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Old barns and wooden structures dot the landscape of rural, mountainous western North Carolina. There seems to be one around every bend in the road and down every holler. Some have outlived their usefulness and sit idle, a relic of the past. But to Mike Stageman, owner of Hill Top Barn Wood Shop in Asheville, this is hallowed ground.
"We like the sustainability aspect of taking something that would otherwise be demolished, destroyed, burned or wasted and creating something beautiful out of it," he explained.
Reclaiming wood from these barns is the first step in an intricate process for Stageman and his team. They start with demo and de-nailing, then milling and skip-planing; then, as Stageman put it, "The sky is the limit." The wood gets a new life as custom flooring, trim, mantles, ceiling beams, accent walls, countertops, furniture and more.
"I feel a connection with working with my hands," said Stageman, "ending the day with looking at a physical manifestation of my work."
Over several days of filming, Stageman showed off the range of his skills. From a modest home renovation with accent walls and a sliding door, to a mansion overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains that featured the whole gamut of what he can do: ceiling beams featuring original axe cuts, one-of-a-kind countertops and wall-to-wall custom flooring.
Like many other companies, Hill Top Barn Wood Shop was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Stageman had to temporarily lay off a handful of employees and doubled his own hours to make up the difference. Sales have dropped as new construction began to dry up in tourism-heavy Asheville. But there has been a silving lining.
"With everyone at home, these sorts of products have been something that many people have seemed kind of extra interested in," Stageman said.
He's recently begun to see an uptick in traffic, both in his tucked-away, gritty workshop and online. Do-it-yourselfers periodically walk in to check out the raw lumber and ask about smaller jobs. And Stageman thinks some of the bigger, commercial jobs will return as pandemic restrictions ease.
Stageman decided to reclaim wood from his first barn on a whim back in 2012. He loved it and got a lot of interest from others, so he started the business a couple years later as a calculated risk. His primary source of income and stability come as a Captain of the Asheville Fire Department.
Though he doesn't equate his two jobs as such, there is an easy parallel to be made about what drives his passion: safeguarding that which already exists, skilled labor and craftsmanship, appreciating a hard day's work — and, perhaps most important, preserving the past.
"I'm passionate about this type of work because I truly believe in sustainability," Stageman said. "It's important for me to preserve this small piece of American history."