A tree that can bear lumber is a terrible thing to waste. Yet, according to a USDA Forest Service study, every year an estimated 3.8 billion board feet of lumber that could potentially be milled from urban trees is instead cut into firewood, mulched, chipped or deposited into a landfill.
It’s this sad realization that so much good wood is going to waste that has drawn a growing number of land managers, tree care professionals, sawyers, woodworkers and even architects to the urban wood movement. These forward-thinking professionals are forming partnerships and forging local networks to put urban trees felled by insect infestation, storm damage, urban development and mortality to their best possible use, including lumber, furniture and other wood products whenever possible.
A unique appeal of urban wood is that every landscape and community tree has a story to tell. Furniture made from a tree removed from a backyard, for example, becomes a one-of-a-kind family heirloom. Urban wood products also lend themselves to source local/buy local ideals.
Custom woodworkers because of their creativity, versatility and ability to quickly adapt to market trends, are well positioned to profit from the urban wood movement. Anyone looking for successful business models should check out the websites of these urban wood practitioners operating in the Midwest.
Wood From The Hood, Urban Wood Lumberyard
The Urban Wood Lab is an unconventional lumber business run by Hoppe Tree Service in Milwaukee, WI. Hoppe has offered tree care and removal services since 1972. The Urban Wood Lab was born when owner August Hoppe realized he could start an adjunct business selling milled lumber to local woodworkers by putting the logs his tree service removed to their “highest and best use.” The Urban Lab includes a sawmilling and kiln drying operation to support its retail store and showroom that displays live slabs and lumber of ash, honey locust, oak, walnut, and dozens of other species.
The above photo epitomizes the urban wood movement. That’s the urban lumberyard belonging to Wood From The Hood (WFTH) against the backdrop of the Minneapolis skyline. The seed for launching WFTH was planted when Rick and Cindy Siewert watched an old ash tree, infested by the emerald ash borer, be removed from their backyard. Rick Siewert is also the owner of Siewert Cabinet, a more than 50-year-old manufacturer employing 30 people and long-time member of the Architectural Woodworking Institute. Today WFTH has a sawmilling and kiln drying operation that feeds lumber into the Siewert Cabinet plant to make everything from live edge cribbage boards sold at retail and online, to commercial conference tables. WFTH processed approximately 100,000 board feet each year and annual sales are approaching $1 million.
Andrew Zimmern 's Kitchen, Wall Street Journal, Featuring Wood From The Hood Cutting Board, photo credit: Ackerman Grube
The Urban Lumber Company of Kansas City, MO, has been converting urban trees that would otherwise have been discarded as waste into usable lumber since 2005. Its services include custom sawmilling by the hour, ecommerce sales of kiln-dried lumber and an online exchange where consumers and custom woodworkers can connect.
Through the Sustainable Wood Recovery Initiative and MSU Shadows Collection, Michigan State University of East Lansing, graduates felled campus trees into lumber, dining tables, diploma frames and more. MSU partners with local woodworkers to produce collectible products ranging from business card holders ($25) and diploma-sized frames ($50 to $150) to an American elm Waterford side Table ($750) and walnut coffee and occasional table set ($2,150). Products are sold online through the MSU Surplus Store.
The origin of i2i Design of Wood Dale, IL has a familiar ring; it started in a garage. Today, Ken and Lynn Wier run a company focused on tapping Chicago’s urban forest to handcraft wood products. i2i Design’s biggest customer is Starbucks. The company has furnished tables, chairs, counters, wall cladding and more for dozens of Starbucks outlets. In addition, i2i’s customers include grocery stores, restaurants, and home owners who want to preserve the memories of a family tree by having something made from it.
i2i Design, Project Using Urban Wood
More than likely, the biggest obstacle most custom woodworkers would face hopping on the urban wood bandwagon is finding a source of supply. A good starting point is to network with local tree care companies and sawyers.
To help point woodworkers in the right direction, the USDA Forest Service supported the development of the Urban Wood User’s Resource Guide, a compendium of national and state urban wood sources, plus informative publications and research reports on urban wood utilization.
By: Rich Christianson
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