Pittsburgh artists turn fallen trees into furniture and other interesting objects

By Diana Nelson Jones
Pittsburgh, PA (May 2, 2010)- One day in March, as arborists from 15 tree-service companies pruned and cleared snowstorm damage in Allegheny Commons Park, John Metzler strolled about studying chunks of elm and sycamore. Most city trees that fall or are felled become mulch or firewood. Mr. Metzler proposes higher use- furniture and functional art that honors the tree and its hard-knocks urban existence. The environmental payoff is that turning a tree that falls or must come down into furniture saves healthy trees from the demand for furniture.

His pieces and the work of other artists and woodworkers sit and hang in the showroom of the Urban Tree Forge, 1004 Washington Blvd., Lincoln-Lemington. He founded the warehouse and workshop two years ago on the site of the former Elias Studios.
Mr. Metzler made a life-shifting decision when he cast his lot with this passion. “I invested my 401(k) in this,” he said. “It was losing money fast. I figured I could lose money that fast on my own doing what I want to do.”
The Forge has gained some important allies- including the city’s public works and forestry staffs- and high-profile commissions. Mr. Metzler made tables for the G-20 Summit from a felled oak and fallen sycamore on the North Side and tables for the Allegheny branch of the Carnegie Library’s historical collections room. “Anytime the city can help out we try to,” said urban forester Lisa Ceoffe. She brokered the transfer of 40 honey locusts from Point State Park to the Urban Tree Forge. “They were all going to be ground up,” said Mr. Metzler. “Honey locust is so impact- and abuse-resistant, it’s great for flooring.”
The wood may be used for flooring in a new condo development in Squirrel Hill. Ms. Ceoffe helped Mr. Metzler get stumps from trees that were cut down in Market Square. “When people have trees removed and want something done with the wood, they sometimes call us and we refer them to John,” she said.
The city is working on legal language that would give preference to tree removal contractors who link a percentage of the wood they cut to businesses and organizations that recycle them into something besides mulch, she said.
The Forge also has been promoted by activist nonprofits, notably Friends of the Pittsburgh Urban Forest, which featured Forge artists at its fall fundraiser. Mr. Metzler made the flooring from city trees for the Friends offices in Garfield. “Pittsburgh is a prime hardwood forest,” he said. “It just has a lot of houses and pavement in it.”
Mr. Metzler likes the idea of keeping local the wood’s connections to denizens of this urban forest. Particularly poignant is a set of walnut menorahs made from a tree in the Hill District, which has a rich Jewish history. A chunk of arborvitae that no one else wanted became a head-turning foot stool. Mr. Metzler found it at a corner in Friendship. “The landscapers wouldn’t take it, so the homeowner put it out for the trash, but the garbage hauler wouldn’t take it either,” he said. “So I took it.”
Interesting shapes
City trees take abuse before they succumb to disease or removal for development; the consequence for a woodworker is often interesting shapes to work with. A fallen sycamore in Homewood’s Smithfield East End Cemetery suggested a configuration Mr. Metzler wanted to honor. He made a beautiful courting bench, with seats on either side of a shared backrest, but only a partial seat on one side, and limb knobs as the feet. It is clearly a bench but with sensuous curvature. “That sycamore gave a really elegant line,” he said. “I just made it functional.”
He has taken the bench to shows. It remains unsold at $8,500. That’s a lot if IKEA is your standard, he said, but here’s the difference: “This bench will last hundreds of years.”
Mr. Metzler, 46, traces his career path from his sapling days in Crafton and Sheraden- “I climbed trees as a kid.” Restoring a 1939 Chris-Craft boat with his father “was my indoctrination into working with wood.”
After serving in the Marines, he returned to Pittsburgh and worked for a tree service, and as a landscaper and a carpenter. In night school at the Community College of Allegheny County, he earned associates degrees in civil engineering and industrial design. While there, he made a cherry mantel with upside-down root flares as the top, from trees of a woodland that was destroyed for the Robinson Town Centre development.
The challenge is to get enough commissions to keep up with available trees. The city cuts down or hauls away about 800 trees a year.
More join The Forge’s efforts
The Forge community has grown to include eight regulars. Joshua Space, an industrial designer who does sculpture on the side, made a set of three gargoyles for Phipps Conservatory’s summer flower show. The head of one is a piece of sycamore “that fell on my neighbor’s steps in the [snow] storm,” he said.
Like Mr. Metzler, he and other Forge artists forage for downed trees in parks and cemeteries. Architect Jason Boone made a pair of solid block chairs cut from a 30-inch square of silver maple from Allegheny Cemetery. Priced at $1,200 apiece, he said, “they will last longer than people might want them around.” He has been working at the Forge for about a year.
“I was making stuff in my apartment kitchen,” he said. “I needed bigger tools and more room.” Jim Ladner, a custom furniture professional, “was pretty crammed” in a workshop in Lawrenceville when the owner decided to raise his rent. “That gave me the push to get out,” he said.
He is using oak from Riverview Park on a commission for stools and tables at Salt of the Earth, the Kevin Sousa restaurant that’s opening in Garfield this summer.
Mike Hammer, a musician and recording engineer, calls himself a hobbyist. Besides working on his own projects, he is helping Mr. Metzler carve an enormous trunk of beech into a coffee table. To get the trunk flat on one side, Mr. Metzler sliced off what became a piece of sculpture. It is hanging finished in the showroom with lights shining from behind it.
Jason Kirker is making wood light fixtures, paying $150 a month as an itinerant tenant. Rents vary depending on whether you take root in a space or set up at communal work tables. “John is doing a really great thing, providing space at affordable rents,” he said
“The best thing I can do for myself and all the urban trees is to have all these people here,” said Mr. Metzler. He said when he looks at a downed tree, he asks himself, “‘What can I do with that?’
“You have to let it tell you. It’s part meditative and part logistics,” he said. “Who might buy it? Can you get it in the pickup or do you have to call your crane guy? Sometimes you have to make quick decisions because the tree service is cutting and grinding. It’s nice if you have time. “A walk in the park is a blessing.”
Related Resources:
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette- Pittsburgh artists turn fallen trees into furniture and other interesting objects
Friends of the Pittsburgh Urban Forest