Unwanted urban trees become retail gold at Mpls. wood shop

Creating a mantel
Steve Clemons works on a mantelpiece at Wood From the Hood in Minneapolis on Friday, Jan. 25, 2013. Wood From the Hood, which started five years ago as a side business to a cabinet shop, uses cut and fallen trees from the metro area to create products like flooring and cutting boards.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

The emerald ash borer has killed tens of millions of ash trees across the United States and Canada in the last decade.

Here in the Twin Cities, Minneapolis parks department forestry crews were cutting down hundreds of trees at the Fort Snelling Golf Club after many became infested. Normally the wood is chipped up and burned. But some are being salvaged along with many other varieties of unwanted urban trees.

At Wood from the Hood, cyclists whiz by on the Midtown Greenway just over the fence from the shop. Rick Siewert, a co-owner, showed off some of the dozens of logs stacked up in the back lot. Some were 3 feet or more in diameter, and all were cut down within a few miles of his business.

"We have a big variety, and it's all local, and it's tracked by the ZIP code where it comes from," Siewert said. "So on a lot of these logs, you'll see tags on the end of them designating where it came from. And when you see it in the store, it'll have the ZIP code where it came from on the product."

It could be a scene out of "Portlandia" -- the TV satire of urban hipsters. As with organic milk and free range chicken from the neighborhood co-op, consumers can now buy hardwood flooring, cutting boards and picture frames made from trees cut close to home.

Getting to that finished product takes a long time. After he cuts the wood on a portable sawmill, it has to dry out for several months, first outside, then in a kiln.

Inside the shop, workers rip the lumber down to smaller pieces so they can turn it into finished products.

The company does custom jobs. too. Maple trees cut down at Macalester College, for example, are back on campus as wall paneling in a conference room.

Siewert said he does not scope out trees he wants to cut down. He looks for those that are being removed for some other reason. Many come from homeowners; some were salvaged after the north Minneapolis tornado in 2011.

He gets other logs from the Minneapolis parks department, including 34 ash trees from the Fort Snelling Golf Club cut down this month because of the ash borer infestation.

Siewert said he can salvage the material because the insects live in the trees' outer layers. But he usually avoids infested wood because it requires careful handling.

"We have our USDA certification for the safe handling of ash," he said. "They come out at least once a month to look at our ash pile to make sure it's in the right spot and to make sure there isn't any bark left on it, and we're drying it to the specifications that they've set."

Salvaging urban trees has other challenges, too. Siewert had a steel coffee can filled with rusty nails and other bits of metal he found embedded deep inside salvaged logs. The metal can ruin expensive saw blades, so Siewert scans his logs with a metal detector before cutting them. He said he once pulled out a foot-long augur bit. Clothesline hooks are a common find in backyard trees.

While removing metal would be a hassle for a big lumber company, Siewert said it's worthwhile because urban timber has characteristics not found at most lumberyards.

"It's a lot of really cool looking wood," Siewert said. "There's a character grade here. Stuff that you're not going to see out of the forest, the gnarly different grains, really neat grain patterns and just the variety that you get from the city."

Besides its unique character, salvaged urban lumber can win certification points on green building projects.

And Cindy Siewert -- Rick's wife and business partner -- said the small items the company makes, such as bottle openers and cribbage boards, tap into the trend toward all things local.

"It's been really easy to sell the products in the stores because people love it, and people are really eco-friendly now," Cindy Siewert said. "I love going out to the retail stores and meeting the buyers. They've been really good customers for us."

The Siewerts have been rescuing city trees from the wood chipper for more than five years now. It's a venture they started alongside their cabinet and millwork company, and now it's beginning to turn a profit.