Fallen street trees rise again as specialty lumber

By Steve Chawkins
Santa Barbara, CA (February 8, 2009)- In the foothills of Santa Barbara, a former stuntman and onetime sea-urchin diver named Rob Bjorklund turns fallen city trees into flooring, mantels, plaques and massive, irregularly shaped conference tables that appear to be suited for a wizard’s laboratory. He uses oaks toppled by storms; eucalyptuses leveled by bulldozers; trees taken down for being too old, too sick, too close to foundations, too hard on sidewalks. Many otherwise would be cut for firewood or buried in a landfill.

“All these awesome logs!” said Bjorklund, 52, who tends to sprinkle his conversation with exclamations when he talks about wood. Bjorklund, part of a growing nationwide movement to reuse urban trees, operates a sawmill on a 90-acre spread that has been in his family for four generations.
On any given day, he said, about 20 trees fall to disease or development in Santa Barbara alone, and one or two of them are valuable enough to recycle. According to some studies, fallen urban trees can provide up to 30 percent of all the lumber used in the United States. “People think, ‘When I want lumber, I’ll go to the lumberyard,’ ” said Eric Oldar, a retired California forestry official who helped start the state’s urban wood recycling program in the 1990s. “They don’t perceive the trees in their yards as part of a forest.”
Bjorklund doesn’t cut trees down; he saws them into boards or slabs after they’ve been felled. A jumble of trunks, stumps and huge limbs sits in an arroyo on his ranch, left by tree-trimmers eager to avoid fees at municipal dumps. On occasion, Bjorklund, who wears a sweat-stained hat with a homemade rattlesnake band, heads for town in an old truck to retrieve dead trees he’s heard about from arborists or friends.
“A commercial sawmill won’t touch them because of the impurities,” he said. “There are a lot of strange things in the urban forest- nails and barbed wire, bolts that shatter your saw blade.”
From a great old oak in Montecito, Bjorklund extracted a rusty wire cable and a beehive still dripping with honey and wax. He also found a grapefruit-size rock that had been inserted deep in a hole – Bjorklund figures a boy did it- and swallowed up by wood decades ago. Finally, a rat ran from the trunk as the whirring blade bore down. “It was just a battle,” he said. Similar struggles go on across the country.
At the home of a corporate chief executive in the suburbs of Cincinnati, Sam Sherrill was part of a crew that set off explosives to blow apart a downed oak 6 feet across, making it easier to cut the wood. “It was a weird thing to do, but I’m glad we did it,” said Sherrill, a retired professor and author of a guide called “Harvesting Urban Timber. We got beautiful, one-of-a-kind boards that are ‘book-matched,’ or mirror images of each other. Among other things, the family now has two terrific tables that are 8 inches thick. It’ll mean something to them.”
Throughout the Midwest, millions of street trees have been rendered into arboreal road kill by an unrelenting bug called the emerald leaf borer. More and more, the fallen ash trees have drawn craftsmen who turn them into furniture so elegant that some of it is on display in a traveling exhibition put together by the Chicago Furniture Designers Association.
A few municipal governments also salvage toppled trees. In Lompoc, Calif., parks and urban forestry manager Cindy McCall said the city annually saves $100,000 in dumping fees by using native wood in its bleachers, benches, signs, City Hall seating areas and some of its workers’ desks – including her own. “Why should we clear-cut the Amazon when we can work toward using the woods we have?” she asked.
The streets deliver a dizzying variety of species, but not enough at any one time to guarantee the uniform appearance offered by commercial growers. That cultivated tidiness frustrates Bjorklund, who sold portable sawmills before starting his business, Local Wood, two years ago. “Every knot, every crack, every imperfection is wood love,” he said. “That’s what makes wood real. There’s an energy to it: If you’ve got a thick, awesome wood desk, it balances out all the electronic-y, plastic-y stuff you put on it.”
Salvagers of street trees never know when, what or how much they’ll get. Most of the wood has not been certified for structural uses. It tends to be more expensive than store-bought lumber. And drying- Bjorklund has a solar kiln- can take many months. “Contractors want what they’re used to- oak, walnut, Douglas fir,” he said. “Boring, boring, boring!”
In a floor Bjorklund constructed for Santa Barbara’s Environmental Defense Coalition, the boards are multihued, fashioned from black walnut, black acacia, yellow acacia, sycamore, ash, pine and blue gum eucalyptus. Last summer, he installed an all-eucalyptus floor- a rarity given that the tree is often considered a nuisance- for the Santa Barbara Contractors Association.
“It shows what can happen with local materials,” said Dan George, the group’s president. “We’ve had classroom tours, architects and city officials come to look at it. We’re delighted.”
One recent afternoon, Bjorklund was guiding the blade of his portable sawmill over a huge sycamore trunk. His wife, Roxanne, was spritzing it with a hose to keep it cool. Felix Pfirrmann, a woodworker from a German craft guild that occasionally sends Bjorklund temporary workers, was looking on. “It’s stunning to see what treasures are under the bark,” Pfirrmann said. Bjorklund sliced a deep-red, 300-pound slab off the trunk like a chef carving a prime rib. Asked what it would become, he didn’t know. “Something cool,” he said.
Related Resources:
Los Angeles Times- Fallen street trees rise again as specialty lumber