Years ago, John Yarema and his wife
bought a house. "The only thing we could find that we both liked
was an old one-room schoolhouse." The house was, to put it
mildly, a fixer-upper, and John and his wife, although inexperienced,
worked on fixing it up themselves. "It wasn't that nice, so
anything was an improvement," John said. It was the beginning of
his journey toward working full-time with wood.
When it came time to do the floor in
this old Michigan schoolhouse, John said, they thought they would
just cut some logs from his family's nearby farm. (His family owned a
tool and die shop, where he used to have his summer jobs.) When the
owner of a Wood-Mizer portable sawmill came out to start cutting the
logs, he asked where John was planning to dry the lumber.
That you had to dry it before using it
was news to John.
He did, however, have it dried, into an
S4S product. When putting in the floor, he routed the groove, put the
spline down and finished it. "It turned out well, and then my
uncle said, 'I want you to do my house.'" The uncle paid him in
tools; then he did his cousin's house ... it got to the point that
the supplier where John bought his wood put him on the list of
recommended floor installers, and he started getting calls -- from
people who weren't relatives.
These days, John specializes in
creating and installed hardwood floors -- a specialty, he says, that
"kind of just happened. It was like there wasn't anyone around
doing floors" when he started out. "I chose my path, and I
love it," John said. "A lot of people are just in it
because their dad was a hardwood floor guy."
John is in it because he wants to work
with his hands. At one point, after he'd quit his original day job as
a systems engineer, his flooring business grew to the point that he
hired several people. That didn't work out so well for him. He
decided, "I'll hire somebody to walk around and do the business
part of it. I want to do the work. When I was younger, I would
outwork all the guys. Sixteen hours a day, I'd swing a hammer --it
One of the projects John has worked on
is reproduction of the type of parquet floor found at Versailles;
another is a floor for an "off-the-grid" school near his
Michigan home, utilizing "toaster blocks": the granulated
cork and sawdust that accumulates as waste material when making
hardwood pallets. He and his team took the material to the school,
and had the kids go through to grab the pieces they really liked and
stack them in a roped-in area. "We took them back, packed up the
material, dried it, and sliced it into end grain blocks. It turned
out really good, and that was from material that didn't even make it
into the pallet," John said.
If John had his druthers, he said, he
"would only want to source local wood that had a connection to
the home, whether historically or not, or just aesthetically. It's
more fun to work, and it has tremendous value in that sense."
While that's not always possible, he
does try to use local and/or sustainable woods when he can. For
instance, he's used wood from logs recovered from submersion in the
Great Lakes, and he uses a lot of 1/2" Baltic birch backer
boards -- the chunk of wood "left over" when creating a
veneer. "They're all different shapes and sizes, but they're
high quality for inlay work," John said. Still, "My
all-time favorite is white oak," he said. "I like it
because traditionally it was 'the' wood."
The wood has its own influence on the
projects he makes, too. "As you go through the process, it seems
like everything changes," he said. "You know what you want
to do, but the wood's kind of pushing you or guiding you. It's fun."
Once done with a floor, he notes, he
and his crew will often take the leftover material and "make
something fun with it." For John, "something fun"
might be a table, or a wall mantel.
For any project, he prefers "anything
that makes you feel like you're getting in over your head," he
said. "I don't want to do the same thing twice. When you're in
over your head, interesting things happen."
Currently, one area he's interested in
focusing on is "green" finishes. That was prompted, in
part, by a a doctor's visit when he discovered that the pulmonary
part of his heart had atrophied to half its normal size. After that,
John said, "It was pretty easy to say 'I'm not gonna be around
this.' Even some water-based finishes, I would get rashes on my arms.
I wanted something with bigger molecules, not sucking into my skin.
If somebody wants something else, they'll have to have somebody else
put it on."
Truthfully, John says, "I don't
even like finishes. It reminds me of Star Wars, when Han Solo
was encapsulated. It feels like the wood is trapped." What he
prefers, he says, is an oil and wax finish which has a patina to it.
"It has the look of a handmade product." He's also making
some of his own finishes these days, using materials like walnut
husks and coffee.
This focus on nontoxic finishes and
recycled materials is one of the reasons John was pleased to do the
floor for the Mount Kisco, New York, home of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
and the late Mary Kennedy after it had experienced a mold
infestation. The Kennedys, he said, "were militant about about
toxicity being zero. They were amazing."
Speaking about why he does what he
does, John spoke about taking two World War II vets to lunch at a
club a few years ago. One veteran, he said, was retired from General
Motors; the other had been a framer. As they were driving to the club
and passed by several barns on the way, "The one who was a
framer kept saying things like, 'I did that barn in '47.' When we got
to the club, the other one said, 'I worked at GM for 50 years, and I
can't show you one thing that I did.'"
"In the end, when I'm gone,"
John said, "I want something here that I created."