MERCER — Bjarki Gunnarson and Josh Saltmarsh brush wood shavings off a plank of freshly cut pine as it comes through a machine that smoothes the board.
They measure the plank, check it for imperfections and place it on a growing stack of boards that eventually will make its way into homes and building interiors around the country.
The two friends, recent graduates of Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, are the new owners of Wood Idea and The Wood Mill of Maine, sister companies that specialize in select-grade pine flooring as well as pine and cedar paneling and planks.
They are also young entrepreneurs who have found their way into one of Maine’s most important industries and are learning the trade by working with a veteran in the business.
According to Maine State Forester Doug Denico of the Maine Forestry Service, forestry — including timber harvesting, flooring and related activities — comprises the largest industry in Maine’s environmental-based industries.
“It’s huge in the natural resource sector. No one but tourism reaches what we contribute to Maine’s economy,” he said.
Forest industries are responsible for 30 percent of the state’s gross domestic product, according to the Maine Forestry Service.
It is also an industry that has a potential for job growth, as many of Maine’s forest industry employees are nearing retirement age, Denico said.
In December, Gunnarson, 25, and Saltmarsh, 24, came across the mill while looking for a business opportunity.
Neither one said he had ever had experience with wood or the flooring industry.
Gunnarson, who is originally from River Vale, N.J., studied finance and the German language in college. Saltmarsh, originally from Wayland, Mass., was a finance major with an environmental science minor.
Both said they had worked different jobs, including insurance sales at New York Life in Boston for Saltmarsh and managing the Manhattan Sailing School in New York for Gunnarson, before deciding to do something different.
“We just put our heads together and said, ‘What are we capable of doing?’” Gunnarson said. He said he had gotten tired of life in the city and knew he wanted to move to either Vermont, New Hampshire or Maine.
“I wanted to live outside of a major city. I was just kind of over the city and the kind of people I had to deal with. Here I met a lot of people I liked,” he said.
Among them were Sue and Mychael Bartholf, who sold the mill to the two friends, rented them a house in Mercer and have served as mentors in the business.
Mychael Bartholf, who started Wood Idea 23 years ago and bought the Wood Mill in 1999, said he was retiring and looking to sell the business when the two friends came along. Wood Idea specializes in wood pine paneling and floors and sells products across the country, while the Wood Mill of Maine has a more local customer base. It sells cedar and pine planks and also offers finishing services for rough-cut lumber mostly in Somerset and Franklin counties.
“I liked their energy and enthusiasm,” Bartholf said of the two friends. He sold the businesses to them and agreed to act as a mentor as they transitioned into ownership.
Most of the winter was spent learning the business as the friends prepare for the summer, the busiest time of year for the companies.
A typical day starts around 7 a.m. and might end around 9 p.m., Saltmarsh said — that is, unless they are traveling to select wood.
The mill is best known for its 20-inch-wide pine planks that are made from trees harvested all over New England. The planks’ width makes them unusual and highly desirable for floors and paneling, Bartholf said. He said the company originally started to produce replicas of the kind of planks found in New England homes that date to the 1800s or earlier.
The planks are made from wood that is free of knots — circles that are created where branches grow — and it can be hard to find trees that are wide enough to cut the planks from.
Once the logs are selected, logs go to a sawyer to be cut into rough planks. At the mill, the planks are placed in a drying kiln for a cycle of 15 days to remove moisture from the wood.
Moisture can cause the wood to crack or bend, said Gunnarson, so it is important that it is reduced to about 15 percent saturation for wood logs and six to eight percent for the planks.
The planks are then run through a machine that sands them and creates a smooth finish. Gunnarson and Saltmarsh see the process through the delivery stage and also deliver to customers.
They said they’ve made a few mistakes along the way but are enjoying the learning process.
One of the biggest challenges is figuring out the business — keeping track of the wood they purchase and what is turned into waste as the new planks are produced, Saltmarsh said.
Bartholf and others who have been in the industry for a long time say it is all part of the learning process.
Jula Sampson owns A.E. Sampson & Son, a natural-wood flooring company in Warren, with her husband, Paul. She said that a background in management and marketing has helped her run the company that was originally started by her husband’s father in 1979, but that most of what she does she learned by doing.
“There’s no school you can go to. You just have to get in there are do it,” she said.
Rachel Ohm — 612-2368