There are a lot of types of live-edge wood around Southeast Asia,” says Canadian lumberjack and rough framer, Justin Ephraim. “This is not a new thing. But this is something different. This is something unique. This has an amazing story.”
We are sitting in Justin’s car on our way to his warehouse in Binh Duong, 45 minutes outside of Ho Chi Minh City. It’s this story that has brought me here, to see for myself the wood that Justin has reclaimed from a submerged forest in Central America. The word ‘reclaim’ is key — this is wood that was already dead before it was logged. Long dead. One hundred years dead.
As Justin explains, the area where the wood has been logged was flooded to make a reservoir in 1913: “At the time it was cheaper to flood the valley rather than cut down the forest first.” Now, a century later, with the cooperation of the local Native American tribe, the wood is being logged.
“The logging concessions in this lake are enormous and the lake is about 120 metres to 140 metres deep,” he continues. “Hundreds of kilometers. Just picture a vast forest underwater. There are quite a few different species and we’re finding new ones every day.”
A Different Feel
In the warehouse I see the products for myself — slab after enormous slab of wood, all with their bark-like edges intact — that is, live-edge wood. I run my fingers along the edges and examine the grains. There’s something very satisfying about being in contact with wood of this quality. I imagine a worktable at home, or maybe a wooden bar. I’ve only just arrived at the warehouse and I’m already sold.
Some of the wood has already been treated — Justin is doing as much of the sanding and varnishing as possible by hand — some is halfway finished. A lot more remains untouched. But most striking is not just the species available — white mahogany, Central American walnut, amargo, tiger wood and dragon wood are new to Vietnam — but the way the wood has weathered in its century under water.
“I flew there to look for myself to see what it’s like,” says Justin. “You’re on this lake and you see these branches sticking out of the water. The divers are going down there with scuba tanks and freshwater chainsaws fueled with vegetable oil so as not to disturb the natural environment. They’ll be down there for sometimes two hours cutting down trees. It’s very labour-intensive and it’s very dangerous. They’re cutting at perhaps 80 metres underwater, in pure blackness.”
He adds: “Being submerged in fresh water has changed the grains and the characteristics of the wood itself. It’s a little bit harder, but you can see in the grains, especially on the outer bark, the weathering, bits where underwater worms have eaten away at the wood.”
As we head back to Ho Chi Minh City I talk to Justin about my brother-in-law — another person obsessed by wood. We make an appointment to return to the warehouse the following week, my lumber-loving in-law in tow.
But for Justin this is more than just an obsession. This is his life. It was the 2008 crash in the Canadian lumber market that brought him and his Canadian-Vietnamese wife to Vietnam. They came here searching for opportunities — it was only on arrival that they realised how much Vietnam loves its wood.
Yet from the whole trip, one phrase of Justin’s sticks in my mind.
“It’s nature’s design.”
It truly is. Nature has responded to the influence of man — it has made this underwater wood into something rare, attractive and most importantly, different.
For more information on Justin’s reclaimed wood programme, go to reduxwood.com