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Wednesday, 25 December 2013 00:00

Barking up the right tree

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fr barkcladBy Paul Clark • Correspondent

Harvesting poplar bark to make bark shingles is never easy, but this summer Danny Heatherly and his crew had a short season shortened even further by all the rain that fell.

 

Normally, Heatherly’s company—Barkclad Natural Products— has June and July to bring in the bark it sells throughout the year to people who love the rustic look that poplar gives their homes. But so much rain fell that he and the dozen employees and contractors Barkclad works with had just half the time to get the bark.

Barkclad, a member of the Western North Carolina Green Building Council, is one of a very small handful of poplar bark suppliers in North Carolina. Based in Bethel, it’s a growing business that supplies bark shingles and panels for the mostly high-end mountain and lake home-building industry. Several years old, Barkclad has shipped bark to every state except Hawaii. It gets nearly all of its wood from North Carolina.   

The forests of Western North Carolina are full of poplars, ramrod-straight hardwoods that can soar into a canopy’s upper reaches before jutting out the first branch. Its bark clad the homes of Cherokee Indians centuries ago and by the early 1900s became a coveted siding for mountain homes in the Blowing Rock and Linville areas. Summer camps used poplar to wrap chapels and chow halls as the siding moved into the public domain. High Hampton Inn & Country Club in Cashiers is sided in it. Poplar bark’s rugged looks and durability have made it popular again.

Lined with ridges and valleys, strafed with moss and lichen, poplar produces panels as unique as fingerprints. No two pieces are the same, resulting in a siding that looks alive and natural on the mountain rustic homes it wraps. 

Barkclad’s work is done in early summer because the bark is pliable and easily peeled. Heatherly, a second-generation timber harvester, contracts with timber companies for the bark on the poplars they take down. His people do their work, muddy and hot, in the woods before the trees are dragged and scarred. Using chainsaws, they score the bark up the length of the tree, then cut it 4-foot sections. If the tree is tall enough and the bark thick enough, they’ll cut longer sections — premium siding that brings a higher price.

Barkclad sells three gauges of bark. Bark that is at least three-quarters of an inch thick is used on the outside, and bark thicker than that costs more because it’s tougher and more rugged looking. Bark thinner than three-quarters of an inch is used on the inside of a house.

Heatherly’s business partner, Brian Summers, gave a visitor a tour of the company’s wood yard in Bethel recently. 

“There’s not much to see now,” he said at the start of a cold, blustery day. But in July, the yard was “absolutely covered” with pallets of bark, he said. The crews that stacked the pallets, alternating bark with slats to add drying, included Heatherly’s wife and three children. Everyone worked insanely hard during the shortened season.

The pallets, topped with concrete blocks to keep the bark from curling, were moved into the yard’s kiln, where they dried for days. Once the bark was cured, Heatherly cut the sheets into 18-, 24- and 36-inch lengths. 

Heatherly grew up in Haywood County. He’s been in the timber business more than 24 years and got into the bark business by selling the bark he took off the poplars he timbered. He brought Summers in as a business partner in April because Summers had experience helping people bring products to market. Heatherly had a product he wanted to bring to market. And it wasn’t poplar bark.

Summers grew up in Oxford, Penn., a small community full of hardworking people in Amish country between Lancaster and Philadelphia. Bethel and Canton remind him of home. 

“There’s a heritage of hard work that people appreciate here. There was a time when you could do business on a handshake. That’s the kind of guy Danny is,” he said of Heatherly. “He’s going to do what he says he’s going to do. The day he shook my hand and said we’re partners, we were partners. I appreciate his integrity.”

Summers pointed to Heatherly’s house, at the edge of the wood yard. The house is clad in what Barkclad believes is its future, the product Heatherly brought Summers on to sell – an engineered siding that looks remarkably like poplar bark. Made of a high-density polyurethane blend that uses 80 percent recycled materials, the product has the same ridges and valleys that natural bark does. It’s made in Salisbury, as are Barkclad’s new poplar-like roof shingles made from 100 percent recycled materials.

Looking at the Heatherly house from the wood yard, you’d never know the siding is engineered. And even up close, the shingles look like the real thing, the result of some clever design and craftily engineered injection molding. 

“This is our sustainable answer to bark siding,” Summers said as he pulled out a box of the panels. Poplars may abound in the WNC forests, but getting bark out and processed is hard and expensive. And the weather can be iffy, as this summer proved. The engineered product is easier to make and lasts even longer than the long-wearing bark, Summers said. 

“If natural bark is not perfectly installed, it can crack, curl, bleach, darken or expand,” Summers said. “The engineered bark doesn’t do any of those things. Most building supply companies that I talk to say the engineered bark will take over natural bark one day. This is where the bark market is going.”

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