Salvaging Urban Logs

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How many times have you taken down a tree and wondered whether there just might possibly be more than firewood, mulch, or—as is all too often the case—landfill material? Conventional wisdom is that lumber comes from trees, and trees come from forests, not out of someone’s yard. The stuff that comes out of yards is waste.

The magnitude of this “waste” is staggering. According to the U.S. Forest Service, urban forests cover approximately 21,000,000 acres, comprising 3.8 billion trees. At some point, every one of those trees will be removed, whether from development or mortality. This amounts to roughly 52,000,000 tons per year for urban tree residues, not counting yard trimmings or land clearing. If half that weight is in usable saw logs, and the average yield is 200 board feet of lumber per ton, that quantity represents five billion board feet—about 1/3 of all hardwood lumber harvested in the U.S. Even at $.25 per board foot, that comes to $1.25 billion! The value doubles to $2.5 billion, after milling the logs into timber. That’s a lot of money to shred in a chipper or bury in the land fill!

It is partly a matter of focus. As one tree service owner explained, “I’m in the tree care business, not the lumber business. We get in, do the job as quickly as possible, and move on to the next job.” Taking the time to cut the tree to the proper length for lumber, haul it to a local sawmill, or saw it themselves just doesn’t seem feasible. But with the right strategy and the right sawmill, milling urban lumber can be downright lucrative. The strategy involves making it known to tree service companies that you can save them the cost of disposing the larger logs. It takes the right equipment to remove them from yards without damaging lawns, and you usually have to be able to schedule pick-ups soon after the tree care service has completed its part of the job. It takes time to educate the tree service people how to cut logs and which ones to leave, but it is worthwhile. A nice walnut crotch, for example could be worth a thousand dollars, if you have the right customer.

Of course, there is the issue of foreign material in the logs. I cut a lot of urban logs and have hit fence wire, nails, bolts, ceramic insulators, and even an ax head. Most memorable for me was a walnut log full of concrete! But even that was a simple matter of replacing a $30 blade and moving on to the next log.

The ideal sawmill for milling urban lumber is versatile enough to handle long, straight logs, as well as the oddball pieces, such as crotches and large diameter short logs. The Norwood HD36 band saw mill is an ideal machine for the task. The initial investment is less than $12,000, and its strong frame, 36” diameter capacity, and adjustable clamping system make it well suited to milling challenges of urban lumber. Hydraulic log handling is also available, either as a standard option or as a retrofit to a manual mill—a unique feature for any sawmill. The portable mill takes about ten minutes to set up for cutting. The Norwood mill is simple enough to use that you train a sawyer to run it in a day, though it takes experience to “read” the log and get the most out of it.

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Because I live near Joplin, MO, where a major tornado struck in May, 2011, I have salvaged some remarkable logs over a hundred years old. One job was to mill a half-dozen logs from trees that blew down at the Elks’ Lodge where three people died in that tornado. The lumber went to a high school woodworking class to be made into furniture for the new lodge. If FEMA contractors had picked up the logs, they would have been mulched or buried in the local land fill, along with the other 435,000 cubic yards of tree debris.

Some home owners are as attached to a tree as they would be to a pet cat or dog. Suggesting that the tree can continue to be a part of their lives as a kitchen table, fireplace mantle, or other furniture can help them deal with the loss, and help create good will with your customers. I recently spent an entire day milling a 48” diameter, 12’ long burr oak tree in a customer’s yard. He was absolutely thrilled with the results. He has a fireplace mantle and an 8’ long by 4’ wide table built out of a single, solid slab from the tree he played in as a child. Other lumber from the tree went into furniture for his children and grandchildren.

Trash, or treasure? It is your choice. With the right equipment, it is possible to convert a wide variety of shapes and species of urban logs into lumber for flooring, trim, and specialty markets such as custom furniture and turning stock for craftsmen.