happen.

Mural Artist - Beth Snider

Photo: Beth Snider

It’s often said that nothing reinvents a room like paint. Well, that’s especially true in the case of colorful murals: These eye-catching wall paintings can brighten up a child’s bedroom, breathe life into a living room, or turn a dour kitchen into a playful enclave. Although there are plenty of homeowners who would love to enjoy a mural in their own spaces, most wouldn’t attempt one by themselves. That’s where an expert like Beth Snider, muralist at Penelope in My Pocket, comes in. This Kansas City, Missouri, artist creates one-of-a-kind indoor and outdoor murals on commission, bringing her clients’ imaginations to life in the process. Read on to get a glimpse into the mind behind these spectacularly fun designs.


Mural Artist - Cupcake Mural

Photo: Beth Snider

How did you get your start as a muralist?
I was already doing a lot of custom paintings on canvas. As people saw my artwork, I began to receive requests for murals in kids’ rooms. It blossomed from there, and the diversity of mural commissions increased to other rooms in the house as well as businesses.


Mural Artist - Noah's Ark Mural

Photo: Beth Snider

What was your first project?
A family gave me an opportunity to draw on a large chalkboard in the entryway of their home. Every month I would feature a new theme, whether it was a holiday or a birthday, and I would erase the elaborate chalk drawing from the month before. I did this for years and literally drew the kids as they grew up. (I even designed their birthday invitations over the years!) What I will always appreciate is that they saw my potential, compensated me generously, and delighted in every new idea I came up with. Watching their reactions to my newest creations was so fun. It made me believe that I could do anything!


Mural Artist - Noble Mural

Photo: Beth Snider

Did you study art at school ?
I am a self-taught artist. I have always been artistic from a young age, but making a business out of it came later. When I first started out, there was another artist I knew who had a business doing murals, and I was able to sit down with her on several occasions to pick her brain about how she turned her art into a business.

So, did you grow up in an artistic home?
Yes! Both of my parents have a mix of skills that led to my love of art. My dad is a carpenter who makes beautiful acoustic guitars by hand and restores all kinds of antiques. And my mom has always been amazing at figure drawing and sewing—she’s the one I go to for advice on my paintings. She also dabbled in writing children’s books, which inspired my lifelong dream to illustrate a children’s book. I just recently finished a year of work on my very first book project, and it will hopefully be available at the beginning of 2016.


Mural Artist - Kids' Room Mural

Photo: Beth Snider

How do you prepare to paint? Are there special tricks you’ve picked up along the way?
I prepare to paint by asking lots of questions. My motto is, “You imagine it…I create it!” I like to think that I am lending people my hand and allowing them to have what they would paint if they could.

Even if I am given a specific photo to paint from, I oftentimes go through a client’s photos on their Facebook page (with their permission, of course) to get an idea of what a person looks like from every angle, with a variety of facial expressions. The more I know about a person, the more I can make their art piece personal and customized to them.

My favorite piece of advice, though, comes from a photographer and watercolor portrait artist I work with: Use the biggest brush possible at all times, so that the art looks effortless and not forced.


Mural Artist - Ocean Mural

Photo: Beth Snider

Where do you get your inspiration?
I am inspired by my kids’ imaginative perspectives on life. Not all the artwork I do is for children, but it is almost all very colorful and whimsical. Having four creative kids helps me to see the world in a fun way and translate that feeling into most of the art that I produce.


Mural Artist - Space Mural

Photo: Beth Snider

How can folks cherish the memory of an old mural even if they’ve chosen to paint or wallpaper over it?
I have added to and painted over murals before. Sometimes it is because a child grows older and the theme of the room changes, or to prepare a house for being sold. I would recommend getting some professional photos taken of your mural before you paint over it. Another way to preserve the memories of your mural is to have a smaller version painted on canvas.


Mural Artist - Beth Snider Print

Photo: Beth Snider

Do you have murals on display in your own home?
I have painted several murals in my kids’ rooms over the years! As they grow bigger, I have changed the theme of their bedrooms and have since painted over them—everything from a farm scene, to a tree with shelves for the branches, to a splatter-painted skateboarder.


You can learn more about Beth Snider’s work on Facebook, or find her prints on Etsy.

These Detroit Metalworkers Prove the Best Home Goods Are Handmade

Hidden away in Detroit's Corktown neighborhood lies this gem of a smith shop, which is bringing high-quality production back to the city.

gabriel craig headshot

Photo: gabrielcraigmetalsmith.com

Any student of American history knows that there was a time when Detroit was abuzz with activity, when entrepreneurs and industry made the city a critical hub for USA-made manufacturing. What’s slightly less well known is that craftsmanship and production is still alive and well in Detroit. Take Smith Shop, for instance. This metalworking shop has been creating beautiful hand-forged and fabricated architectural work, home goods, and jewelry since 2012. Based out of Ponyride, a workspace for socially-conscious business owners, they’re part of a thriving community of local makers, and their goods are on offer throughout the country. Smith Shop’s success has been hard won by their team of expert metalworkers, so we spoke to co-founder Gabriel Craig to learn more about what makes them tick.


Smith Shop Detroit Creamer Sugar

Photo: smithshopdetroit.com

How did Smith Shop get started?
I grew up just outside of Detroit, and I moved away thinking, Man, this city is dead. But my wife Amy Weiks wanted to get her Master’s degree in metalworking, and so she applied and enrolled at the Cranbook Academy of Arts, which brought us back. Once we moved back we both realized how great Detroit was, and we’ve been here ever since.

When Amy finished her Master’s degree we decided to open this shop. We wanted to have a more public face rather than just an art shop.


Smith Shop Detroit Bar Cart Hardware

Photo: smithshopdetroit.com

What’s it like working at a collaborative space like Ponyride?
Just through proximity we’re always learning from each other, and I think that makes everyone’s work a little better. And there’s obviously tool sharing happening all the time.

We try to collaborate as much as possible with the other businesses. Detroit Denim, for example, is another tenant who came in around the same time as us. They had been looking for someone to make really high-quality belt buckles. When they asked us if we could do something like that, I said, “Yeah, I think we can knock that out of the park.” There are some people manufacturing that kind of hardware in the United States, but it’s mass-produced by casting. What we’re doing is hand-forging and fabricating each buckle individually with extreme attention and care. So we started with a few samples, they put them on the belts, and we haven’t looked back.


Detroit Denim belt Smith Shop Detroit buckle

Photo: smithshopdetroit.com

What’s been the most surprising thing that’s happened along the way?
We thought we’d start a shop in Detroit to just export to larger markets around the country and that we’d have very little demand for our products locally. It was a huge surprise to realize there are many people in Detroit and in the surrounding area who really want to support Detroit businesses, and they have sought us out to make things for them. More than half of our business comes from the Metro Detroit area.

I think Detroit loves Detroit. Most may not realize that the Metro Detroit population is about 4 million people, and a lot of them are interested in supporting the resurgence of economic activity and entrepreneurial development in the city. We’ve certainly benefited from it, and for that we’re really grateful. But that was not part of our business plan.


smith shop detroit silverware

Photo: smithshopdetroit.com

What’s your process for creating a new piece?
In metalworking there are three variables: the material, the design of the project, and the process by which you’re going to manipulate the material. Because we’re so experienced in working with the material and processes, we can really start with any of those variables. So we might say, “I want to forge something,” and then, “I want it to be a piece of kitchenware.” And so you can start with those two things and design from there. It’s sort of like a puzzle.

Not everyone is involved in the design of every project in the shop, but there’s never any design that just one person is solely responsible for. One of the reasons why I feel that we’re so successful is that we try to take our egos out of the equation. It’s not about having the control or realizing your vision, but taking the talent pool that we’ve accumulated and using it to create something exceptional.


Smith Shop Detroit Coat Rack

Photo: smithshopdetroit.com

What’s your favorite piece that Smith Shop has made?
That’s like choosing your favorite child! But the signature servingware was the first thing that we made where I thought, This is really something very special.


Smith Shop Detroit Servingware

Photo: smithshopdetroit.com

What’s the most challenging thing about what you do?
Keeping up with demand. We could easily hire more people and grow very quickly, but we want to maintain an extremely high level of quality. We’re very calculating about who we hire and how much training they go through. But that’s sort of the nature of what we do—it takes time.


smith shop detroit third thursday drop in

Photo: smithshopdetroit.com

For more information, check out Smith Shop’s online store or stop by. They open their space to the public through classes, workshops, and private lessons.

Big Box Furniture Has Nothing on This One-of-a-Kind Company

North Carolina-based Old Wood Co. builds quality furniture pieces from primarily reclaimed wood, proving that—once and for all—local, sustainable goods are no mere fad.

Photo: Travis Bell Photography

When Darren Green founded Old Wood Co., in 2007, he had social and environmental consciousness top of mind. After working in the furniture industry for years, he’d seen firsthand the effects that the Asian import industry had had on American furniture makers. In starting a new company, Darren wanted to create high-quality furniture that didn’t have to compete with low-cost imports.

Instead, his pieces—built primarily from reclaimed lumber—stand on their own and attract interest from homeowners who care about aesthetics and origin. The unique wood grain, knots, nail holes, and worm holes of each board mean that every table, chair, and desk is truly one-of-a-kind. Not only that, the Asheville, North Carolina-based team of woodworkers, wood finishers, blacksmiths, and metalworkers craft every aspect of the furniture for a finished product that is 100 percent American made. We checked in with Darren to talk shop and walked away with an understanding of the inspirational beginnings of his company and a whole lot of insight into the process of creating high-quality furniture.


The reason I started doing what I do is…
At age 22, I started working with my father in the furniture industry. After about two years, I was offered a sales position at Lee Industries, an upholstery manufacturer in Newton, North Carolina. It was there that I really gained a better appreciation of building and selling well-made custom furniture. After seven years, I decided I wanted to build my own company using the lessons I had learned from my father as well as my close friend and mentor Norman Coley, who was the president of Lee Industries at the time. It is that challenge of building things from scratch, whether a business or a piece of furniture, that keeps me engaged every day.

Old Wood Co - Remade in the USA

Photo: Old Wood Co.

What makes Old Wood Co. environmentally and socially conscious is…
First and foremost, we provide all our employees with a living wage, shared health insurance plan, paid vacations, yoga on Tuesdays, and a host of other great benefits.

Environmentally, we use locally sourced reclaimed hardwoods as well as sustainably harvested Appalachian hardwoods. We use only oils, waxes, and water-based stains and polyurethane top coats. We use these environmentally friendly finishes to protect our environment and all our employees in the shop.

Old Wood Co. - Distillers Table

Photo: Old Wood Co.

We source wood for our projects by…
We work with several local sawmills and reclamation experts to source the best material in our area. One of our main reclaimed wood suppliers is a full-time firefighter whose station is a mere two miles away.

The thing I love most about reclaimed wood is…
The uniqueness of the grain and reclaimed characteristics. Every board tells a different story. Some boards were milled into quarter-sawn, flat-sawn, or rift-sawn—all depending on how much yield the sawyer could get out of that log. When we bring those individual pieces together in a top, we’re telling our own one-of-a-kind story by placing them in a sequence that looks the best.

Old Wood Co - Tree Chairs

Photo: Old Wood Co.

My main sources of inspiration are…
Authenticity. Nature. Grain variation and patterns.

The most challenging thing about my work is…
Continuing to provide the same level of care as our company grows. As we increase production, it is vital to our success that we maintain our highest level of work.

I tell everyone in the shop that we need to be our biggest critics. If we don’t love the piece, then it is not ready to ship.

Old Wood Co - Harvest Dining Table

Photo: Old Wood Co.

My favorite part of the process is…
Seeing a piece prior to finishing that already looks great. If a piece looks good in sanding, it is going to look awesome after finishing.

Old Wood Co - Kids Play Furniture

Photo: Old Wood Co.

My all-time favorite tools are…
Our newest addition: a CNC router with a rotary axis. The tool will allow us to render a turning or a carving in a design program and quickly produce the part. It is the closest thing we will ever get to having a robot in our wood shop.

Old Wood Co - Writing Table

Photo: Old Wood Co.

Old Wood Co. is based out of Darren’s 10,000-square-foot space in the River Arts District of Asheville, North Carolina. Visit the website to request more information or schedule an appointment.

This Company Turns Centuries-Old Barns into Contemporary Homes

One Texas-based company has built a thriving business by turning empty old barns into modern dwellings for today's homeowner.

Photo: heritagebarns.com

As agriculture has morphed into big business and populations have shifted from the countryside to urban centers, timber-frame barns have become rare. Thanks to companies like Heritage Restorations, however, many historic barns are being repurposed in exciting ways that their original builders could not have foreseen.

Based in Texas, Heritage Restorations has spent the last 20 years acquiring, carefully dismantling, skillfully rebuilding, and creatively integrating centuries-old barns into stunning new buildings—commercial spaces, event centers, and yes, even private homes. Combined with the best of today’s energy efficient materials, timber barn frames have made for jaw-dropping superstructures in residences across the country. It seems that whereas historic barns no longer fit the bill for 21st-century farmers, they provide much of what contemporary homeowners want—ample square footage, open floor plans, and timeless, authentic style.

Photo: heritagebarns.com

As alluring as the barns may be in their patinated, hand-hewn beauty, their histories are even more engrossing. Many of these barns survived the Civil War; some are considerably older, dating back to the Colonial era. In fact, in the process of dismantling one barn, Heritage Restorations uncovered a Revolutionary War bayonet hidden behind a wall. Whereas barn-style homes are by no means unprecedented, Heritage Restorations takes a unique approach. Aware of these barns as outstanding examples of early American craftsmanship—and, indeed, as history embodied—the company seeks to preserve as much as possible of the original.

When it began business, members of the company would drive along the backroads of upstate New York and rural New Jersey on the hunt for disused barns. When they found one, they would simply go knock on the door of the adjacent house. In time, and with improved technology, Heritage Restorations adopted more sophisticated methods. The team now uses Google Earth to explore rural areas, narrowing their eyes in search of certain telltale rooflines. But even with satellite imagery available, the company has not outgrown, and perhaps never will, advertisements that list their phone number under a simple message: “We Buy Barns”.

Photo: heritagebarns.com

Some customers buy only the timber frame, opting to work with their own trusted architect and/or contractor. In that case, Heritage Restorations, besides fumigating the wooden members, provides third-party advice gleaned from the many dozens of barn homes the company has helped to realize in the past. Since working around a reclaimed wood frame presents some challenges, and differs substantially from conventional modern framing, there are bound to be questions.

Other customers retain Heritage Restorations for its in-house architectural services. The company has overseen projects large and small, deploying at least a few different design strategies. One option is for the home to be fully contained within the original barn frame. For additional square footage, multiple frames may be combined into a single building. And in still another permutation, the barn frame may be supplemented by one or more conventionally framed additions. Though specifics change, of course, from site to site and project to project, there’s one commonality in all: hundreds of years after its raising, the barn still stands.

Photo: heritagebarns.com

For more information, visit Heritage Restorations.

House Envy: A Cantilevering Creekside Retreat

A glass-walled addition to a California cabin affords a jaw-dropping view of the surrounding woods and adjacent creek.

Amy Alper Creekside Cabin

Photo: alperarchitect.com

In California wine country, a house-hunting couple struck upon a cozy, cedar-shingled cabin. Encompassing 960 square feet, the home sat nestled in a grove of trees, just a stone’s skip removed from Mark West Creek. Taken by the location and the many modest charms of the cabin, the house-hunters decided to buy the place, fully aware of its main design drawback. So before getting too comfortable, they brought in Sonoma-based architect Amy Alper to help devise a solution.

Built in the 1930s, the cabin originally served as the cooking quarters for a family who preferred to camp on the property. In the years since, subsequent owners had modernized the structure with a bedroom and bathroom, turning it into an all-season retreat. But while the cabin grew in size, it never grew to embrace its unique site. Except for a window situated above the kitchen sink, the layout afforded no views to the adjacent creek, the feature that makes the land so special.

Amy Alper Creekside Cabin - Living Room

Photo: alperarchitect.com

For the architect Alper, the challenge was to open up the cabin to its surroundings, without sacrificing the rustic feel, all while heeding a local regulation that limited new construction only to areas previously disturbed. She presented to the homeowners what turned out to be a winning concept. Where a seldom-used, beetle-damaged deck had been, Alper proposed a double-height, glass-enclosed living room addition that would cantilever from the building toward the creek.

The new steel-and-glass addition basically wraps around the wood-framed original. What had once been a section of the shingled exterior now divides the kitchen from the living room, imbuing the sleek new space with a sense of the home’s history. And though the project only added about 300 square feet, the floor-to-ceiling windows manage to erode the distinction between indoors and out, seeming to join the cozy cabin with all the forest acres beyond the glass.

Amy Alper Creekside Cabin - Exterior

Photo: alperarchitect.com

For more information, visit Amy A. Alper, Architect.