I must admit, I’ve become somewhat of a wood working snob over the years. In part, this is because my husband turns bowls and other treasures. Often times, the wood is local and has a story behind it. Or, not local with a story behind it… like the time we had to call TSA to see if we could bring a stump on the plane since there was no way our luggage would make the weight limit otherwise. Turns out, while you cannot bring a rolling pin on an airplane, they have no problem with you bringing a 50 pound stump that you found discarded near Gettysburg. But I digress.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to meet Robert Teisberg. Teisberg is the owner of Ancientwood, Ltd. in Ashland. He also happens to be a craftsman and distributor of Kauri wood. What makes Kauri wood cool? Well its claim to fame is that it is in fact the oldest wood in the world. To me, while this is an interesting tidbit, the unique grain is what I love most about this wood. Photos don’t do it justice. But, if you’ve ever seen a finished Kauri wood product up close, you cannot help but be drawn in by the enchanting reflection that occurs when the light hits it. I can only compare it to that of a gentle wave rolling off of Lake Superior.
While I am mesmerized by this wood and even bought my hubby some for his birthday, I haven’t thought much about it lately because the oldest wood in the world costs quite the premium. But, that’s part of what makes the email I got this past week pretty amazing.
Teisberg just finished a work table. Not just any table, but a table made out of 50,000 year old Kauri wood that is listed for a mere $100,000. I, unfortunately, won’t be buying this artistic masterpiece anytime soon. But, that doesn’t mean I can’t salivate over amazing art… that was crafted right here in northwest Wisconsin.
Ashland Company Monopolizes Oldest Wood Market in the World
(first ran in Business North Magazine in late 2012)
Sitting at a desk in the depths of the Ashland Area Enterprise Building, Robert Teisberg is never quite sure what to expect to hear when his phone rings.
“I was sitting at my desk yesterday and this guy from Beirut called me interested in my product,” Teisberg explains. “After talking for a while, it turns out their climate isn’t that much different than ours. It’s pretty neat, actually.”
These types of calls might seem unusual, but then again, Teisberg’s product isn’t exactly mainstream. You see Teisberg is the only licensed distributor of Kauri wood in North America and one of a handful of sellers in the world. For those wondering what Kauri wood is, its claim to fame is it holds the title of the world’s oldest wood.
In a “Splintered History of Wood” Spike Carlsen explains that Kauri wood comes from New Zealand’s North Island. Carbon dating indicates the wood was buried in a peat swamp about 50,000 year ago and has remained perfectly preserved since. So, how does 50,000-year old wood go from being in a New Zealand peat moss to being manufactured into impressive finished products in Ashland, Wisconsin?
Teisberg, who used to spend a lot of time sailing, learned about the wood during a visit to the region during the Millennium. Teisberg says this “was about this time, Timeless Timber in Ashland was getting a lot of recognition. They were being featured on CNN and their wood wasn’t nearly as old.” Recognizing the product’s market potential, he started doing some research only to discover a huge void in the North American market. He had the skillset (he’s a trained woodworker) and the ambition to make a deal as the sole distributor in North America. By 2004, Ancientwood Ltd. was up and running.
Fast forward to today and Ancientwood, Ltd. employs 5 employees in Ashland. The company’s reach has expanded beyond North America with sales in 27 countries worldwide and sales approaching $500,000 a year. Their most recent sale—two tables from a single, 40 foot piece of wood that when attached will make a table 40 feet long, 5 feet wide, and 5 inches thick. It’s destination—Colorado. The price tag on a finished table of this magnitude is approximately $100,000.
Part of the appeal to Kauri wood is its mammoth size. Many of the trees grew for more than 1,000 years creating massive pieces of wood that can grow to be 40 feet around and 200 feet high. Teisberg says the wood also has an “active grain” that in some pieces creates an impressive shimmering white effect off the wood. In addition, Teisberg says as the oldest workable timber, there is also a finite quantity making it comparable to liquid gold. Currently, the only way the trees can be harvested is by extracting them from below the ground—often times in farm fields. The Kauri tree does still grow in parts of New Zealand but these trees are protected.
The combined appeal makes Kauri wood a natural fit for woodworkers looking for something different. Teisberg compares the wood loosely to Basswood but says each piece varies greatly. From a wood workers perspective, it is worth noting the wood is not petrified, allowing for the wood to finished with normal techniques.
Despite the appeal, the wood has yet to catch-on with major distributors. Part of the issue is major distributors aren’t necessarily comfortable with how the wood will react. Skeptics have questioned the authenticity of the wood’s age, even with the carbon dating conducted by independent organizations. This combined with the recent recession have made times tough for Ancientwood Ltd. but Teisberg remains committed to making this company work.
“We have several routes we’re looking at right now,” Teisberg says. The product seems to be a hit with guitar players that has resulted in one national guitar maker expressing interest in buying their wood. There’s also the potential of making something for the Smithsonian.
The company has yet to make a profit in part because he needs a private investor to help boost his buying power. In a perfect world, Teisberg says a “$2.5 million investment would allow for pre-purchasing 10-year supply of wood, driving the overall price of the wood down and turning a profit.”
In the meantime, Teisberg will continue selling finished and unfinished pieces of wood, never knowing what the next phone call might bring.