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Washington Man Harvests 'Urban Forest'

Innovative craftsman turns urban waste wood into value-added wood products including furniture and flooring using a Wood-Mizer portable mill.

By Donna Gordon Blankinship
Date Posted: 1/1/2004


SEATTLE, Wash. — An old tugboat pulled Jim Newsom into the woodworking business.

        It started as a summer hobby. The old tug, which he bought from a friend, was his pleasure craft. He used it to motor around Puget Sound on weekends. In the course of his weekend excursions, he began finding and collecting driftwood along beaches, eventually using the wood to make a piece of furniture or other decorative items.

        Soon Jim realized he could scavenge more wood from urban areas, mill it into lumber, and use it to make beautiful furniture, flooring, and other products. The wood from the discarded trees is recycled into value-added products. In some cases, Jim subcontracts with another company for remanufacturing services, such as processing his rough flooring material into finished tongue and groove flooring.

        His business, Urban Hardwoods, has prospered, and Jim is now involved in it full-time and has two full-time and one part-time employees. “For me, personally, it’s such a perfect job,” said Jim. “It’s so much fun.” He compared the work to prospecting for gold.

        Jim did not suddenly become interested in woodworking as an adult. He gained a love of woodworking in high school wood shop class. After attending college for a while, he worked as an apprentice carpenter. After an injury, he was back in his basement, playing with his woodworking equipment, when the opportunity arose to buy the tugboat.

        The tug is no longer operating. It sits in the south Seattle yard of Urban Hardwoods. In fact, it is right behind the key machine that Jim bought in 1999 for Urban Hardwoods: 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.

        Urban Hardwoods is building a new line of furniture that was created by Jim’s  design partner, John Wells, who teaches ecological design at the University of Washington. The new furniture line is being sold in furniture specialty shops on the West Coast. It includes various types of tables and benches and may be expanded to include bedroom furniture.

        John described his designs as “Northwest modern.” It has an Asian influence and accentuates the naturalness and sensuality of the materials, combining geometric shapes and organic edges. The design falls somewhere between craft and custom furniture, he said.

        With the Wood-Mizer portable sawmill, Jim produces about 70,000 board feet of lumber annually. He is hoping that number will continue to grow as more people find out about his tree harvesting service and his furniture line.

        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. Recently he 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.

        When Jim began researching portable sawmills, he was attracted to Wood-Mizer by the company’s reputation. He bought the Wood-Mizer LT40E sight unseen — without ever trying it or even watching one in operation. “They set the industry standard for innovation and quality,” said Jim.

        He has been favorably impressed with the Wood-Mizer LT40E’s performance, including its dependability, flexibility and sawing accuracy. “It’s been better than I could have hoped for,” said Jim. There is nothing he would change about the machine, he added. In fact, Jim said that Wood-Mizer should outfit him in a company T-shirt and hat because he is such an enthusiastic customer.

        The LT40E Super Hydraulic portable sawmill is from Wood-Mizer’s professional line. It can handle logs up to 36 inches in diameter and 21 feet long and can produce up to 500 board feet per hour, according to Wood-Mizer. The LT40E comes standard with hydraulic-powered log loading arms, log clamp, log turner and roller toe boards. The hydraulic-powered equipment lifts the log from ground level onto the sawmill and positions it for sawing. An automatic board return system helps speed off-bearing. All controls  are in one console.

        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, which is quieter than a gasoline-powered engine. (The Wood-Mizer LT40E Super Hydraulic is also available with a 36 hp gasoline engine, a 42 hp turbo-charged diesel engine or a 51 hp Caterpillar diesel engine.) Urban Hardwoods also has a Koetter dry kiln for kiln-drying lumber.

        Jim and a friend who is a machinist are building a band sawmill from used parts. When complete, the home-built mill will be able to saw unusually large logs up to 6 feet in diameter. This will enable Urban Hardwoods to saw large slabs suitable for one-piece table tops and also to cut the big, over-size logs down to a size that can be sawn on the Wood-Mizer.

        Operating a sawmill in the middle of an urban industrial area may seem odd to some, but Jim has plenty of trees to harvest and no shortage of raw material. His ‘urban forest’ is made up of the back yards and parks of the Seattle area.

        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.

        The environmental aspect of the business is as important to him as the commercial aspects of making a profit. Home­owners and people who use the parks often are glad to hear that the trees that are being removed will be salvaged and used. “I can see how people are emotionally attached to their trees,” said Jim. “When people hear that we’re going to give it another life, they’re glad…I get a lot of calls from people who just want to see it go to a good purpose.”

        The species of wood is not always important to Jim, although some are more valuable than others. What’s inside when you cut into a log is the real treasure, according to Jim and John. “We’re trying to show that natural beauty of any wood we come across,” said Jim. “What nature does to the wood is so cool that if it’s presented properly, it makes great furniture and floors.” The way the logs are processed and the lumber is sawn is part of the art of his business, and that is why it is important to him to have his own sawmill to have control over the process.

        Jim keeps an inventory of lumber sawn on the Wood-Mizer that includes American chestnut, sweet gum, madrona, Ponderosa pine, red oak, western walnut, birch, western maple, white oak, magnolia, Pacific yew, black acacia, American elm and Deodora cedar. In all, Urban Hardwoods has 75 species in its inventory, including some softwood lumber, as noted previously. Information about the company’s inventory is available at its Web site (www.urbanhardwoods.com), including board dimensions and prices. Most boards have what Jim calls one ‘live’ or unsawn edge. Jim believes that milling the trees on the Wood-Mizer accentuates the natural beauty of timber harvested from the Puget Sound region. Some of the inventory descriptions even mention where the trees originated, such as “reclaimed from a stand of trees overlooking one of Seattle’s finest golf courses.”

        Jim keeps some large logs in inventory for as long as possible to allow the company to provide matching material for larger projects that require consistent color and grain pattern throughout the home or office.

        Urban Hardwoods is still a small company, with sales of $200-250,000 a year, but Jim is hoping his new partnership with John will help to grow revenues.

        Jim’s advice to others considering investing in a portable sawmill: buy the best you can afford. “Not only do you save yourself a lot of physical effort, but your efficiency goes way up with added features,” he said.

        Jim hopes to find other people who are harvesting urban wood in different parts of the country who may want to engage in trading wood that is geographically unique. He is curious why he has come across so few people who are doing the same kind of urban tree harvesting.

        “I love doing something that no one else is doing,” he added, “to show that it’s feasible.”

 




 






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