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‘Urban Forest’ Offers Opportunities for Raw Material, Niche Business
Companies May Find Needed Wood and Business Opportunities

By Staff
Date Posted: 3/1/2005

            In Michigan, a man sees a business opportunity amidst ash trees that have become infected by the emerald ash borer. With the aid of a portable sawmill, he travels to municipalities that have cut down infested trees and saws the ash logs into lumber. For the local governments, it is cheaper than grinding the infected wood, and they get some inexpensive useable lumber.

            In Washington state, a man makes a business out of recovering trees that have been removed in the area around Seattle and processing them into lumber for furniture and other uses.

            In Mississippi, a third man buys old buildings, dismantles them to recycle the lumber, and remanufactures the old wood into high end flooring, molding, and other building material products.

            As shown in these examples, which will be described in more detail below, there are opportunities for pallet companies, sawmills, and other forest products businesses to obtain and use raw material from urban areas.

            Although wood products companies generally require a steady supply of raw material, businesses may find additional opportunities in urban areas for the wood they need. Particularly during times when raw material supplies are tight, it may be worthwhile to explore such opportunities. These other sources of wood may provide a badly needed supplement to weak inventories or may present opportunities to expand into other areas, such as niche markets.

            In addition, special circumstances, such as insect infestation or storm damage, may prompt a large volume of wood coming available, albeit during a short window of time.

            In urban areas, logs and lumber may be available from tree service businesses, landfill operations, land-clearing operations to prepare sites for residential or commercial building construction, building demolitions, and other sources.

            Another possible source of information about urban forestry operations and sources of raw material may be a state forestry department; some have urban forestry programs and services.

            If a company can identify sources of logs in urban areas but does not have a sawmill, it may be economically feasible to invest in a portable sawmill to mill the logs into squares or lumber. Portable mills are available from a number of suppliers. Most of them run band blades, but they can vary widely, from very inexpensive, manually operated mills to machines with complete hydraulic systems to load and turn the log, computerized setworks, and other features. Suppliers offer portable models powered by gasoline or diesel engines that can be towed by a pick-up truck to stationary versions that are powered by three-phase electrical systems.


Wood Recovered

from Infested Trees

            In Michigan, the emerald ash borer has infested millions of trees, and the pest, which migrated to the U.S. from Asia, has spread to other states, too. Similar to the infestation of the Mountain Pine Beetle in the West, the only solution is to remove the trees and presumably to grind or chip the logs. However, the emerald ash borer drills a pinhole opening through the bark and does not go past the cambium layer, so the wood itself is not diseased.

            Enter, Chris Last, a forester for the city of Royal Oak. When Chris saw that otherwise good 24-inch diameter ash logs were being reduced to chips, he figured there had to be a better solution.

            Chris saw an opportunity to recover good lumber from the infested trees. He arranged with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to travel to municipalities that had cut down infested trees and, with a portable sawmill, to saw the better ash logs into lumber. The lumber is air-dried and then may be used by the local government for building projects, such as park benches, picnic tables, or other purposes. With this arrangement, the local governments save money because they eliminate the cost of grinding or chipping, and they also get some inexpensive, usable lumber.

            “My service gives them something more – a usable, recycled, perfectly viable alternative to the wood they have been throwing away,” noted Chris.

            Chris invested in a Baker Products 30 HTL fully hydraulic portable sawmill to launch his service, Last Chance Logs to Lumber. The machine is one of a range of portable sawmills made by Baker, which also manufactures a wide range of machinery and equipment for pallet plants, sawmills and lumber remanufacturers.

            Chris tows the Baker portable sawmill and a metal detector from job to job with a pick-up truck with a 31-foot trailer. With help from a friend, Jason Paulick, Chris and his father, Don, started sawing the salvaged logs into lumber. Under an agreement with the state agency, the logs are sawn with the bark on, and they are cut at least 1/8-inch below the bark and sap wood. The only thing left for grinding or chipping is the bark and sap wood.


Urban Trees Fuel

Niche Business

In Seattle, Wash., Jim Newsom began collecting driftwood along beaches, using the wood to make furniture or decorative wood furnishings. Soon he realized that he could scavenge more wood from the urban area, mill it into lumber, and use it to make beautiful furniture, flooring, and other products. Wood recovered from discarded trees is recycled into value-added products. His niche business, Urban Hardwoods, has prospered. In some cases, Jim subcontracts with another company for remanufacturing services, such as processing his rough flooring material into finished tongue and groove flooring.

Like Chris, the key piece of equipment in Jim’s enterprise is a portable sawmill. In his case, Jim invested in a Wood-Mizer LT40E Super Hydraulic portable sawmill.

Thanks to the capability and flexibility of the Wood-Mizer, Jim can use practically every piece of the urban trees he recovers for furniture and hardwood flooring. Even limbs may be sawn into material suitable for the legs of a table, for example.

            Jim sells lumber to hobbyists and other woodworking professionals. His company also will provide custom sawing for homeowners – turning their trees into lumber for decking, flooring, picnic tables and other projects. For example, he once salvaged a big, old Elm tree for a homeowner and sawed it into lumber to build a kitchen table for the family.

But the environmental aspect of the business is as important to him as the commercial aspects of making a profit. Jim’s main goal is to recycle urban wood into something useful and keep it from being discarded into a landfill or otherwise wasted.

“In some cases, if someone wants to cut down a walnut tree to burn for firewood, I would trade them” less valuable wood to burn, he said. King County officials are interested in finding markets for urban wood waste because many urban trees are cut and often are sent to a landfill or used for nothing more than firewood or processed by a grinder into landscape mulch.

Jim works primarily with government agencies and tree service businesses, helping them to dispose of trees they cut down because of disease or danger to utility lines or buildings. He removes trees from the site and saves them the added cost of disposing of the wood. They benefit from his niche service, and Jim has the opportunity to recycle the wood into something valuable.

Although the Wood-Mizer LT40E is a portable sawmill, Jim does not transport it to job sites. He salvages trees for homeowners, in parks, and similar locations that are not suitable for on-site sawing, so the logs are transported to his company’s yard. Because he knew he would operate it as a stationary mill, Jim invested in a 25 hp, 23-volt, three-phase electric-powered unit.


Recycling Old Wood

            In Forest, Mississippi, Bill Blossom buys buildings that are at least 100 years old, dismantles them and re-mills the lumber. His company, Historic Woods, uses the lumber to make flooring, paneling, moldings, and architectural structural components for high-end interior construction of commercial buildings.

            At the company’s plant, Bill brings in the old lumber and then sorts it into various categories, such as timbers of various sizes and lengths, rafters, floor joists, and other components. He and his five employees remove any nails and fasteners, clean the wood, and take off any paint.

            The company works a lot with heart pine. Old heart pine is unique in its lack of uniform color, Bill observed. “This wood is peculiar in that nothing else looks like it,” he said. “It has a huge range of color, from bright yellows to reds to browns, all in the same board. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever seen.”

            Once the lumber is clean and dry, it is resawn on an Accutrack band mill, and the boards then are put through a Morgan two-saw edger.

            For processing the lumber further into flooring, molding and other products, Historic Woods uses a Logosol PH 260 four-head planer-molder. The Logosol can be set up to make tongue and groove flooring, molding, crown molding, stair rails, and other specialty products.

            Historic Woods sells mainly to custom builders and renovators, decorators, and others who want high quality trim and building components made of old wood.

            “These are not cheap products,” Bill noted. “We supply materials for high-end commercial buildings, banks, and businesses. Our customers are at the upper end of construction.  I normally deal with either architects or the primary owners of the businesses.”

            Whether recycling wood from demolished buildings or obtaining logs from trees removed in municipal areas, the ‘urban forest’ may offer opportunities for raw material and new business avenues.

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