Capers Landrum Cauthen was working as a carpenter refinishing houses after Hurricane Hugo when, he says, "I was sick of seeing old beams being taken to the dump." He was raised with a deep-seated respect for preservation thanks to his late father, Henry F. Cauthen, who worked as an antiques dealer and director of the Historic Preservation Society. He knew that he wanted to get involved in preservation, but wasn't sure where to start until he saw the tragic waste taking place at construction sites. "I started grabbing the wood from job sites or the pieces of wood that were piled at the end of the road on Sunday afternoons. Sometimes I would find a 200-year-old piece of wood," he says. "These days it's called recycling, but I guess I'm just a scavenger." The abundance of available materials keeps his storage shed overflowing, and contractors have begun calling when they have wood headed for the scrap pile.
With a shed full of lumber, the 41-year-old knew he needed to come up with a plan. "I figured I'd build a table and see if I could sell it to help pay the rent," he says, calling his style "primitive with a personal touch." Cauthen says demand for the tables slowly increased, and he now has 10-15 different designs of coffee tables, kitchen islands, dressers, and plantation benches. "I embrace all the old patina and glorify the terrible stuff in the wood because it gives the appearance of an antique," he says. One of his tables was featured in Architectural Digest and two of his benches are on permanent display at the City Gallery at Waterfront Park.
Cauthen's Landrum Tables range from $300-$900 and can be found Saturday mornings at the Farmers Market, as well as at Antiques of South Windermere. Cauthen loves what he does and says, "Of all my endeavors in life, I've been the most satisfied working with this wood. It's very gratifying when a client is thrilled to be getting a custom table from historic wood."
Bryan Deel, 35, agrees that it's hard to go wrong when you have great materials to work with. Like Cauthen, Deel forages job sites for discarded wood that's rich with hidden potential and says that 90 percent of old wood is reuseable. "Demolition is as important as construction," he says. "In most of my projects, I've relied on materials that have come out of the demolition of an old Charleston house." Deel has worked with REV Foods, and his projects have included their office space on King Street and the renovation of the Ole Charleston Forge into "the Neck's newest local dive." Furniture projects consist of bookcases, tables, and built-in kitchen seating.
After studying English literature in college and graduate school, Deel is surprised where the road has taken him. "Ten years ago, I thought I would be a 'man of letters' enjoying the campus life, which is in itself a false utopia. Anyone who has been to grad school or worked with campus administration knows that that is one of the most cutthroat arenas imaginable. What has surprised me in the carpentry journey are the moments when I get so engrossed in the process of sanding or carving or the joinery that it no longer feels like work. It's something akin to spiritual. That is, until I sand or chisel too much and have to revamp my plans for the piece." He laughs and says his relationship with woodworking is "complicated."
Stephen Wain's relationship with wood is all about the craft. Using heart of pine wood, he creates tables and custom furniture in his warehouse on Upper King Street. Wain calls the heart of pine "blood wood" because it's a resource that helped build our country. "The Historic Preservation Society was founded to protect these natural resources that were being pilfered by outsiders," he says. Initially working as a tradesman doing everything from foundations to roofing, Wain decided to go out on his own with his restoration furniture company Wain Green Wood just two months ago. The 27-year-old had been juggling both jobs and decided he was ready to take the leap and follow his passion.
Creating furniture that he describes as "perfectly un-perfect," Wain builds tables, picture frames, and wine racks. He says the creation process takes about a week, from the raw wood beginnings to applying the finish. His process begins with pulling from demolition sites where builders have piles of scrap — he says establishing connections with builders and contractors is crucial to the survival of his business. "Restoration makes me feel like a full grown kid going on a treasure hunt," he laughs. Made from floorboards up to 200 years old, the battle wounds of the wood are incorporated into the structure, which gives the final product a sense of dignity.
Passionate about the local and national struggle for jobs, Wain has guys stopping by his shop asking for work on a daily basis. "They come in here with tears in their eyes saying, 'Give me something to do,' and it's amazing what people can do when you give them a chance."
Taking a chance that others will see the value and quality of their craft, these local woodworkers are preserving history by transforming discarded pieces of wood into beautiful and functional objects. They see beauty and potential where the rest of us see a forgotten scrap, and as a result, the past is kept alive on the coffee table under your feet and in the shelf where you store your favorite books. There's something magical about sitting down to dinner at a table that could have been a floor or a wall from a hundred-year-old house, instead of a cookie-cutter, Pottery Barn design.