Certain materials are precious because of the unique combination of factors that lead to their existence.
The crushing pressure and intense heat that form diamonds, for example; or the layers upon layers of nacre that coat a grain of sand, turning it onto a pearl.
Ho Chi Minh City-based Justin Ephraim, the founder of Redux Wood, is on a mission to add underwater wood to that list. This uniquely beautiful material comes from rare tropical hardwood species that grew in forests, flooded during the creation of man-made freshwater lakes in Central America. After the trees themselves died, they remained submerged for decades.
Long seen as simply navigational hazards, the trees are finally being appreciated for the treasures they are. And with the combination of water and time, the trees have evolved their own distinct characteristics in shape, grain and texture. Harvested by local divers then dried and cut into large slabs billed as live-edge wood (meaning timber that retains its natural edge or visible bark as opposed to wood cut into symmetrical planks), the result is a handsome, ethically sourced product that is unlike anything obtainable from live growth.
“It’s amazing! You see a tiny dry twig sticking out of the water, but when you dive down you find an amazing 30 meter tall tree,” Justin explains. When pressed on his favorite wood, Justin names white mahogany for its two-toned grain. “My family calls it ‘pearl wood’ because its appearance reminds them of pearls – with the lights and darks making the wood appear almost iridescent.”
Starting out in forestry as a land surveyor on the North Shore Mountains of Vancouver, Canada some two decades ago, Justin later moved into wood construction, which led to a stint in real estate where he discovered his knack as a salesman. Combining his two passions, he joined a lumber distributor and wholesaler in Canada. Along the way, he met and married his wife who has family in Vietnam. When the recession struck, they decided to move to Vietnam, as they knew of the demand for lumber and wood products here. Initially, he worked for a lumber distributor but later, inspired by the growing local and regional economy, he opened his own lumber distribution company, Redux Wood. Justin sources his wood ethically and legally from around the world, ensuring all his products have CITES approval before importing to Vietnam. He learned the ins and outs of import regulations from his family here, who owns a large logistics and trading company. (The rice and sugar trade part of that company was turned over to Justin and his wife resulting in her gaining the title “Queen of Rice.”)
While Redux deals with many kinds of live-edge woods, most of Justin’s stock is underwater wood. From the start, Justin has felt an affinity for this special material, which needs to be handcrafted to truly honor the beauty and uniqueness of each piece. The work is time-intensive. Underwater wood takes about two years to dry. During that time it has to be warehoused carefully, and only after that can it be finished and traded. Because he first acquired underwater wood stock two and a half years ago, it has only recently become ready for finishing and marketing.
While his main business is distribution, Justin does make custom pieces for clients. Like an artist, he lets the wood tell him what it should become and works to reveal the natural beauty of the piece before adding legs to create a one-of-a-kind product. As he puts it: “You have to have an eye for it. You look at a rough slab and sense there is something special there. Then you start sanding and the full beauty is revealed.”
He takes as long as necessary to produce the best results, with a single table taking anywhere from one to six months to complete. Even though he has a team to do the initial work to his specifications, Justin finishes all the pieces himself.
Because many of the wood species Justin deals with are new to the Vietnamese market, some designers are initially unsure of how to use the wood. If he has one piece of advice for any retailer or designer interested in his pieces, it would be to simply “just try one.” It is just this approach that has paid off for him and inspired designers to give new life to old wood.
* Images provided by Reduxwood