“The flooring was made from trees we cut down before we built our house,” the homeowner proudly told her guests. “Top that for cachet!” she added to herself.
Our catty homeowner is correct. Flooring made from the trees on your building site or from trees that your city had to remove is very unusual. But not because such wood is rare.
To the contrary, the number of hardwood trees cut every year by municipalities and private homeowners is huge. If the logs were sawn into boards instead of being mulched or tossed into a landfill, the volume, in board feet, would be equal to about two-thirds the amount of hardwood lumber produced annually in the United States, said Stephen Bratkovich, a forest products specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service in St. Paul, Minn.
Sensing a potential home builder bonanza — hardwood is used for floors, doors, trim and cabinetry as well as furniture — I set out to find out why such a vast wood source has not been tapped. After interviews with forest product specialists, urban foresters, urban timber experts, owners of private tree services, commercial timber sawmill owners, pallet makers, recyclers, municipal administrators and sawyers (people who saw logs into boards), the answer was clear, if disheartening.
Urban timber cannot be supplied in the quantities and quality demanded by the high-volume, low-margin, commercial hardwood industry.
To the average suburban resident, all trees look attractive, but a commercial logger sees things differently. A job that entails only three or four trees — a large number for a private homeowner or municipality — will not interest him. To justify the expense of bringing in a crew and large tree-cutting equipment a commercial logger wants at least 50. And, he wants to take out the 50 trees in one day, not spend an entire day on one tree because of the time-consuming, daunting logistics that confront an urban tree service crew. They must avoid hitting power lines while staying clear of houses, gardens and driveways (a 500-pound section of a tree hitting an asphalt driveway on a hot summer day will leave a big dent).
To avoid these hazards, an urban tree service crew may have to bring down the tree in small chunks. This makes the job even less attractive to the commercial logger. He wants to bring down each tree with its trunk intact because it will be worth more. But even when urban trees can be taken down without cutting up their trunks, a commercial logger will still shun them because they often have large crowns (the part of the tree that includes the branches and leaves) and shorter, squattier trunks that are full of knots. In a commercially managed forest, the trees are closer together, and they have to compete for sunlight. Their branches go up, not out and their trunks are long and straight. As a consequence, a commercially harvested hardwood tree yields, on average, about twice as much millable wood as an urban hardwood tree, Bratkovich said.
And then there’s the “hardware” issue — all the nails, sections of metal fencing and even horseshoes that are commonly found in urban timber. To a commercial sawmill owner, these are an expensive headache. Not only do they damage the blades of the large sawing equipment used in commercial sawmills, everything stops while the blades are replaced. Clinton, Mich., palette maker Bob Moore’s experience is typical. He recently tried using urban timber in his factory because palette-grade commercial lumber has been in short supply. The hardware in the wood caused work stoppages as often as three times a day, costing him several thousand dollars in repairs and labor costs while the plant was idle and cutting his daily output by two-thirds.
Finally there’s a quality issue. When timber logs are milled into boards, the boards are graded according to their visual characteristics. The two top grades, which are clear of visual defects like knot holes, command a premium. The lower two “utility” grades, which have “character” marks such as knot holes, small holes and mineral streaks, are worth less. Urban timber is largely utility grade, and this also makes it less attractive to commercial loggers.
When urban lumber is pitched to small, localized markets, however, it’s a different story. For the right audience, the provenance of particular trees — their origins and history — conveys a value. When the wood is from a person’s own property or the town where they live, the finished product will be treasured no matter how much character the wood has, said Sam Sherrill, an urban planner at the University of Cincinnati. Sherrill himself offers a case in point. For the last eight years he has been making furniture pieces from a 500-year-old, 11-foot-diameter burr oak that no commercial mill would touch for members of an extended family that has owned the land where the tree stood for more than 150 years.
Sherrill said that a custom furniture or cabinet maker who buys wood in small quantities might also want some species of urban timber, but not until the wood has been processed — milled into rough-sawn boards, kiln dried and milled a second time into a smooth, workable board that a craftsman can work with. When a tree is just a log on the ground, the wood has no value at all, and a tree service’s charges include the cost of hauling it away. Many homeowners think the opposite should be true — the person hauling the wood away should pay them. In fact, Sherrill said, the value of a tree in someone’s yard has nothing to do with wood. The value derives from the amenities the tree provides — enhancing the look of the house and providing shade in summer. Once a tree hits the ground, its value plummets to zero, but it can be recycled and given to a person or organization that can use it.
The U.S. Forest Service has been working with municipalities around the country, helping them to set up local programs to do just that — recycle felled hardwood trees into useable hardwood lumber and other products. Southeast Michigan has presented an unusual opportunity in this regard. The state has quarantined all ash trees in 21 counties to prevent the spread of the emerald ash borer, an invasive beetle from Asia that kills ash trees, but does not destroy the wood. Within the 21 counties, most municipalities are removing thousands of ash trees from public lands and encouraging homeowners to do the same.
To recycle as much of this ash as possible, the Forestry Service-funded Southeast Michigan Resource Conservation and Development Council (SMRCDC) has been working with local tree services to keep the ash tree trunks intact when they take down trees. This group has also provided grants to some of the tree services to purchase small sawmills and kilns to turn the ash logs into marketable hardwood lumber. The ash that cannot be milled is ground into mulch and used for landscaping or as a biomass fuel at an electric-generating facility in Flint, Mich., which is jointly operated by CMS Energy and Primary Power International and serves 25,000 households.
The City of Ann Arbor’s Recycle Center has turned some of this ash into hardwood flooring for its demonstration Environmental House. From this experience staff member Jason Bing has determined that the flooring can be made and sold to the public at a price that is competitive with commercially made ash flooring. As more of the ash flooring becomes available, Bing is hopeful that local home builders and remodelers will start to offer it to their clients.
For a land developer, recycling the trees on his building sites would seem to be a golden marketing opportunity. Turning them into entry flooring or something else for each house would be a hit with buyers. And, in doing this the developer would also garner lots of free publicity.
If you have to remove trees to build your house, how do you go about turning them into flooring or furniture? Engaging a tree service to cut them down is easy — just look in the yellow pages or check the Internet. Your builder may also recommend one that he has worked with. The other trades involved are more unusual, and you’re more likely to find them by word of mouth.
After your trees have been cut down, you’ll need a sawyer — a person who saws logs into rough-cut boards — with a portable sawmill who can come to your property and mill your logs on the spot. The tree service will likely know a sawyer in your area.
Next you’ll need a person who owns a kiln in which you can dry the wood. The sawyer may have one himself. If not, he will know who does, and, for an added charge, he can transport your boards to the kiln.
After the wood is dried, which can take one to two months, depending on the thickness of the boards, the wood will need additional millwork before it’s ready to be made into flooring. The kiln owner may have the expertise and equipment to do this. If not, you need to take the dried lumber to the last person in the chain, the craftsman who will make the flooring or furniture for you. The sawyer will know the local craftspeople in your area because they buy wood from him. Local architects and builders may also know local craftsmen, but they are less likely to know the trades who would be dealing with your trees initially. Some sawyers, including John Haling of Whitmore Lake, Mich., have the equipment, facilities and expertise to take your trees from logs to finished flooring.
How many trees would you need for flooring? More than you might think. Haling said he would need 12 trees, each one 18 inches in diameter with a trunk at least 10 feet long to make 1,200 square feet of hardwood flooring, enough for the first floor of an average-sized, 2,400-square-foot house. If your trees are smaller than that, you would need more of them. On rare occasion, though, you might need only one. In southeast Michigan where Haling works, he said he has sometimes worked with trees that are big as 60 inches in diameter. With one that big, he could make 1,200 square feet of flooring using a piece of the trunk that is only about 10 feet long.
How long does the entire process take? From felled trees to floorboards usually takes about four to five months, Haling said. If you have all the trades lined up and have the trees taken down about a month before construction starts, your flooring should be ready to install when you reach that point in the construction sequence.
Questions, queries? Katherine Salant can be contacted at www.katherinesalant.com.