|Company: Sandtown Millworks
Co-founders: John Bolster and Will Phillips
Headquarters: Federal Hill, Baltimore
Sandtown Millworks gives Baltimore’s oldest resource a new lease on life
By Will Beaudouin
John Bolster has skeletons in his closet. In fact, he has skeletons hanging from his rafters, peeking from his barrels and leaning against his walls. Not figurative skeletons, of course — and certainly not human bones, either. No — what Bolster has stocked in his Federal Hill workshop are the skeletons of Baltimore’s oldest citizens — its row homes.
In every corner and nook of Bolster’s workshop, he and his team have stocked hundreds of beams and wood recycled from gutted row homes with the plan of forging furnishings for your home.
The genesis of Sandtown Millworks began with the rebirth of Baltimore itself. “We lived through the urban revival, so we’ve done a lot of row house [work],” Sandtown Millworks co-founder John Bolster explains. “Fifteen years ago, we’d be filling dumpsters full of [this great wood].” Realizing it’s a tremendous waste to throw out wood from America’s oldest, now nearly extinct forests, Bolster began to reclaim the wood for his company, New Renaissance Architects and Builders, and for personal projects.
But it wasn’t until a run-in with Under Armour chief of staff (and future Sandtown Millworks co-founder) Will Phillips that the idea of using this wood to make home furnishings was born. Phillips was spearheading the renovation of a Sandtown row home into a LEED Platinum residence as a partnership between Under Armour, Habitat for Humanity and the U.S. Green Building Council Maryland Chapter.
“He hired us to build some reclaimed stair treads and cabinet faces,” Bolster explains. During the renovation of the house, Phillips, too, realized that such high-quality wood was going to waste, and he approached Bolster with the idea of creating a furniture line. “It was a very slow evolution.”
“Fifteen years ago, we’d be filling dumpsters full of [this great wood].”
Using one of Bolster’s renovated row homes as their first showroom, the newly christened Sandtown Millworks staged a launch party, and sales grew from there. Phillips began to canvas local farmers markets and engage potential customers directly — a demographic that Bolster describes as ideal. “They want to buy sustainable things,” he says.
But beyond sustainability, Bolster designs furniture with a unique aesthetic. “In the end, [the pieces are] all warm,” Bolster says. “That’s key to me. The tone of the wood warms it up, [and] the distressed nature gives it that already-lived-in look.”
The designs have proven so popular that architecture firms such as Gensler and Ayers Saint Gross feature it in their offices. Under Armour has even commissioned a conference table for its new Manhattan office.
In terms of future growth, Bolster and company see an opportunity in other local markets. “Long term, if demand grows outside of Baltimore, we’re not just going to keep manufacturing here,” Bolster says. “[We would want to] satellite it. That way, it’s still local.”
In the meantime, Bolster is content to continue plying his trade for the natives of Baltimore. Whether it’s wood from the old Admiral’s Cup in Fells Point or forgotten lath slats from an unnamed row home, Sandtown Millworks continues to produce local, sustainable furniture — each piece wholly unique. “There might be some wood that we get within two miles of here, it comes to the shop, we build a piece of furniture, and then deliver [it] to somebody within two miles of here,” Bolster smiles. “That’s neat stuff.” CEO
Above photos (L-R): Sandtown Millworks uses reclaimed wood from Baltimore row houses to create furniture like this coffee table; Sandtown stockpiles hundreds of old joists, studs and laths cut from centuries-old pine trees from the American Southeast. Less than 2 percent of those forests remain today; Sandtown uses a tool called a planer to skim small layers of wood from boards.