Wine Country chic meets steampunk in the eco-friendly workshop of Whit McLeod.
In a Healdsburg warehouse filled with old industrial machinery, including steam-bending equipment, the former wildlife biologist takes what was once just wine-industry trash and turns it into stunning, hand-sawn and custom-designed wood furnishings.
Some pieces distinctively telegraph their humble roots, making no attempt to hide the fact that at one point they were utilitarian barrels. McLeod re-imagines those oak and redwood staves and round barrel tops into folding chairs, stools and end tables with stylish legs made of the bent metal bands.
Other pieces, like his modernist dining tables and Morris chairs, don't betray their past. They appear only as beautiful pieces made of the best wood -#8212; wood hard if not impossible to come by today. The source of his lumber is McLeod's secret, one he is proud to spill.
"There's a direct link between the diminishing resources and the oak coming out of the wine industry, which is of pretty high quality," the woodmaker says with a shrug. He speaks in slow, halting phrases, a man most comfortable communicating through his hands. he has the lean, cool-headed look of a younger Harrison Ford.
Furniture made of recycled wine barrels is now commonplace in Wine Country. But McLeod was one of the first to pioneer the practice and with some 30 years of experience, he's perfected it to an artistry.
His pieces aren't just novelties for wine cellars. Many are classic, strong and stylish enough to command the eye in a room, like the round French and American white oak dining table that the popular design website ApartmentTherapy singled out as "extraordinary" and "inspiring."
He was working for the research branch of the U.S. Forest Service in Humboldt County, doing forest inventories of Douglas fir and old-growth redwood when he started playing around with salvaged and reclaimed wood. His first efforts went into wood display boxes for wineries in the 1980s. But when he came by century-old heart-redwood wine casks from Italian Swiss Colony, that inspired him to preserve the provenance of the those spectacular materials by turning them into new heirloom pieces.
His early folding stave chair, which retails for $219, is a McLeod classic, and now frequently immitated.
Truth be told, McLeod says, he's attracted more to the quality of the wood than the novelty of its first industrial use in the wine industry.
"I like designing and I like problem-solving in the design elements," he explains of the process of re-purposing wood that already has been shaped and used. "I like the grain of the wood and the color is always interesting. It's just oak. A poor man's wood. But it's just beautiful."
It's a kind of wood you just can't buy at almost any price anymore.
"I've done my share of salvage logs, sinker logs and Douglas fir timber from old buildings and pallets," says the woodworker.
Now he's getting a of of material from the discarded oak salvaged from inside steel wine tanks.
McLeod grew up in Marin County, in Tiburon and Belvedere, before it became one of the priciest enclaves in the state. He had a paper route on the island, with it's almost impossibly beautiful views of the San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate. And one of his neighbors across the street was a woodworker with a shop. It was there that as a young boy he learned the basics. He became fascinated with the possibilities.