Business

Reviving ancient cooperfage technique

Doug Brubaker taps staves into place on a barrel sauna. - Pirjo Raits
Doug Brubaker taps staves into place on a barrel sauna.
— image credit: Pirjo Raits

As the lumber industry began to slowly fade away in the 1990s, those who made their living from the forest had to reinvent themselves in order to survive.

Doug Brubaker is one such person. Since 1976, Brubaker has been milling lumber on his portable sawmill, first on one of the Gulf Islands, then on Goodridge Peninsula. When that was no longer feasible he moved his operation to Otter Point.

“I got tired of chasing logging trucks for logs. At the time Forest Renewal BC was trying to help displaced forest workers and had a program geared to finding new ways to earn a living other than in the woods.

“It was an excellent program, it basically gave me an income and gave me a business consultant. We worked on a business plan and that plan was accepted by the EDC and it got us going,” said Brubaker.

He said he owes the fact that they are doing secondary products now to Forest Renewal, and he is disappointed the Liberals cancelled that program.

“We’d have a flourishing industry now if they hadn’t done that.”

He said he loves Canada and Canadians but they often do not value our natural resources as much as people for other countries do.

On Forest Lumber’s property close to the industrial park along Otter Point Road, Brubaker is building out of wood. The lumber he chooses to work with is fine-grained clear cedar obtained from up-island. He fashions water tanks or cisterns, hot tubs and saunas out of the fragrant durable wood. Each product is made using cooperage methods — staves and straps.

He first began when he needed a large water tank on his property to catch rain water. He built one, in a barrel style, and had some four foot pieces left over. He used those to build a wooden swimming pool for fun. As he was marketing his water storage units and pools he found that many people thought of the pools as hot tubs and the water tanks as saunas.

So the light bulb went off.

He said he learned a valuable lesson during that trade show.

“Don’t push what you have for them, listen to what they want,” said Brubaker. That was in 1998.

He built a website (www.forestlumber.com) and landed a deal with a client in the United Kingdom. He sent product out in container loads. His biggest market these days is in Europe. Europeans have an appreciation for wood as much of what they produce is out of plastic, steel and concrete. He took his U.K. dealer to the beach and when he saw all of the driftwood on the beach he was stunned. The dealer said if he sent a container full of stumps and roots and driftwood to London it would sell immediately. That’s how scarce such commodities are in Europe and Britain.

Forest Lumber builds barrel-style saunas out of cedar, many with “porches.” They come in various sizes suitable for two people or more depending on the length. They can be either horizontal or vertical depending on preference. He wants to build small plunge pools to add to the sauna experience.

His hot tubs are a modern version of the original wooden hot tubs made in California out of wine barrels back in the 1970s. The hot tubs are available with wood burning heaters as do the saunas.

These days Brubaker’s wood comes from small mills on Vancouver Island, from communities such as Courtney, Port Alberni, Errington and Sooke. He chooses to use Western red cedar.

“I try to buy FSA (Forest Stewardship Council) wood as it has a chain of custody and that’s really popular in Europe. FSA certified wood is about sustainable logging practices.

“I’m taking high quality short pieces of cedar and turning them into something quite valuable,” said Brubaker. His hot tubs have a life span of 20-30 years and his saunas can last 50 years.

“I’m really careful about the quality of the wood.”

His water cisterns most often end up in places like Hawaii and other areas where fresh water is scarce.

The wood is the most important part of the process and Brubaker said they have managed to survive because they have always been careful and conservative.

“We are able to go right from the raw, wet wood from a mill to kiln-drying our own wood and re-sawing it. We’re pretty much in control of the whole process. In 36 years, I’ve learned how to log, sawmill, dry and build. It’s kept it interesting I guess.”

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