Thursday, October 18, 2012

Local Sawyers Mill Reclaimed Urban Wood

Table by Icon Modern

Furniture design firm Icon Modern still has metal work done down in Bridgeport, hiring Metal Magic Interiors since UV Awazu moved out of town (Awazu was profiled on The Hardscrabbler in March 2012). Their wood comes from further afield, but not too much further.

“LEED defines local as within 500 miles,” Icon Modern owner Rocky Levy says. “With our stuff, it grew less than 50 miles from where we are using it.” In fact, the company advertises that “usually we can tell you the street or park where your pieces grew up.”

A cluster of local sawyers helps them do that. Horigan Urban Forest Products, Meyer Woodworking & Lumber, and GH Woodworking & Sawing are Levy’s biggest suppliers. Local sawyers Ellis Custom Woodworking & Sawing, and Carstens Millworks & Reclaimed Wood, also supply the growing niche.

Photo by Icon Modern

Icon Modern literally brands its table tops with a hot iron as “Reclaimed Urban Wood.” Reclaimed wood is often salvaged from existing structures – it has the patina of age, and the fortitude of old growth forest. Urban wood is harvested from the private yards, public parks and thoroughfares that are sometimes referred to as the “urban forest.”

Levy says clients like Whole Foods and Google are drawn to furniture that comes with a back story. At the same time, the emerald ash borer, which has swollen the volume of Illinois wood available for lumber since 2006, has sparked interest in local sawyers from another direction. The Illinois Department of Agriculture and the Emerald Ash Borer Wood Utilization Team want to build a supply chain to divert trees felled by the beetle from going to mulch.

Reclaimed Timbers from Icon Modern's Facebook Gallery

Gary Hamm first opened GH Woodworking as a cabinet shop in 1998. “I bought the saw mill to create materials for my own woodshop,” Hamm says. He started milling logs for other people with encouragement from the Illinois Department of Agriculture. That led to requests for repurposed barn-wood, and to connections with “folks in the deconstruction business.”

Today, Hamm estimates 75% of his business entails repurposed wood. He says a rash of new clients have come looking for it in the past year, bringing some relief from the cabinetry slump that followed the housing collapse.

Ron Meyer, owner of Meyers Woodworking & Lumber describes a similar experience. Meyer has been milling local logs for 25 years, but he stepped up his investment in the lumber business, acquiring his own drying kiln, 4 years ago. “When the economy took a dive, my custom cabinetry work got sparse. But this [his lumber milling business] seemed to take off at the same time,” Meyer says. “Right now, this is what is going strong.”

Still, Hamm describes recent interest in old wood as a revival of a longstanding tradition. “Sometimes you’ll be in a barn built 150 years ago, look up, and see holes and mortices that just don’t make sense.” He says that tells you they built that barn from a structure that was older still.

Irregular Boards from Icon Modern's Facebook Gallery

Milling reclaimed urban wood poses challenges. It is often riddled with objects that ruin saw blades, like iron nails and concrete plugs arborists used to fill tree cavities through the 1970s. Urban trees also tend to sprawl, yielding less clear cut lumber than cultivated trees.

More hazards wait in the kiln, where wood is dried to prevent it from warping later.
It can also warp or crack if it’s dried too quickly, if moisture content drops too far, or if the outer layer is allowed to dry out while moisture lingers inside -- the difference creates tension in the wood.

Bruce Horigan came to milling through tree management service, where he watched logs and chips go to landfills and mulch. “I wanted to create a higher use,” Horigan says. He and his wife Erika ran their own tree service business for 12 years to raise capital for the milling and drying operations; they opened Horigan Urban Forest Products in 2003, and maintain about 50,000 board feet of lumber in stock.

But tree services, like Kramer Tree Specialists in West Chicago, say they need more demand to set aside logs for lumber. “We’re taking trees down every day, and creating this steady stream of by-product that has to be moved,” Mulch Manager Tim Peters says. As it is, they take down trees that generate upwards of 100,000 cubic yards of mulch a year. Though Sales & Marketing Manager Paul Filary says they would just as soon send if off for lumber. “If the demand was there, there is no question we would consider doing that.”

The Chicago Furniture Design Association produced a Rising From Ashes exhibit to showcase fine furniture built from urban trees killed by the ash borer. Bridgeport furniture maker Hal Link built this chair, with a rising Phoenix for the show.

Phoenix Chair by Hal Link

Still, many furniture builders who use local wood are building one-off pieces, their demand for material is small. Icon Modern is unusual in that regard. Owner Rocky Levy was an office furniture manufacturer’s representative when he first read about urban wood. “I saw that there was no one using urban wood for furniture for the commercial market,” he says. “Urban wood is all different, it has to be hand selected. It’s difficult to make it work on a larger scale.”

Levy says Icon Modern incorporates 20,000 board feet into furnishings each year for corporate clients like Starbucks and Whole Foods. That’s a large volume for a supplier like Horigan, whose 50,000 board foot inventory includes lumber from many varieties of tree, in an assortment of size. But Horigan says he has no problem supplying volume if it’s planned ahead. He needs lead time to cure the wood, but after years in the lumber and tree management business, he says “sourcing logs has never been a problem.”

And Icon Modern's clients appreciate wood with beauty marks. Levy describes using an ancient oak tree that turned out to have a bullet lodged in it. Horigan’s sawmill sliced the soft metal in half, and Icon Modern left it in the finished table. “In the traditional lumber industry knots, discoloration, foreign objects in the wood are considered defects, they would never be used” he says. “We embrace those things as part of the story.”

Photo from Icon Modern's Facebook Gallery

GH Woodworking & Sawmill
Wauconda, IL

Meyers Woodworking & Lumber
Batavia, IL

Horigan Urban Forest Products
Skokie, IL

Ellis Custom Woodworking & Sawing
West Chicago, IL

Carstens Millworks & Reclaimed Wood
Warrenville, IL


  1. Another excellent feature. Your blog contributes greatly to the local community.

  2. This is an excellent summary of the urban forest products market in the Chicago area. Great to hear our sawyers are doing well.

  3. Well written, comprehensive information on who is providing these exotic resources to the consuming end.
    This is the type of grass roots idea that can grow into wonderful economic and social benefits to all areas of the world, as previously unused resources are being conisdered for utilization where previously wasted. Win Win Win!

  4. The unique character, color, and overall natural beauty and form of reclaimed wood should have everyone wanting at least 1 piece of furniture in their home or office. It is environmentally friendly and may even have a great story behind it. Well worth exploring if you like the natural beauty of wood.

  5. The cause of the intemperance of the sawyers, say my informants, was their extremely hard labour, and the thirst produced by their great exertion.

    Henry Mayhew

  6. Wow great post. Thank you for sharing this kind of information.
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