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Meet Rex Condie and LaVor Smith of Wine Glass Bar Sawmill in Central Phoenix

Today we’d like to introduce you to Wine Glass Bar Sawmill and its owners, LaVor Smith and Rex Condie

First, tell us about Wine Glass Bar Sawmill and what you call “urban lumber.”
Rex Condie: We tell people thaturban lumber” is an artform, a true “green, zero waste” industry, and an all-new way of yielding lumber—one of the oldest and most necessary of commodities on the planet. And, here we are, two semi-retired cousins, old farm boys, who are making this exciting industry work, right in the heart of downtown Phoenix.

LaVor Smith: We take trees that have grown in the landscape and have been blown down in storms, died from harmful insects or disease, or have to be removed for whatever reason, and are headed to the landfill. We rescue and repurpose them, and make beautiful hardwood dimensional lumber and live-edge slabs from them. Artisans and woodworkers who find us for the first time tell us they feel like “a kid in a candy store!” when they see the stacks of logs waiting to be milled, the beautiful wood samples in our showroom and stacks of slabs that are dried and ready for finishing and making into furniture, mantles, countertops, musical instruments, art pieces, and more.

We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
LaVor: Both of us were retirement age, but we didn’t want to “hang up our spurs” so to speak. We weren’t drawn to golf or sitting in front of the TV. Rex had owned a welding company in Phoenix for about 35 years and was still working closely with his son who had purchased the company from him, and, I had worked 35 years as a commercial construction superintendent, and was pursuing a wide variety of projects, living in Idaho in the summer and Phoenix in the winter.

Rex: One project was a two-story, barn-style “man cave” and garage LaVor was building for himself in Idaho. He wanted rough-cut siding to make it look like an authentic barn, so he came to me with the idea of building a band sawmill to cut the slabs for the siding. I grew up with a dad who loved working with wood, and who made beautiful things from trees he cut down himself, so I always wanted a sawmill, too. LaVor found some plans online and I built the sawmill in the weld shop, and we set it up in the yard behind the shop, just north of the Phoenix airport.  

LaVor: The mill worked like a charm … but, we couldn’t see how a sawmill would do much good in Phoenix after that. I planned to leave it where it was for a while, but eventually we figured the only way a sawmill would get any use was if I took it back to Idaho where there were trees.

Rex: A few months after we built the sawmill, Phoenix was hit with a bad windstorm and microburst. Someone called to tell me several trees had blown down on a golf course near my home in the West Valley. I did some checking and soon found out that about 40 trees were down—and we got permission to retrieve them.

LaVor: This was such an eye-opener. These trees were hardwood species, perfect for milling for lumber. We learned trees like these that came down in Phoenix storms or because of old age or diseases—tons and tons of valuable, reusable wood—about 100 trees a day—were going into the landfill in Phoenix.

Rex: We were in a perfect position to help change that. We aren’t talking about the walnut, maple, cherry or other hardwoods you find in most of the United States.

So, we could have shade and beauty here in the desert, individuals and nurseries have brought in trees from around the world, from countries with similar weather and soil conditions. So, now, we have several varieties of native mesquite, plus we have other trees that are beautifully suited to woodworking and construction projects, like acacia, Indian rosewood (sissoo), silk oak, African sumac, eucalyptus, carob, olive, pistachio, and hardwood pine varieties and many others.

LaVor: We also learned that there was a lot of demand from artisans, craftsmen, contractors and interior designers who were excited that Wine Glass Bar Sawmill could provide live-edge or dimensional lumber from unique woods they had never seen. Word spread quickly that Wine Glass Bar Sawmill had species of wood and slabs in sizes that wasn’t available anywhere else.

Rex: We knew that proper drying is essential to producing top-quality lumber that won’t twist, warp or crack during the finishing process.

But, there was little information about how to do that here in the arid dessert, where wood can be damaged by drying it too fast. We created our own technique, first assembling the components to build a state-of-the art, computerized kiln, then developing a process that combines slow air-drying and drying in the kiln to the desired moisture content. This not only produces the most workable lumber, it also eradicates any organisms and eggs that might be in the wood.

LaVor: Last year, we added another piece of equipment that sets us apart—a super-wide, stationary bandsaw, we purchased because of the many requests from customers for slabs wide enough for countertops and tables. With this saw, we can mill logs up to 50 inches in diameter.

Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about Wine Glass Bar Sawmill, LLC – what should we know?LaVor: Our company name has special meaning. When we realized that the sawmill would become a business, we wanted to name it something that has a lot of meaning to both of us. We settled on Wine Glass Bar—after the Wine Glass Bar brand that our grandfather, William Swainston, had designed and registered in the State of Idaho to brand his cattle. Grandpa always joked that the brand, “was the wineglass without the wine and a bar.” Thus, Wine Glass Bar Sawmill, LLC, was born.

Now, five years later, that name seems even more appropriate. Rex’s mother and my mother were sisters, and he and I were like brothers growing up. We loved to go fishing and hunting together as kids. We would go to the pond and creekbanks, just like in the Andy Griffith Show on TV. On Sundays, we would play together out at grandpa’s ranch while our mom’s visited with grandma. When we were a little older, we helped grandpa haul hay together, brand, and de-horn and vaccinate cattle. From our own dads and from working with grandpa, we learned how to work hard and how to work together.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
Rex: Because this was a new concept for this area, a big obstacle was letting craftsmen know about Wine Glass Bar Sawmill. We also needed to educate local arborists and tree removal companies that we were around and that we could save them the work it takes to cut up those big logs with a chainsaw, plus we could save them hundreds of dollars in dump fees and even pay them for certain species and types of logs.

LaVor: Starting any new business presents challenges, and, with no one else doing this, we have had to learn as we go and to rely on our background and experience—and our intuition.

We set our goal early on that we would produce the finest quality of hardwood slabs possible and make them available at a fair price. But, a person doesn’t purchase a sawmill, start cutting logs and magically end up with a quality finished product. We had a lot to learn. Each of the nearly 30 species of trees we work with is a little different in its characteristics and the way we handle it, and the drying process for each species is a little different. But, we have figured it out and, we believe two old guys are leading out in this important industry.  

Rex: LaVor and I were featured in a movie documentary about the concept of urban lumber. It is called “Felled,” and can now be viewed on Amazon. Then last fall, the City of Phoenix awarded Wine Glass Bar Sawmill their Green Business Leader Award.

We like this recognition, but more than anything, we judge our success by seeing how excited our arborist “suppliers” are to partner with us in this urban lumber industry and to see more craftsmen every day are making beautiful finished products and making their livings using our repurposed lumber. We are making a difference and an important impact, doing what no one else in Arizona is able to do … and you might say, while salvaging and reclaiming trees, LaVor and I are having a great time being saved from retiring and being “reused” and “reclaimed” ourselves.

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