I have spent time deep undercover in the Metropolitan Police, and reported from the frontline of numerous natural disasters, but researching the “wood porn” phenomenon on Google is a particularly hazardous journalistic mission. But someone’s got to do it. And among the thicket of NSFW material I find the site of Ross Alan Reclaimed Lumber, the go-to woodshop for Los Angeles’ enchanted forest of stars.
I’m keen to explore what it is about wood that’s getting so many of us hot under the collar, and according to the movers and shaker-cabinet-enthusiasts of Hollywood, the company’s founder, Ross Kidder, is the man to help. When digital technology began to consume our attention, woodwork appeared a dying craft. But in recent years, as we look for ways to be creative away from our screens, people of all ages are embracing this rugged yet tactile pursuit. Its popularity was also boosted by one of the silver linings of the pandemic — that while we were enclosed at home, we became more open to new hobbies and interests.
Now, the old and new worlds are colliding with the rise of woodworking content online. Digital shopfronts like Etsy are giving work-from-home artisans a platform to sell their creations. Multiple carpenters, from Steve Ramsey to April Wilkerson, have become internet celebrities with their YouTube subscribers hitting seven figures and counting. Meanwhile, almost one million Instagram posts have been tagged #woodporn. I don’t see glass or bronze getting that kind of love.
Even Ross, who is surrounded by wood all day, in real life, admits logging on at home. “Late at night, when my wife’s half asleep, she’ll notice I’m scrolling through pictures on my phone,” he confesses. “She’ll say, ‘What are you looking at? It’s the middle of the night.’ I’ll tell her, ‘It’s just wood porn!’ But seriously, I do love it. Woodworking videos are one of the biggest niches online. You can get totally lost in it, and you can learn anything.”
Ross, 43, grew up surrounded by woodland and traditional Midwestern barns near Grand Rapids, Michigan, but swapped rural living for the bright lights of LA in 2004 as he followed the road to becoming an actor. He was enjoying rewarding work in independent movies, but it wasn’t paying the bills. So he turned to his interest in woodwork — inherited from his father who helped build their family home.
“I started dumpster diving,” Ross reveals. “I would jump into dumpsters at construction sites around LA, and pull out their leftover lumber and take them home to build coffee tables I’d sell on Etsy. I felt like Robin Hood!
“Even though my dad didn’t really teach me to build furniture, I had been around woodworking all my life. I certainly wasn’t afraid of it, so I jumped right in. Being an artist and a visual person, rather than starting by learning the methodology, I would just try to build something beautiful, but then it would fall apart. But I kept practicing until I got it right, and knew that when I gave someone a piece it was going to last a very long time.”
Ross was then taken under the wing of an interior designer working in the luxury homes of the Hollywood Hills, and started making pieces for her clients, while also building his own network of customers. Relying on off-cuts from dumpsters will only get you so far, so he began buying wood from a local reclaimed lumber yard, but found it too expensive — so returned to his roots to hatch a new plan.
“I’m from the sticks, surrounded by barns,” he explains. “So I decided to set up my own business bringing truckloads of wood to LA from barns that were being pulled down in Michigan. My dad gave me $3,000 to set it up. I began by advertising on Craigslist, and selling the wood out of a storage container in North Hollywood, not far from the space we’re in now. Then this place became available to lease in 2014, so we signed up to rent a small portion of it. It has continued to grow exponentially from there — our space is now close to 11,000 square feet.
“People told me you could either be a lumber seller or a fabricator, but you couldn’t be both. So I took that as a challenge to prove them wrong.”
The sprawling, mazy building is on an industrial street in North Hollywood, among big, square self-storage facilities, affordable new-build apartment blocks, and fast food joints — seven miles from stardom, and the glamor of Tinseltown. There are some world famous, A-list stars on Ross’ client list, although he respects their privacy by keeping names off the record. And his own thespian flair is engrained throughout his work and presentation — he’s the star of this stage he has created to showcase his craftsmanship. Also, Ross — and his key clientele — value the power of story, and the centuries-old reclaimed wood he specializes in has plenty of that.
“I still get nervous when I deliver a piece,” Ross explains. “It’s like the same jitters you feel when you’re backstage, and about to go on and perform. Normally they love it, so they’re happy, and open — and then I get to share the journey of the wood that they’re looking at.
“Reclaimed wood is the hardest to build out of, because there’s nails in it, and it’s gnarly, and you don’t know what you’re getting until you cut into it. And that can be a love/hate relationship. But I wouldn’t have it any other way, nothing beats the uniqueness of the one-off pieces we create. They look great, and the story is even better.
“People ask me what I’ll do when there’s no more barnwood, which could happen in a decade or so. Well, I love making lemonade out of lemons, and will continue to do that. I’ll probably start making kitchens out of recycled Teslas!”
The majority of the material Ross uses comes from Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, which he calls “the heartland of North American hardwoods.” When people were building a lot of barns in the 1800s, they would harvest the local forests to build the structures — so that could have been maple, red oak, white oak, walnut, sycamore, or elm. And Ross uses his contacts from growing up in the Midwest to identify barns that are ready for a second lease of life.
The price has gone up substantially since he opened the lumber yard almost a decade ago, as land owners have become more aware of the value of their crumbling structures once you truck them to affluent cities. But he certainly does not begrudge them that, and is proud to be part of an eco-friendly family business — which he runs with his wife Georgie — that benefits both ends of the supply chain. “These days, we look at these amazing barns, and think, ‘Why would you build a whole barn out of white oak?'” Ross says. “Well, it’s just the material they had. When I was growing up, they would just throw the pieces that fell off the barn on the bonfire. These days, that would break my heart.”
Ross’ shop has become something of a sanctuary for folks from the city, with customers often making several visits as they fine-tune their plans for a table, kitchen cabinets, or whatever his team are creating. The fact that they sell raw lumber as well as build with it adds to the space’s alluring charm. The plentiful wood, combined with the power and engineering of the machinery that surrounds us, offers a balance of hard graft and creativity, and make it an inspiring place to spend time.
“I love that I give guys the opportunity to smell sawdust, and experience something that feels so primal,” Ross says. “I spend a lot of time on phone calls and in clients’ homes now, but nothing beats getting nitty and gritty in the shop. When you go home and you’ve made your wage for your family, and you’ve got slivers in your hands, and cuts from carrying lumber, there’s a real sense of pride in that.”
As I head to the exit holding a off-cut to take home to my wife, Ross tells me about his plans for the future — which includes shipping more of his finished furniture to customers around the country, renting supplies to wedding venues, and dabbling in a bit more wood porn. The company have already got a page of their website dedicated to it (harmless shots of men hugging planks of Douglas fir, of course) with more plans afoot. “We want to really have some fun with it,” he says. “I want to do a wood porn calendar.”
Like the rest of Ross’ work, I’m sure it would be very sexy. Just don’t seek it out while at work.
Learn more at Ross Alan Reclaimed Lumber