(First published in the April 19, 2018 issue of City Pages)
Jon Malm left the Chicago real estate scene to start a Merrill shop that salvages old lumber and turns it into marvelous things
Jon Malm at his Woodsconsin shop outside of Merrill.
About a mile west of Merrill on Hwy. 64 sits a big red building that houses Woodsconsin, a company that handcrafts or supplies building products out of salvaged, reclaimed lumber. I’m fortunate that owner Jon Malm sent me a photo via text message so that I know where to go. I see the red building, and turn my car around for the driveway I missed.
Woodsconsin’s products are found in many high profile places, but like its building, they’re both obvious and understated.
A good portion of the woodwork that defines the character of Sawmill Brewing Company in Merrill was crafted by Jon. The new La Taqueria restaurant in Wausau sports plenty of Woodsconsin-sourced features. Buildings in the Milwaukee, Madison and Chicago area incorporate Malm’s pieces and raw material into their interior design.
I heard about Woodsconsin through Luis Melendez, owner of La Taqueria, who had plenty of flattering things to say about the Merrill business. Melendez even has reclaimed lumber pieces from Woodsconsin in his home.
Word of mouth is the main way Malm gets his reclaimed lumber into the market. I tried searching for the company on Facebook. Nothing. I searched Google, and couldn’t find any website, or much mention at all about the business. Finally, a site that aggregates LLCs listed a phone number. Ultimately, I spoke to Malm’s mother, who very politely offered to pass the message on to him that I was looking to schedule an interview for a story. (He called me within a few hours and texted specific directions because Google Maps can’t quite figure out that part of Merrill, and would send me in the wrong direction, he explained).
Malm’s business of reclaimed lumber for home and business interiors has grown mainly through his contacts from his previous career as real estate developer in Chicago.
And Woodsconsin headquarters is a wonder—a mix of antique shop and a lumberyard of ancient woods from 150 years ago or more.
Rows of various lumber line the back walls and on racks. A makeshift showroom to the side shows off various textures of wood Malm can use to construct custom products for clients.
Malm greets me while another craftsmen, Zach Boyd, works a saw on a large piece of wood. (Rather than having employees, Malm contracts with other workers for projects.)
From Chicagoland to lumber country
Malm’s showroom features samples of various types of reclaimed lumber and building materials
Malm, 60, had worked 30 years in the real estate business in Chicago when in 2013 he landed a consulting gig dealing with properties in his hometown of Merrill. Companies that had bought old production facilities and warehouses along the Wisconsin River wanted him to negotiate real estate transactions and deal with the old, large vacant buildings.
But Malm knew he was looking at more than real estate: The buildings were a treasure trove of old lumber, antiques and artifacts. It would be a waste to demolish it all and send to the landfill.
For example, Malm shows me a contraption of a simple lever with notches. “Now what do you think that is?” he asks, smiling and holding the small jack’s handle. I says it’s a hoist of some kind. It turns out to be a tool like a car jack, but for buggies—as in those powered by horses. He estimates it’s more than 100 years old.
Malm saw the value of the old buildings and explained to the owners of the company he consulted for that they could recover much of the expense of taking down the structures if they deconstructed them first and sold the valuable antique lumber. Malm soon found himself selling that lumber to companies throughout Wisconsin and the Midwest.
Then one day a buyer of that lumber asked Malm to build a table out of the wood. Malm hadn’t done much woodworking since he was a teen, but the piece he built was well received and led to more requests.
At some point, he decided to start buying the lumber himself to create products, and about two years ago set up the Woodsconsin shop.
Today he contracts with more than a dozen workers for various projects, but does much of the work himself, creating some truly interesting pieces big and small. Hanging in the shop is a cutout the shape of Wisconsin, lined with purple lights that glow against the darkness and constructed of woods native to Wisconsin, such as pine, cedar and maple.
The buildings Woodsconsin has deconstructed to salvage lumber include:
• Kamke warehouse in Merrill. Once located on River Street and constructed in the 1890s, it housed hardware and farm implements for Kamke and Sons of Merrill. The building was made primarily of hemlock, which was prevalent in area forests at the time.
• The Paquen Family Log House, once located on CTH W in the town of Texas, north of Wausau. The home was built by Omizims Paquen, a French fur trader in 1848, the same year Wisconsin formed as a state.
• The Pay Brothers Barn, a vintage dairy barn in the Harrison Hills area in Lincoln County. The Pay brothers, who emigrated from Estonia in the late 1800s, eventually formed the Pay Brothers Alta Springs Bottling Co. to sell the naturally abundant spring water in the area to resorts and hotels throughout the U.S.
Decor of the unique
Reclaimed for a microbrewery: Malm constructed the staircase for Sawmill Brewing and supplied some of the wood flooring too.
Woodsconsin products have made their way into everything from staircases, tables, and entertainment centers to barn wood walls, throughout central Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Madison and Chicago.
Wausau interior designer Mindy Hoppe, of Inner Peace Interiors, says her clients generally want something special and Woodsconsin’s antique wood definitely fits that category. For example, a fireplace mantle made from various timber from Woodsconsin was the first item she used from Malm. “People are looking for unique features, and the history behind a project,” Hoppe says. “He gives you info on the building where the piece came from. It makes a neat little story.”
As stated before, Malm doesn’t have much of a digital presence. Hoppe, for example, found him handing out papers at a builders association expo. And Luis Melendez, owner of La Taqueria, he got to know him when Melendez ran a restaurant in Merrill. Melendez owns a wood cutout of Wisconsin, and Malm built the arch Melendez was married under.
La Taqueria restaurant owner Luis Melendez at one of the reclaimed lumber high-top tables at the restaurant. Woodsconsin created several tables pieces for the restaurant and provided reclaimed lumber for other interior features.
So when Melendez and his sister decided to renovate the 17th Avenue building in Wausau into a stylish new Mexican restaurant, Malm was on his short list of people to call. Woodsconsin helped create a decorative piece of barnwood painted the red, white and green of the Mexican flag (the original colors of the board), some of the high-top tables and benches that adorn the restaurant.
“I think the wood and rustic elements help everything seem cozy and not so new,” Melendez says. “People feel comfortable here.”
Woodsconsin was one of the important collaborators in developing Sawmill Brewing Company in Merrill, which has become a pride of the northern city. Woodsconsin’s chief project is the staircase made of wood from a Merrill area factory, says Sawmill owner Stan Janowiack.
Janowiack says he has known Malm since elementary school and reconnected when Malm returned to Merrill. “I think [the staircase] has become a keystone piece of the bar,” Janowiack. Malm helped move and install the bar back, a historic one from a bar that operated in the 1940s in Merrill. Malm also supplied some of the other lumber for the business too.
The woodwork has become something of a defining feature of the microbrewery almost as much as its beer. “To this day people who have been here a million times are still in awe,” Janowiack says. “Someone told me you could charge just to come in here. We’ve had professional designers from Chicago come in here and their jaws drop.”
New life for old lumber and himself
Malm, left, and collaborator Zach Boyd with a table top they’re creating
Malm has plans to build a website in the next couple of years; and he already does pretty good business on Craigslist and through his many contacts in real estate. Milwaukee is his strongest market right now, where his “Northwoods rustic” aesthetic seems to have the strongest appreciation. In Chicago, he says, there seems to be more interest in urban chic industrial, which involves more metal.
What he does now works for him, and in some ways, seems to be part of the charm. His pieces are so unique with all the history behind them. Malm works with about 100 customers per year.
He’s careful about how he creates his pieces too. Malm prefers the natural wood grain of the lumber he uses, shunning stains or heavy gloss. It’s a minimalist approach that sets him apart, he says. For example, you won’t see the typical bar top many are familiar with, with layers upon layers of gloss. For a more natural, authentic look, Malm instead tends to use a little bit of oil to bring out the grain, and just a layer or two of protective coating.
Decked in a flannel shirt and a workers bib, even Malm’s appearance is a far cry from the days of selling high-end Chicago real estate. And this might seem a story of a man who shrugged off the corporate world to find new life for what grew in Wisconsin forests centuries ago. But Malm says he wasn’t unhappy with the Chicago lifestyle. “It’s a different kind of happiness,” Malm says of dividing his days between reclaiming wood, building in his shop or touring the state to deliver orders. “I have been enjoying life wherever I am at. It wasn’t a career change because I didn’t like what I was doing. Life around me changed.”
The best way to reach Malm at Woodsconsin is at 414-367-9698 or at [email protected]