Suppose you wanted some wooden columns about 20 feet tall and custom-turned in one piece from straight tree trunks? There aren’t too many places you could find such a thing. Virginia builder Tim Cox had that problem last year, while building a high-end custom home in the Appalachian foothills. His project called for 40 columns in a range of lengths to support the beams for a sloped roof. He turned to an unlikely source: The Spar Shop in Portland, Ore., which builds masts and spars for historic wooden ships. The shop’s woodworking team uses a massive “tracer lathe” (1) that can turn wooden masts in lengths up to 122 feet.

The top and bottom diameters of all the columns in Cox’s project had to match exactly, requiring a specific taper for each length — not an easy task for your average wood shop, but routine for the Spar Shop. “We went out and found the red cedar trees, turned them, and shipped them to him on the East Coast,” says Spar Shop director Kent Wall. “We...

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