No More Chainsaw Massacres: The Comeback of the Urban Sawyer

By: Matt Grocoff , Contributing Writer
In: Old Houses, Home Improvement Tips, House Styles, Green Renovations, Garden And Lawncare, Historic Preservation

Thanks to my buddy Paul Hickman I know where my new picket fence came from: an oak tree on the corner of Maple Rd. and Highway 23 a few miles from my house; it fell during an ice storm last February.

When we restored our historic home to net zero energy, not only did we want to make it energy efficient, but we wanted to use as few new materials as possible.  Using less is part of the appeal of owning an old home.  As during any renovation there were times when we needed to build something new: a wall for the new bath, replacement balusters and a newel post for the front porch, and a new picket fence.

It would have been really easy to drive over to the big box store and buy cheap, low-grade wood that was clear cut from a forest thousands and thousands of miles away.  Yet right nearby the city was removing trees from parks, neighbors were cutting trees that fell in storms, and the utility company was trimming or cutting trees from around power lines.

We’re talking good wood here: walnut, ash, sycamore, sugar maple, and other hard and exotic woods.  The saddest part was that almost all of it was going into chippers, cut into firewood, torched in burn piles or sent to a landfill.

But, there is a revolution underway among urban sawyers across the country who are harvesting dead and downed trees, milling it into high-quality lumber and selling it locally for use by those smart enough to find them.  You can make urban wood into just about anything you can imagine.  I’ve seen cabinets made from ash trees killed by the emerald ash borer, a staircase made from a dead walnut tree removed from a backyard, a canoe paddle made from a persimmon tree, and now . . . my solid oak picket fence.

My friend Paul says, “designing a beautiful object is one thing, but having it tell a story is something special.”   More importantly, urban wood is helping people source wood that isn’t damaging the environment and is making good use out of something that would have be treated as waste.

And it’s also helping local economies.  Paul is now branching out (oh dear - that’s a lousy pun) from high-end furniture into Urban Ashes quality picture frames made from locally sourced wood from trees that grew on streets, in yards, in parks and in urban areas.  Several frames in our house are from trees that grew right nearby and would have been considered scrap.  I’m certain they look better on our walls than they would in the local dump.

When we build our new bookshelf and add the railing and newel post to the front porch steps, we’ll give Jeff Tervol, one of our local sawyers a call and see what he’s got in stock.  I don’t know if it will be ash, maple, cedar or some other amazing wood.   But, I can guarantee it will be from a salvaged local tree.

VIDEO: You can see a video about Urban Wood at Greenovation.TV.  Here’s a few links to find out about urban wood in your area:

Southeastern Michigan (http://urbanwood.org),

Mid-Atlantic region (http://www.urbanwoodexchange.org),

Los Angeles (http://www.urbanwoods.net),

Chicago (http://illinoisurbanwood.org)

Seattle and San Francisco (http://www.urbanhardwoods.com)

Photos courtesy Paul Hickman and Peter Hoffman

Matt Grocoff, Esq. LEED is host of Greenovation.TV, a contributor to The Environment Report on Public Radio and the green renovation expert for Old House Web. His home is America’s oldest net-zero energy home and was honored as one of USA Today’s “Seven Best Green Homes of 2010″ and Preservation Project of the Year.  He has been featured in hundreds of publications and news shows including USA TODAY, Washington Post, Detroit Free Press, Miami Herald, Preservation Magazine, Solar Today, Fox Business News, Huffington Post and more.  Join him on Twitter and Facebook