The Vintage Wood Tamer



PROFILE-July 2010

by Rebecca Falzano
Photography Irvin Serrano

Michael Perkins channels the histories of wood


On his farm in Brunswick, the mid-March sun takes its first stab at thawing the winter ground. Inside the big red barn, Michael Perkins tiptoes around precarious floorboards, surrounded by piles of wood, weathered and worn. Salvaged pine, Douglas fir, oak, chestnut, beech, elm, and walnut in various states and of various ages line the walls or sit clustered in piles. Nail holes, saw marks, and smooth foot-worn patinas hint at the wood’s prior use. Some of the wood is centuries old, the skeletons of disassembled Maine barns or Midwestern factories. All of it will be crafted into heirloom furniture that people will grow old with. Inside the barn, 63-year-old Perkins is like a kid in a candy shop. “Do you want to see some thirty-inch-wide boards?” he says with a grin seemingly as wide. He can’t help it—the love for old wood is in his blood. His great-grandfather Thadeus Pembroke (known as TP) was a woodworker, and a candle stand made in 1860 by Jonathan Perkins (his great-great-grandfather) lives in Perkins’s living room. In his work, Perkins is constantly channeling his ancestors. “My stuff tends to be masculine and oversized, like TP’s,” he says.    _MG_0792

Perkins began his custom furniture business, now known as Vintage Perkins, in 1995. In addition to creating custom furniture for individual clients, Perkins provides select reclaimed wood for commercial applications, including clients such as L.L. Bean, Flatbread Company, the Timberland Company, and Bates and Dartmouth Colleges.

For Perkins (who bears a slight resemblance to a younger Clint Eastwood), the love of his craft comes from the material itself. “Each board tells a story,” he says. “You don’t know what the wood will look like until you open it up and start working with it. And if you take an old board and sand it, the colors you get and the appearance are a surprise. It’s like opening a package and seeing what’s inside. It’s transformative.”

Long before Perkins was salvaging beams from old barns in Maine and turning them into tables, he was doing restaurant build-outs and, in many cases, much more than that—conceiving them, opening them, and training the staff. “It was an exciting time. I just dove into it.” In 1993, Perkins moved from Vermont to Maine and teamed up with Dana Street in Portland’s Old Port, where, with the help of sculptor Pat Plourde, they built an addition to Street and Company restaurant from a stack of old wood. Perkins had his wares visible from the street, and people would come by and give him feedback. So began the business TP Perkins and Company, named after Michael’s great-grandfather, with Street as first partner.

Soon after, Perkins was asked to design the interiors and outfit a new Flatbread restaurant opening up in town. Over the years, Perkins has worked on eight restaurants for the Flatbread franchise (across New England and one in Maui), and earned the unofficial title: Secretary of the Interior. The relationship continues to this day—Perkins is currently working on a Flatbread in Somerville, Massachusetts, which entails converting an old bowling alley into a restaurant.

_MG_0701It wasn’t long before another big break happened for Perkins. Greg Van Wormer, then vice president of the Timberland Company, came into his shop a couple of days before Christmas to buy a table for his wife. Perkins later got a call from Van Wormer asking him to come on board as the company’s in-store merchandizing designer. What followed was a four-year, multimillion-dollar project to build out thirty-three retail stores all over the world. “We would build kits for each store that included the ceilings, the walls, the floors, everything,” Perkins says. In particular, he recalls the opening of Timberland’s London store. “That was so much fun. I had just flown 5,000 feet of barn board on a jet just to get the store open. Here I was, this carpenter from Maine having dinner in London as a guest of Angus King and U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom. Do you know how many visual designers would have loved to be in that position?”
Here, on the upper level of his barn, Perkins keeps his most precious finds: flooring from the 1700s and 1800s, wood from an old boat. “I have to watch out for pieces like this,” he says, pointing to floorboards reclaimed from a house in New Hampshire. “It’s walked-on a little bit, but it’s going to be a tabletop rich in character.”

In many ways, the evolution of Vintage Perkins has been circuitous—from working on restaurant build-outs to, most recently, designing custom tables for families. “I love the whole dining experience,” Perkins says. “When you think about all that happens at the table—special occasions, everyday occasions—that’s where the whole family is gathered. The dining table is a very special piece. I know what a dining table means to people; it’s almost like having an antique house or an old boat. And that’s very important, because when I leave this world I want to leave something behind.”

Like his ancestors before him, Perkins will leave behind a legacy: sharing with the world the stories old wood has to tell._MG_0849


Share The Inspiration