Rescued from the ashes: Discarded trees find new life as handcrafted products

Dead ash trees. Urban trees cut down to make room for new buildings. Decaying homes destined for the wrecking ball. They all have one thing in common: wood that can be used for beautiful new creations.

People often view discarded, dead, or dying trees as equivalent to roadkill. But what if they instead decided to extend unwanted trees' lifecycles by putting them to good use?

Inexpensive wood comes with unseen costs. Those cheap planks of red oak you just bought at the local big-box store? There’s a good chance they came from as far away as Russia.

But now, a grassroots effort to reclaim trees and practice sustainable forestry is underway here in Michigan. From remnants of discard and decay, local artisans are producing furniture, picture frames, benches and more. A local sawmill and an Ann Arbor retail store even specialize in dealing reclaimed wood.

For sale: Local lumber with character

Want to do some woodworking with Osage orange? How about black locust, mulberry, or box elder? Look no further than an Urbanwood Marketplace in Ann Arbor or Flint. At either of these two reclaimed wood marketplaces operated by the Urbanwood Project, visitors can purchase lumber, flooring, and other wood products.

A joint effort of Recycle Ann Arbor and the Southeast Michigan Resource Conservation and Development Council, the Urbanwood Project started in 2005 to boost recycling of dead urban trees. Thanks to the emerald ash borer, which hit Michigan particularly hard and decimated millions of ash trees in southeast Michigan alone, there was an abundance of wood to work with.

Jessica Simons, an independent consultant who works closely with Urbanwood, believes that using dead or discarded trees makes good sense and is hardly a novel approach.

“What we’re doing is not new—it’s what people used to do, but during the last couple of generations we’ve lost that,” she says. “[These] trees can still be of use to us.”

Customers can find walnut, cherry, red oak, and white oak at both Urbanwood stores. All of it is locally-grown, and imperfections are welcome.

“At Lowe’s and Home Depot, common lumber tends to look the same—there’s not much with real character,” she says. “We get the most we can out of every log, and sell wood with knots, holes, and bark on the sides.”

Simons also touts the economic benefits of selling reclaimed wood.

“We started the Urbanwood Project when the U.S. was hit with an economic downturn,” she says. “We stayed viable when so much demand for wood had disappeared. The key word is local—this is as local as you can get.”

“Most of what we sell is lumber, but for those with a do-it-yourself mindset, we can be a treasure trove,” Simons says.

Those who prefer to buy something ready-made might want to take a look at an ash and walnut trestle table, crafted by The Lumberjacks Tree Service, an Urbanwood partner. Other partners make and sell benches, coat hangers, and fine furniture.

“We’re really proud of what’s grown here in Michigan,” Simons says. “The idea of using urban wood is taking off across the country.”

From ashes to heirloom-quality picture frames

In 2008, furniture designer Paul Hickman wanted to do two things when he launched Urban Ashes, a company that makes picture frames, furniture, and more: create fine products from dead and dying ash trees and other discarded wood, and put disabled and formerly incarcerated people to work.

“I wanted to come up with a product line I could scale nationally,” Hickman says. “An impetus was ash trees succumbing to the emerald ash borer.”

Urban Ashes is an urban wood partner, and adheres to a similar philosophy. Its frames are crafted with adherence to the Wabi Sabi (beauty of imperfection) philosophy. Consequently, the frames are not necessarily made with highest-grade wood, but they’re all structurally sound, beautiful and unique.

Through its Detroit De-Nailed™ collection, Urban Ashes carefully salvages and repurposes deconstructed wood from abandoned Detroit buildings into artful and unique frames.

Honoring the spirit of Aldo Leopold

Bob Miller and Peter Smith, owners of Pleasant Lake Hardwoods in Pleasant Lake, craft Leopold benches as their featured product. Honoring the sustainability ethic preached by famed writer and conservationist Aldo Leopold, the duo construct these benches from oak, walnut, and cherry.

“The Leopold Bench represents the notion of putting things back,” says Smith. “The bench can decompose, comes from local trees, and is totally recyclable.”

Miller and Smith also make a Leopold Swing, based on the design of the bench. Their other products include folding patio tables, folding drying racks, walking sticks, Shaker-inspired benches, “cookie” tables, and more.

The pair utilizes recovered lumber, including ash and other trees, that comes down during winter.

No wasting good lumber

Kelvin Potter, founder of Raven Farm in Bath, started using reclaimed lumber because he was a woodworker who could not afford wood. So he started asking his landscaper friends to save big logs for him from trees they cut down for firewood.

Potter started in the business about 20 years ago, and now he works solely with reclaimed lumber. He sells at Urbanwood Marketplace and says his relationship with this organization has been beneficial.

“I found a market through Urbanwood’s concept,” he says. “It reduces stress and increases profitability.”

Even though most of the wood Potter works with is furniture-grade material, he says all sorts of logs make it to his sawmill, including willow, gingko, and tree-of-heaven.

Potter’s focus is on supplying great wood for craftspeople—for instance, rather than build a dresser, he sells the raw material for someone else to build the dresser.

Raven Farm, Pleasant Lake, and Urban Ashes all work closely with Urbanwood as partners.

Michigan-made: Sustainable sources for wood gifts

If you want to give someone a special gift for the holidays, consider one that is sustainably produced and honors Michigan’s rich legacy of wood and lumber. The following companies provide an amazing variety of items that will be sure to make someone’s holiday special.

Tree-Purposed Detroit - Evan Burger, owner of tree service company Arbor Man, founded Tree-Purposed Detroit to transform unwanted and removed trees into high-quality tables and slabs. Tree-Purposed also sells cutting boards, cheese boards, bread boards, and more.

French Paper Company - This sixth-generation family-run operation in Niles produces a wide variety of recycled paper products. Its mill is powered by renewable hydroelectric generators.

Ullmann Urban Sawmill - Serving the entirety of southeast Michigan, this mill has sites in Troy and Dexter. It specializes in making a variety of wood products from discarded lumber.

Quincy Woodwrights - Based in Oceanside, California, this skateboard deck manufacturer marries California cool with Michigan solid. All of its decks are manufactured in Houghton, Michigan, sustainably using local maple.

Tervol’s Wood Products - Reclaimed lumber is a specialty of this North Adams sawmill, which turns out slab tables, counters and flooring. The company has more than 100,000 feet of reclaimed wood.

This story is a part of a statewide Forest Management Community Impact Series edited by Nina Ignaczak. Support for this series is provided by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.