Up until about five years ago, James Broyhill was working in real estate, with woodworking as more of a hobby, or a stress reliever on the weekends. “I’m just a lover of working with my hands,” he said. “Whether it’s woodworking, or working on my car or truck, it’s always been my weekend hobby.”
Then, as part of his real estate business, he took a trip to Nashville, Tennessee to look at some potential property in a nearby rural area. “There was a guy there who had an old Jack Daniels barrel. I asked if I could take it off his hands, and he agreed.”
Curious to see what he could do with the barrel, James ended up making a bench from it. He still keeps the original of that Classic Bench piece in his office. Since one of his friends was getting married around that time, James also used the whiskey barrel materials to make a Celebration Box, which houses a bottle of whiskey, two shot glasses and cigars.
“I started thinking about what I would want to have, and daydreaming about those products,” James said – and he also found some additional sources of used whiskey and wine barrels, including distilleries like the Greenbrier Distillery, which makes Belle Meade Bourbon. “I asked if there were any additional barrels they were willing to part with, and they said, ‘yes, as long as you make us some stuff.’”
Other distillery partners now include Woodford Reserve and Old Rip Van Winkle. With materials from these sources, James now has a business, Heritage Handcrafted, in making items from reclaimed whiskey barrels. From his original daydreams, he narrowed the available items down to a collection.
In some ways, running a business selling wooden products ties in to James’s family history: his great-grandfather (also named James Broyhill) founded the Broyhill Furniture company in 1926. The company was sold in 1981, before the current James was born; he learned woodworking from his maternal grandfather during his childhood in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
He’s also had a learning curve when making things out of the whiskey and wine barrels. The majority of them are American white oak; to make a barrel out of that wood, it is steamed to get a bow in the wood. So, James said, “When you’re breaking it apart, each individual piece has a slight bow in it, and each individual stave has varying widths.” There’s also a slight bevel on the edge of the staves (the individual slats of wood that comprise a barrel).
Because of these shapes, James said, “One of the tools I use most often is the straight line ripsaw.” Band saws are also important, because there is a lot of resawing, he said.
In creating one of his favorite projects, a Chandelier light fixture, James said, he experimented with steam bending, making a steam box to “bend wood that was already bent to create more of a fluid effect there. Then I created various jigs to create a grandiose kind of chandelier that stands about five feet tall.” The original piece is in James’s living room.
An additional challenge when working with the barrels is the charring inside of them that gives the whiskey its color and sometimes its taste. “The char remains in the barrel, and it’s messy stuff to work with,” James said.
He has found a process to remove the heavy char, but still maintain its patina. For finish on his products, James applies only a lacquer or water-based polyurethane.
This, plus his other processes, retain the barrels’ patina. The character from this, from the portions on the exterior of the barrel that show were the hoops were which held it together as a barrel, and the char on the interior maintain the distinctiveness of the material.
“It’s what people appreciate most about our products,” James said.