Cover Story: Composite Custom Timbers, Forest Products Industry, June 2001.
Ask Gordon Plume about his love of building, and he’ll tell you it’s been with him since he was just a boy. While still in his teens, he began work as a mason’s assistant. Some years later, he became a general contractor, building everything from small dwellings to massive suspension bridges. In time, he formed Mountain Stone Construction, a general contracting company, and was constructing homes on Blakely Island, just outside of Seattle, Wash.
After relocating north to Bellingham, business went somewhat south until a major Seattle area contractor saw Plume’s work. He was immediately impressed with Plume’s innovative approach to using heavy timbers, and suggested Plume join him in putting forth a proposal to build a new home for William Gates. Since being hired for the project, Plume hasn’t looked back. His firm, now located in nearby Ferndale and called The G. R. Plume Company, has become synonymous with exceptional custom timbers for an array of residential and commercial applications.
Initially, Plume, along with his wife, Robin, had to sell the concept of utilizing composite timbers. It didn’t lend itself to something that could be adequately described on the phone. Some thought only of those early veneering jobs where a little moisture would cause surfaces to peel. While still others had the notion that only that which comes from nature is real, solid, perfect.
When Plume started the Gates project, the founder of Microsoft expressed a desire to use strictly recycled lumber. However, the reclaimed old growth was far from perfect. “It was not up to the standard Mr. Gates was expecting.” Plume solved the problem by going through the step-by-step process of taking the best side of the timbers and gluing it to the bad side of the timbers. “That wasn’t too bad in relationship to that job,” Plume says. “But we finally realized in order to get to the standard of the job, the easiest way to do it was to just to go buy very good wood, slice it up into slices and glue it on top of glu-lam if this is what we were going to do. It was more cost effective and better.”
Since completing work for Gates, perceptions about the forest have changed, Plume says. Many feel strongly about preserving old growth forests and making wise use of natural resources. Yet, integrating recycled lumber into their design plans may simply not be a viable alternative. Much of this lumber is cut from the heart of the tree, and comes replete with knots and cracks, as well as bolt and nail holes. “Characteristics, we call them,” Plume says with a smile. “Clients just don’t want to see that if they’re going to spend that kind of money. We offer a competing product to that.”
By applying a thin veneer over a core of hand selected plantation wood, typically Douglas Fir, The G. R. Plume Company is able to produce as many as 100 12 by 12 timbers out of a single 12 by 12 timber. “We get maximum yield. So you can see there is a benefit there. I think that’s part of what helps us in our marketing.” What’s more, industry specifications exist for glu-lam, not traditional timbers. “It’s a known quantity and engineers really like that.” Cost savings can be considerable, as well. Plume cites one project involving teak veneers that would cost five times as much using solid wood. Of course, finding oversized dry teak timbers would be nothing short of difficult, to say the least.
Ultimately, The G. R. Plume Company has opened up new possibilities in the field. Its composite timbers, where two to four timbers are joined using an industrial adhesive and grains are matched so the end product appears to be solid sawn, are available in dimensions up to 16 by 30 — almost unheard of in the industry. When only the best will do, The G. R. Plume Company offers a clear vertical or mixed grain heavy timber, which has the presence of natural solid timber, while featuring a high performance core. Plume and his team also produce the patented Timbers-Lite, which has a hollow core for concealing steel I-Beams or cabling. The G. R. Plume Company continues to work with reclaimed timbers on those projects calling for a more rustic look, too.
Demand for The G. R. Plume Company’s unique product line remains strong. “I think it’s going really well right now. We have just sort of seen steady growth.” Architects refer clients, and those clients, in turn, do the same. “We’re slowly increasing our base. Our work is getting broader. I believe there is a real market for what we do,” Plume says. “Not able to do is not one of those things we say. We will figure out a way to do whatever they want us to do,” he adds.
In order to fabricate its truss assemblies, columns, beams, arches and complete timber frame packages, which ship with all joinery and brackets, The G. R. Plume Company requires very specific machinery that can handle even the largest pieces of lumber. “That fixes the kind of equipment you can purchase. The market is really for smaller pieces of wood, and that doesn’t work for us.” A must-have was a fixed passed line planer where neither the table nor the level change as the timber gets thicker and thicker.
And, when necessary, rather than adapt to the equipment, Plume finds a way to adapt the equipment to the job. For example, on the sander, the head goes up as opposed to the table going down. In terms of the joiner, instead of pushing the beam over the joiner, the operator runs the joiner by the beams via tracks. Plume didn’t even hesitate in modifying his trusty Delta bandsaw. “We’re attempting to reach that high level of perfection required in our business. We need things straight, we need things square and to an exact size.”
For the initial cutting of veneer material, the Mighty Mite does exactly what’s required. The Rotoplaner, with its horizontal milling head, allows the operator to plane lumber to very exact tolerances. Compared to like models, Plume calls his Lobo top and bottom head planer a “Chevrolet.” He explains: “Sure, four or five other companies make similar equipment. A $50,000 model might do a better job, but we couldn’t afford that. I have what I need and it works very well.”
Originally, Plume had an old timber sizer that worked as a four-sided planer before acquiring the Lobo Planer. “Trying to plane with four sides wasn’t what we needed. We could get by with a fixed passed line top, in other words, a single head planer, if there was one out there, but there isn’t one. So that’s why we have a top and bottom head planer. But it’s more complex than, say, just a plain thickness planer.”
Additionally, The G. R. Plume Company uses blades by Suffolk Saw, Bearings from Bearings, Inc. and Mafell tools, which Plume deems the “Cadillac” of heavy timber hand tools, as well as Bosch routers. Some have been around so long, Bosch has since stopped making them, and parts are no longer available. But when it comes time to replace those hand held routers that have really put the miles on, Plume will gladly turn to Bosch again. “We feel they have done well by us.” So, too, have Rotoplane and Lobo Planer. In fact, Plume ranks Lobo the best among the many manufacturers that service The G. R. Plume Company. Supplier Calvert Corporation, based out of Vancouver, also earns high marks from Plume.
While Plume admits that he would be hard pressed to get along without his Bosch routers, now 15 in all, he knows that the success of his company does not rest on the right router, planer or saw. “It comes down to technique. The people working for us are the real important tool to our business. They have to learn how to do these things. They are very key to what we do… the fact that they’re willing to take that risk and and go out on a limb to do something different.”
Plume emphasizes how much he appreciates the efforts of those that make The G. R. Plume Company what it is. Included are: David Corn, Peter Edwards, Margaret Flink, Linda Ford, Raymond Hatcher, Jacob LeVan, Andrew Linville, Bart McGough, Jr., Elmer Ostrander, Dave Parker, Peter Trubnikov, Vasily Tsiporenko, Alvin Valencia and Drew Winsor. “We have a really fine team of people that work very hard.”
Such dedication keeps The G. R. Plume Company on the right track. “We’re expanding a little bit all of the time. We would like to keep our expansion to 15 percent per year, though, so we don’t step outside of our ability to continue to turn out quality products.” While some upgrades are an inevitable part of maintaining an edge, Plume always thinks twice before making any major changes. Fashioning its own cores for the custom timbers is certainly a possibility for the G. R. Plume Company. After all, the corporation already employs a certified grader. “We use the industry standard for gluing. We are not that far from being able to make our own glu-lams and being able to stamp those.”
What else might the future hold? “We’re looking at all of the latest technology that will benefit us,” Plume says. For simplicity’s sake, in the near future he plans to make the transition to solid carbide tooling with indexable blades across the board. And, while he may be willing to look at adding some cutting edge machinery, he is not yet ready to implement the kind of programmed equipment that shapes, fills and mortises at the touch of a button. “We would rather invest in people in our business.”
Count on Plume to do whatever it takes to make custom timbers like those fabricated by The G. R. Plume Company the standard in the industry, rather than the exception. “We totally believe in the product that we make. Not only is it a very valid material, but it’s wonderful to live with.”