Recycling, saving trees becomes retirement plan for Wine Glass Bar Sawmill owners
The catalysts of their respective retirement plans were a man cave and a golf course.
But, it’s not what you think.
At the time, it wasn’t quite what Rex Condie and his cousin LaVor Smith thought, either.
And instead of a retirement life of leisure, the men find themselves doing the opposite by running their Phoenix wood-reclaiming business, Wine Glass Bar Sawmill.
Condie, a welding engineer with a passion for woodworking, talks about Smith, whose background is in carpentry, construction and woodworking, and his quest for the right kind of rustic wood that sparked it all.
“He wanted a man cave. But he wanted a rough (wood) barn for his man cave, and you can’t buy that,” Condie says.
Smith found what he sought in reclaimed wood from construction sites. This sparked an interest in the material, particularly wood from displaced trees.
Not long after, a microburst hit a golf course in Litchfield Park, where Condie lives. Eighty trees fell and were headed for the dump. Condie called Smith and suggested they rescue as many as they could. They ended up retrieving 40.
Smith, who lives in Surprise for part of the year and spends summers in Boise, doesn’t remember exactly when their hobby of saving viable wood became an official business venture, but he estimates around 2014. Today, they take trees that fall due to storms, disease, old age, bugs or expansive roots that compromise the stability of the house next to them.
They collaborate with about 40 arborists who take down those trees. Condie and Smith work with about two dozen species, preparing them to be reclaimed for furniture and other uses. From their sawmill, they sell the wood to customers who range from professional artisans and craftsmen to amateur builders and woodworkers.
“When we started, we had no idea how many different species of wood there were here,” Smith says as he points to a sign showing their inventory of species and pricing. “We learned more than we ever imagined.”
Processing the wood
On a cloudy Thursday morning, Condie and Smith run the large saw that they built together and slowly guide a tree trunk through it. The cut reveals a mesmerizing pool of shades ranging from light tan to chestnut to dark sienna down the center of the tree.
“We found out that all of these beautiful trees were going to the dump. And we’re discovering what beautiful wood is inside these trees,” Condie says.
In this case, the freshly cut tree is Indian rosewood, also known as sissoo. It’s native to Madagascar and is the desired material for acoustic guitars. It’s also illegal to import. But decades ago seeds were brought in and planted as landscape trees, which is why they are common here, Condie explains.
Another lesson the cousins had to learn is how to dry wood properly. Although summer storms bring a lot of trees, winter is the time for cutting and drying.
When they get the trees, they come in with 85 percent moisture, Smith says. A time-consuming process that involves cutting and placing them between wood stickers, under weights and into a 100-degree kiln — which the men also built — brings the moisture content down to the ideal 8 percent. At this point, the wood is ready to be used.
If it’s not dried the right way, it’s practically useless as material for furniture or stable artwork. And, believe it or not, living in a super arid desert doesn’t help.
“Online (sources) tell you how to dry wood in Atlanta or St. Louis, but not Phoenix. The problem is, it can dry too fast,” Condie says.
They spoke with experts and started to figure out the process through trial and error.
“We ruined some wood at first,” Condie confesses. “We’re still learning.”
They sell raw and finished wood. An average of five to 15 people visit daily, with the weekends being the busiest. An outdoor sheltered showroom displays all the options. Condie and Smith spray alcohol on each unique piece and rub it with their hands to show customers how the wood will finish. Condie demonstrates this with a piece of Indian rosewood. The transformation is immediate and dazzling.
“Look at what nature does for us,” Condie says as he lifts his hand from the wood.
Focused on recycling
Their dedication to recycling extends to pretty much every piece of equipment onsite. A friend gave them the reefer box used for their kiln. Everything is used and obtained via barter, trade or, as Smith says, downright scrounging.
“We don’t buy stuff new. We’re big recyclers,” Smith says.
Their efforts in this area have earned Wine Glass Bar Sawmill recognition by the City of Phoenix Green Business Leader Program in 2018. The program promotes businesses that volunteer to operate in a more environmentally responsible manner through sustainable actions.
The sawmill recycles 8-10 tons of wood a month, Condie says. In addition to selling directly to consumers, the sawmill works with a wood broker to sell their wares across the country.
‘It’s like being a kid in a candy store’
About 30 professional artisans regularly use the sawmill’s wood to craft their pieces. Furniture builder Michael Moody is one of them. Moody has been purchasing wood from Condie and Smith for years for clients who want something with original flair or character.
“I do a treasure hunt. It’s like being a kid in a candy store for me,” says Moody, who recently started renting workspace on the property.
Moody is familiar with other wood vendors in the city. Before he moved his business to the property, the sawmill was always his first place to look for material.
“They had the best available in terms of stock and the types of wood. No one offers the variety and quality that this place does,” Moody says.
Many mills make their own furniture, so often they keep the best wood for themselves, leaving artists unable to purchase certain species or what would be their first choice, Moody explains. This isn’t the case with the sawmill, so all of the wood is available to anyone who comes to visit.
“That is amazing and has really helped my business. It’s a win-win,” says Moody, who enjoys seeing customers take in all the sights and sounds. “They love to see all the things that we’re doing, all the stacks of wood, when the log gets cut. … People love it.”
Knowing their product helps others thrive is its own reward. Smith talks about a sign maker who used to buy his wood from a corporate home-improvement chain. The signs weren’t selling. But that changed when he started getting his wood from the sawmill. Today, that sign maker is busy.
“We’ve taken a waste product and all of these craftsmen have built a business out of it. It’s amazing what an industry can do to generate more economy and jobs for people,” Smith says. “Part of the fun of the sawmill is watching these guys succeed.”
‘Our kids thought we were nuts’
Condie and Smith were raised on dairy farms near each other in Idaho and worked their entire lives. The idea of not working didn’t come easily to either.
“I don’t remember a time when my dad didn’t have me doing work on the farm,” Condie says. “If I quit working, I think I’d die.”
The men stroll toward a large open-air shed that houses equipment, a hodgepodge of rustic decor, tables and practical seating that doubles as an informal office. Smith talks about his and Condie’s children’s reactions when they learned their dads’ retirement plans were more backbreaking than laid-back.
In the early days, Condie’s son, who runs a welding shop on the property, would occasionally emerge, shake his head at the men and return to work.
“Our kids thought we were nuts,” Smith says, as he walked from the showroom, past the kiln and literal tons of wood in various drying stages in piles and stacks. It’s chilly and the ground is damp.
Condie is a few steps behind. “They wanted us to sit in loungers and watch the sun go up and down.”
They arrived at the shed. Inside were two west-facing plushy recliners of indeterminate ages that have clearly seen a lot of use. The one on the left is Condie’s. The other is Smith’s.
The cousins take the familiar and deliberate walk to their respective well-worn seats. They sit side by side, facing west, with their homegrown sawmill in their view.
Wine Glass Bar Sawmill
WHERE: 401 S. 40th St., Phoenix
INTERESTING STAT: An average of 8-10 tons of tree wood are recycled at Wine Glass Bar Sawmill each month, according to owners Rex Condie and LaVor Smith.
DETAILS: 623-208-9578, 602-689-8620, wineglassbarsawmill.com
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