Why Your Next Wood Project Should Be Made Out of These Salvaged City Trees

Ann Arbor’s Urbanwood Project is taking the reclaimed lumber trend to the next level

Urban woodWood means home to me. Even the smell of the lumber section at Home Depot conjures up childhood memories — usually of me sitting on one of those orange carts, begging to go home.

My father spends a lot of time working on wood boats. Not just any wood boats. He likes to restore Chris-Crafts. For those unfamiliar, they’re sort of the classic Chevy Corvettes of the boating world — sought-after antiques with powerful engines and a strong cult following.

I was raised with a respect for craftsmanship and a good piece of mahogany. So, when I heard about the Urbanwood Project, I was interested. But it wasn’t just the wood that piqued my interest, it was where it came from.

“What most people think of when they think of reclaimed and salvaged wood is wood that has already been used for another purpose — wood that comes out of a barn, or wood that comes out of a building that’s been demolished,” says Jessica Simons, coordinator at Urbanwood Project.

Instead, the project creates lumber out of urban trees, ones torn down for reasons ranging from storm damage, to those removed for construction or redevelopment.

Typically, these trees would be destined for a wood chipper, turned into mulch, or sometimes even thrown in landfills. The project, overseen by Recycle Ann Arbor and founded around 2006, uses a network of local tree removal specialists and sawmills to give the trees new life, and the mills new business. It’s a chain reaction that gets removed trees to local mills, which then take finished lumber to the Ann Arbor ReUse Center where they are sold at the Birge Urbanwood Center, named after a retired Recycle Ann Arbor board member.

It’s a win-win. Not only do the local lumber mills benefit, but a portion of the profits go back to the ReUse Center to help fund other recycling and reuse programs.

“Over time, I’ve been able to see what this means for the community, what this means for the people who do the work, and for building this sort of local economy that is really meaningful for the people here, too,” Simons says.

As the daughter of a man who knew good lumber, I wondered how well the wood would hold up compared to commercially farm-grown wood.

We decided to give Urbanwood the “Dad Test.”

On an early Saturday morning, we hopped in my father’s Ford Ranger and, in typical dad fashion, arrived at the ReUse Center well before they opened at 10 a.m.

Once inside, we made our way to the back of the warehouse to the Birge Urbanwood Center. There, we found rows upon rows of vertically laid pieces of lumber, marked by white signs indicating the various species types. Mammoth pieces priced at over $1,000 laid against the back walls of the sections. One particularly impressive piece of black walnut larger than my wingspan caught Dad by surprise, warranting a well-deserved “wow” as he ran his hand over the grain.

While some mills’ sections are stacked with planks of standard woods, others stock more unconventional selections.

“We like to showcase the individuality of the different businesses that are involved,” Simons explains. “We don’t limit ourselves to what are typically popular-commodity products for wood. Yes, we will still have walnut, and oak, and maple, and cherry, which are going to be popular anywhere, but we offer products in the full variety of trees that are removed in our communities.”

Because most of these trees were grown for landscaping or aesthetic purposes, they exhibit traits uncommon from traditionally produced lumber. Some of the pieces are marked with odd colorations, swirling patterns, or random series of knots.

“We’ve discovered that there is really a market among artists and home woodworkers, people who are doing home improvement projects, where they like wood to have character,” Simons says.

The company’s website, urbanwood.org, is a testament to that. Stories on the site range from artists or fine furniture makers who buy their raw products at Urbanwood and turn them into anything from potential family heirlooms and bookshelves to a homeowner who had red and white oak trees that had to be removed while prepping their home site turned into wood flooring.

Now it was our turn to shop. After about a half-hour of searching, shuffling, and even sniffing, we settled on three huge boards: two pieces of vibrant red cedar and a large slab of dark, black walnut.

At home in the woodshop (garage), we hopped to work on our first project, a basic 11-by-14 picture frame. Knowing that I’m recording every step for this article, he repeats: “I’m more of a shipwright than a woodworker,” multiple times. Still, he confidently pencils his cut lines (after measuring twice, of course) and he’s off to the table saw.

Less than an hour later, four red cedar pieces are being pressed together with clamps and Dad’s ready to move on to something a little more fun — a little more complex.

Over the weekend, we build and finish three projects: the picture frame, a photobox, and a hefty hanging wine rack.

Aside from some minor warping and the occasional unfortunately placed knot, the wood was solid. So solid, that a particular piece of hefty black walnut used to make the wine rack stopped the table saw dead in its tracks.

After rubbing the finished pieces down with boiled linseed oil (a shipwright’s mainstay), the natural colors of the various woods came to life.

We sat for a while looking at our creations, tired and covered in sawdust, but satisfied with the results: three beautiful keepsakes made from wood once considered unusable.

A lot better than a pile of woodchips, I’d say.