The Oak Barrel Company Story
Why Our Barrels?
Furniture made from whole Whiskey and Bourbon barrels are not as durable as furniture made from wine barrels due to many factors. Like beauty, Whiskey and Bourbon get better with age. These liquids are kept in barrels for up to 15 years, thus weakening the wood staves of the barrel. Wine barrels store wine up to 12 months at a time, making the barrels stronger, tighter, and more durable. The size and curvature of wine barrels often better resemble furniture designs. One of the most important factors when choosing wine over bourbon barrels, is the burn. Wine barrels are not charred and the rings are galvanized to make it much stronger. The charred inside of the whiskey barrels weaken the wood, untreated steel rings stretch and the barrel will leach out dust which contains sugar. The dust sticks to anything close, carpet, walls, furniture, etc., and will cause black mold to grow. Here are a few articles that support our choice in barrels.
A Revelation in the Basement
When most of us see an old oak barrel, we see something long used for everything from aging whisky or wine, holding pickles or storing hardware items and catching rain from downspouts.
But Chris Deffenbaugh discovered something well beyond what a barrel can hold. His revelation came quite by chance.
“I was helping a friend clean out his basement and I spotted the pieces of an old oak barrel in a corner,” Chris recalls. “My friend said ‘just take it out to the curb and leave it for the trash man.’ But looking at the curve of the old barrel staves, the wooden lids and the rusty rings that once held it all together, I was struck by the shapes and threw it in my pickup truck to take home and see what I could do with it.”
Chris confesses he barely knew how to handle a hammer and nails, much less possessing the talents of a cooper: one who makes barrels for a living. But he figured it out and put the old oak barrel back together. Not long after, he decided the barrel ought to have some function other than as an unusual table in his home.
Cutting into one side and creating a set of doors from the oak pieces, he turned it into a bar cabinet: a place to store bottles of wine and spirits on his deck when guests visited. “They started asking me to make one for them,” says Chris, which still makes him laugh. “I didn’t have any old barrels. Where was I going to get them and what would I do with them?”
A Life-Changing Moment
At the time of his basement discovery, you could say Chris’s life was literally “over a barrel.”
He’d spent a career working in human resources for three Fortune 500 companies and had grown weary and stressed by how corporations treated people. “Human remains” is how Chris refers to it. He found he could no longer leave his feelings at the door and decided it was time to get out of the corporate life and build a new one. Surviving a bout with testicular cancer only solidified his decision.
Using that old oak barrel-turned-bar-cabinet as his inspiration, Chris started sketching and making plans…. for the barrels and himself.
“I had a choice: be unhappy or jump ship and do something rewarding.”
Sinking virtually all of his severance and retirement funds and selling off things he didn’t need anymore, he rented a truck, brought along a friend and headed for the whisky distilleries of Kentucky.
Chris came back with 90 oak barrels and a vision.
Reclaim…reuse…recreate: The Oak Barrel Company Is Born
Chris had a deconstructed vision of those old Kentucky bourbon barrels: a view of their component parts and how they might be repurposed as art and furniture. Just as the barrel staves came from old oak trees that took root long ago, so too would the wooden staves serve as the roots of The Oak Barrel Company.
The son of an architect, Chris drew more detailed sketches of how the barrels could be taken apart and re-used. He’d run the sketches by his Dad, who’d tell him what would work structurally and what would not.
Chris also sought out and learned the craft of woodworking from the Amish of Wayne County near his home in Wooster, Ohio. He contracted with several Amish and other local craftsmen to each handle one or two phases of the process of creating furniture and artwork from the barrel staves, lids and steel rings. He likens the process to an Amish “barn raising”: each person has a skill and a job to do and Chris and his Dad supervise the final assembly and inspection.
150 products later, The Oak Barrel Company has developed a growing fan and customer base.
“We started out going to art fairs in Columbus and Central Ohio,” says Chris. “The stuff we had for sale created a buzz and we started getting invited to more shows. Word of mouth and establishing a website has generated even more buzz …and business.”
Chris believes his customers are drawn by the same curves and shapes of the barrel parts as he first was when he diverted that old, broken up barrel from a trip to the landfill. It also speaks to the company’s mission: Reclaim…reuse…recreate.
Right down to the water-based finishes it uses on its creations; The Oak Barrel Company strives to use the whole barrel with little or nothing going to waste. It is among the things Chris says his customers appreciate most.
“They get it. They see the curve of the barrel staves and the charred surface that speaks of its former days as a whiskey barrel and they like that it now has another purpose. They like the oak especially, because it is sturdy, durable and retains its character. And we use a sustainable process, saving energy, raw materials and landfill space.”
Beyond the Barrels
Chris and his crew have applied the same vision to things as diverse as a beat up, old upright piano, taking it apart and turning the metal frame that holds the piano wires into a glass-topped coffee table.
Using the idea that something can be more than the sum of its parts, The Oak Barrel Company has used things as diverse as an old industrial chain and a giant, sprocketed gear as the basis for furniture.
So what’s next?
Chris says he’s always looking for found objects like the upright piano. His best source of off-the-beaten-path materials is often well off the path: what Chris calls “Amish junk yards.” The piles of old farm implements and other items cast off by Amish farm families are a treasure trove he picks through regularly.
“But we don’t go picking without asking ourselves are we saving energy, raw materials and space in the landfill? If the answer is yes, we grab it.”
The story of The Oak Barrel Company and the back-story of how Chris got it started is something that leaves Chris more than a little amused.
“The irony of what we’re doing is that we’re attracting attention from 21st Century customers with the pieces and parts of things from, in some cases, the 19th Century.”
It’s also attracted attention from Do-It-Yourself cable, whose show “I Want That!” will be focusing on the oak barrel creations of Chris’s company. And yet another production crew has been shooting video to tell both the tale of how he was inspired to start-up The Oak Barrel Company and to follow the twists and turns of running the company and finding the materials it uses.
The Oak Barrel Company is located in the heart of Ohio Amish County in downtown Berlin, Ohio. Gallery hours are Monday – Saturday from 10am – 5pm. Contact us by calling 330-466-0636