A publication of Appalachian Voices

A publication of Appalachian Voices

New Life for Appalachian Homebuilding Tradition

By Eden Foster
The passion in Chris McCurry’s voice can bring tears to your eyes. And she’s not talking about solving world peace or finding cures for childhood diseases. Chris is talking about using poplar bark as siding for homes and businesses.

“The importance of this really hits a chord with me,” she says. “Bark siding is totally unique to this area and belongs to the Southern Appalachians. It was 100% completely born right here. I love these mountains and I want to make sure we do our part to protect and care for them.”

Chris and her husband, Marty, are co-owners of Highland Craftsmen, Inc., headquartered in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. Their company is the industry leader in the production of poplar bark siding for use in new residential and commercial construction, and in the restoration of older bark homes, churches and inns.

From Chestnut to Poplar

Fifteen years ago the couple fell in love with chestnut-sided houses that looked as if they sprung whole from the surrounding Western North Carolina landscape. And although the structures were often a century old, the bark siding remained as protective, maintenance-free and beautiful as the day it was installed. But the chestnut blight of the 1940’s wiped out entire industries that depended on this tree that until then had dominated the hardwood forests of the East coast. The practice of using chestnut bark to side houses and barns died with them.

Always interested in architecture and history, the McCurry’s also stumbled upon a rare example of a 75-year-old structure that still boasted it’s original siding of poplar bark. After noticing nearby loggers discard poplar tree bark as the trees were being harvested, they became curious as to whether the bark could be salvaged and used to clad buildings.

Through years of trial and error, the McCurry’s discovered that poplar bark has many of the same qualities as the vanished chestnut. It is plentiful, pliable, durable, resistant to the elements, chemical-free, and over time it turns to a lovely shade of gray that melds perfectly with the mountain setting. Yet poplar bark is even more durable than its predecessor as it will not de-laminate or peel.

Turning Waste Into Gold

Using this plentiful, and until then wasted, natural product fit perfectly with Chris and Marty’s passion for preserving and protecting the Southern Appalachian ecosystem. All across the Southeast, fast-growing poplar stands are continuously being harvested to supply the furniture and plywood manufacturing industries. Yet the lovely bark of the trees had become a pesky nuisance to the loggers and sawmill operators, and was often discarded in unsightly waste piles or ground to be used as low-grade mulch or industrial fuel.

Working side-by-side timber harvesting crews, trained Highland Craftsmen employees use teamwork, brute strength, and the very same tools that were used for the last two centuries to harvest bark: bark spuds, peaveys, axes and hatchets.

Soon after the tree falls, the craftsmen cut a vertical seam in the tree trunk. One team will slowly loosen the bark from side to side while another team rotates the log using hand tools that don’t damage the bark. When the bark cylinder is removed, it is immediately cut by hand into vertical strips, and any sections with cracks or imperfections are discarded. The strips are cut into standard shingle lengths, carefully stacked, and then placed under pressure to prevent curling.

The stacks are then kiln-dried to a moisture content below yard conditions so they won’t shrink or crack when applied. The high temperatures also ensure that any insect infestations are destroyed, negating the need for sealants and other chemical preservative treatments.

The standard grade (1/2 to 7/8 inches thick) or premium grade (1 to 1 1⁄2 inches thick) shingles, when applied over a non-combustible fabric layer, meets many of the most stringent municipal building codes for flammability. And the coated framing nails rust over time, virtually blending in with the bark, which is not acidic, so nail decomposition will not occur.

Prices for bark shingles are comparable to other high-grade wood siding, but since the bark never needs maintenance and lasts at least one hundred years, an investment in bark siding soon becomes a bargain for the home or business owner.

Education Through Travel

The McCurry’s regularly make time to travel the world seeking examples of architecture and design that uses indigenous materials. They found the Inca’s use of stone in Peru, “fascinating,” the East African bandas, or round huts with thatched roofs, “inspiring,” and the bark-covered rustic cottage on the grounds of Leed’s Castle on the British Isles offered a hint of where early European settlers to the Southern Appalachians may have gleaned their idea to use tree bark as siding.

“One of the things about traveling is that it makes you more organic in your thinking,” says Marty McCurry. “It’s very critical for us to study indigenous cultures and how they extrude materials from the land and harvest things from nature in their most pure form to build structures specifically for their need at hand. Their structures seem to flow out of the environment, so the lesson for me is how can I come back and do the same thing with the business we have?”

“We are constantly in search of ways to blend architecture into the environment, using the least intrusive methods and materials,” he goes on. “You can drive around Blowing Rock or Asheville and you see more and more people and more and more new construction that uses materials and colors not found near the site, which makes it stand out. The very thing we care about most in the mountains is what we’re going to destroy if we don’t take care of what we have.”

Marty emphasizes that the bark siding is created from a formerly wasted natural resource. “That’s how we like to do things,” he says. “We want to create as minimal an environmental impact as we possibly can.”

The Result

The McCurrys have used poplar bark siding to clad their own 1950’s era bungalow-style home. And in addition to dozens of other private residences, Highland Craftsmen bark siding has been used to side the Eseeola Lodge and Linville Resort in Linville, The Farm and Diamond Creek in Banner Elk, and the Ragged Garden Inn and Blowing Rock Methodist Church in Blowing Rock, among many examples.

In addition to bark siding, Highland Craftsmen also produces high-grade sheets and panels for interior applications, mantle pieces, custom furniture, and handrails and posts fashioned from a variety of local woods.

“We have always been interested in doing things that make us feel connected to nature and the mountains we love,” says Chris, “and supplying builders with environmentally-sound and beautiful materials is the ideal business for us.”

To see photos and learn more about Highland Craftsmen, Inc., visit their website at www.highlandcraftsmen.com or call them at (828) 295-0796.

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