In a converted Chevron station in Portland's Southeast District, Merrimac Ironclad's maiden voyage is well under way. A quiet 300-foot retail...

Share story

PORTLAND — In a converted Chevron station in Portland’s Southeast District, Merrimac Ironclad’s maiden voyage is well under way.

A quiet 300-foot retail space connects to a bustling wood shop where three 30-something Georgia transplants are tightening the hinges on a 7-foot-tall hutch covered in vintage ceiling tins. This cleverly tasteful modern-meets-turn-of-the-century furniture company — owned by pals Bob Freeman, John Janulis and Clyde Wooten — is steadily picking up steam, and devoted customers.

Since it opened in September, word has gotten out. Besides steady foot traffic in its shop, high-end French Quarter Linens has started selling Merrimac pieces at their Portland stores.

“Our work is a good blend of art and function,” Wooten says. “No two pieces are the same.”

Merrimac makes clean-lined credenzas, hutches, bookcases and coffee tables by wrapping various types of metals around its own wood frame designs.

How it began

The idea to wrap furniture in metal came to Freeman eight years ago when he purchased 5,000 sheets of old tin from a demolished Athens, Ga., department store.

At first, he experimented with tin-covered decorative boxes. The idea grew from there, and he and Janulis began moonlighting as furniture makers in addition to their carpentry jobs.

When the two decided they wanted a major change last fall, they set their sights on artsy and progressive Portland. Their friend Wooten also made the move, helping to mastermind the business launch.

Freeman named the furniture company after the iron-clad Civil War ship on which his great-great-grandfather served. Merrimac furniture shares its namesake’s graceful lines and battle-ready sturdiness.

Merrimac Ironclad Design

1216 S.E. Division, Portland, Ore.; 503-239-4766; www.merrimacironclad.com

“Our pieces look old, but they are rock-solid,” Janulis said. “You could park a car on top of one.”

Reclaimed for uniqueness

In the hands of these inspired craftsmen, ceiling tins (both vintage and new reproductions), copper and galvanized aluminum (hammered with their own patterns) transform finish-grade plywood into one-of-a-kind objects of desire. When possible, they incorporate reclaimed materials, often reusing hardware, ceiling tins and doors from salvage yards.

Most of their recycled finds are shipped from “connections” in Georgia, where dilapidated buildings are plentiful and salvage materials are less picked over than here in the Northwest.

And of course, these guys aren’t above Dumpster-diving for unusual items. “Sometimes we build a whole piece around a unique door we find,” Janulis said.

For example, in their shop, an old glass cabinet door — now attached to a 5-foot-tall copper-clad hutch ($1,200) — remains exactly how they found it.

Slaves to detail, the partners meticulously coat each piece’s interior in old-car inspired shades of blue and green paint, and trim every edge in metal for a clean look that prevents chipping.

Mix and match

Merrimac pieces mix well with many styles and are equally at home in traditional and modern spaces.

Freeman recommends grouping a Merrimac piece with softer, more conventional furniture items, since theirs are statement pieces that tend to dominate a room.

Freeman explains his obsession for making furniture this way: “It’s an extension of sculpture. It’s about how an object can have a personality of its own.”

Furniture and art accents

Merrimac’s small retail space is packed full of marvels. The striking metal-clad furniture pieces are adorned with vintage glass jars and old metal fans.

Friends provide the graphic and playful artwork hanging on the store’s walls. These paintings, created by a half-dozen artists working in the Southeast, are available for commission.

And then there’s the furniture art for sale. A Merrimac ceiling-tin-framed mirror sells for $150. A silver two-door credenza, clad in star-patterned reproduction ceiling tin, goes for $700. A hammered-copper coffee table with a bamboo top retails for $375. An enormous bookcase covered in reclaimed ceiling tins costs $1,900. For those seeking a piece with specific dimensions, custom ordering is an option, too.

The craftsmen enjoy working with a variety of materials, including reclaimed heart pine and old-growth fir, when requested.

“We like commission work,” Janulis says. “We love a challenge.”

The Craft, an occasional feature in digs, profiles an artisan or craftsperson in the Northwest. Send us ideas at homegarden@seattletimes.com.