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Merced's Metcalf gives new life to old wood

Marcus Metcalf loves making furniture but don't expect it to be smooth, shiny or elegant. Metcalf's forte is fashioning rough-hewn tables, mantles and chairs out of wood from tumbledown barns and wine barrels.

The longtime Mercedian and proprietor of Metcalf Builders is a family man, high school teacher and craftsman whose passion is to take barn wood and wine barrels and turn them into something useful once again. He recently became a certified naturalist and takes the green movement goal of repurposing and reusing castoff materials very seriously.

"I am driven by a passion to reclaim these old materials," Metcalf said. "I don't stick to a particular design. Most of my furniture is bulky, substantial in shape and more masculine. People can see the craftsmanship and that makes me feel good. It's gratifying when others appreciate it."

Ali Quisenberry of Merced bought some wine barrel chairs and a side table that Metcalf donated to a church school auction. They are now prized elements of her outdoor patio.
"When I saw them, I loved them. They're comfortable. I would love to have a whole room of his furniture at some point. I'm impressed with the craftsmanship and durability of his furniture," Quisenberry said.

Metcalf said finding old derelict barns or wine barrels isn't easy. It takes time to find the old  barns and develop relationships with their owners. And it's hard to compete with larger companies who swoop down on a property to quickly demolish that centuries-old structure that once housed bales of hay, a vintage John Deere tractor or other long-since-bypassed agricultural implements. 

"Finding creative ways to reuse stuff is a fun challenge," Metcalf said. "The lumber in many structures built in the 1900s through the 1930s is from massive trees before logging was regulated. It feels like looking back at history; it has a story behind it. That's the appeal for me in making furniture. I'm a tree hugger and I would rather use these materials than see them languish in a dump or turn into mulch."

Metcalf's foray into furniture making began about five years ago when his wife Karen wanted him to make her a kitchen table. Other rustic furniture pieces subsequently joined the Metcalf household, including an alcove table holding their telephone and charging station in a hallway.

"I have a lot of things I want him to build me, like a fireplace mantle, front porch with a deck and benches for our dining table," Karen said.  "I'm all for supporting him; it's neat he uses his hands and isn't afraid to try new things. I think he has a talent. It makes him happy and that makes me happy. I like the rustic look."

If Metcalf can't find the vintage woods he prefers, modern timbers from hardware retailers can be pressed into service. Various tools are used to replicate the rough-sawn, hand-hewn character of vintage furniture. Nail holes, gouge marks, chisel and saw marks, worm holes and other vintage touches can be duplicated with hand tools, including wire brushes and woodworking planes.
Metcalf's favorite wood is white oak which is rare in this area. He loves its rugged texture.

"The antique, distressed look is still the rage," Metcalf said. "You don't need very complex tools. The character is part of it." While he has a gigsaw, table saw, circular saw and router in his small household garage, the hand tools add the distinctive touches, he admits. Outside the garage, sawhorses and makeshift workbenches are used when a project is under way.

Metcalf, 35,  said most of his advertising is through word of mouth. With four children from 9 months to 6 years of age and his full-time job as a chemistry, physics and Sierra Nevada teacher at Atwater High School, time for woodworking can be at a premium. 

Catherine Nutcher of Merced had Metcalf do several furniture projects for her in the past. He has redone her kitchen cabinets and fireplace.

"He is an artist," Nutcher said. "It's better than going to a big box store. I'm looking forward to him making me a table for the dining room. He's quite talented."

Metcalf said he doesn't just stamp out the same design over and over. In fact each piece he crafts is unique, one of a kind. 

"People like the uniqueness," Metcalf said. "They don't want cookie-cutter things. There is no ornateness to it. It's a blend of different styles from utilitarian to basic."

Dining or buffet tables seem to be Metcalf's specialty but Adirondack chairs, pergolas or patio covers are becoming popular commissions, along with fireplace surrounds and side cabinets.
Marianne Levy of Merced said Metcalf did a fireplace mantle for her with "beautiful old barnwood." She was going for that rustic look and said he nailed it, so to speak.

Metcalf can be reached at

— Doane Yawger of Merced is a retired newspaper reporter and editor.