Tom Lathrop: Flooring for 20,000 Houses

“How come you sawmill people are always crotchety?”

Tom Lathrop, a fifth-generation lumberman along with his brother Jim, has a quick response. “In the flooring business, you have a thousand pieces of machinery that can break at any minute. Monday morning, someone doesn’t come in because they have ‘issues.’ You’re playing catch up the rest of the week. Then it’s raining and you can’t deliver. You have a million factors to make your day miserable. And you wonder why we are crotchety?” Over the past 25 years, Tom Lathrop has produced flooring for over 20,000 houses. Flooring, that by all accounts, is the gold standard for hardwood floors. And he is not always crotchety. “Oh gosh! Today was a great day. We put out a lot of flooring.”

I’ve Tried to Do it Well

"Unless you really know the lumber business through and through, I’d advise you not to go into the flooring business. The learning curve is too expensive. If you do, you have to like what you do. You’re like farmers or bakers. They rarely get rich. They do it because it’s labor of love and a love of hard work. I never went to college and this is all I know how to do. But I’ve really thought about it and I’ve tried to do it well. I love what I do and I’m going to miss it. It’s all I have ever known."

Sawing an Unknown

"Anyone can run a machine. But can you take the best face off that board at the right thickness? That separates the men from the boys. You’re cutting into something you can’t see. You’re looking for clues like grain and a big, dark heart that means the tree has been struggling. Some people never develop the sense that you’re not just sawing the outside of the log. You’re sawing what you believe is behind it. You’re sawing an unknown. I still get fooled and I’ve sawn millions of board feet."

Detail photos from left to right, above: Exclusively Vermont uses only Vermont timber grown almost entirely within a 40-mile range of the mill; near right, Sam Hutchinson has sawn lumber for Tom Lathrop for years and instinctively understands how to slice the beams that Tom sends him; near left, computers can maximize yields but don’t detect defects like knots and lack the human eye to highlight the grain and character of each board; far left, Lathrop’s stocks 200 varieties of flooring in 15-plus wood species.