A salvaged-wood revolution: Turning more fallen trees into furniture


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Three men in neon-colored hard hats push the blade through a black acacia tree trunk, slicing it into three 1/2-inch-thick slabs and exposing stunning lines and swirls.

‘That acacia’s beautiful,’ said John Dominguez, the director of a 2-month-old partnership between Anaheim-based West Coast Arborists and Woodhill Firewood in Irvine, adding that the old-growth grain is something that ‘you’ll never see’ on the market today.


It takes eight minutes to cut each 11-foot-long slab because the wood is so hard, said Tom Rogers, owner of Woodhill Firewood, which takes in 600 tons a day from tree trimming and removal jobs. The acacia should yield eight to 10 slabs, he said. Each might surpass 250 pounds, and with luck they’ll be sold to artisans to make tables and other pieces.

The tree, which fell in Monrovia Canyon Park in December, and a nearby deodar cedar that fell in Arcadia, are examples of how the popularity of salvaged wood furniture has produced a secondary trend: rising efforts to ensure that urban trees, including those that fall during storms, don’t end up in landfills.

It’s not a new idea to turn such trees into lumber, and some communities such as Lompoc have embraced it. The state has even lent equipment to those who want to try milling. But until recently, trees that fell or were removed by homeowners and cities in Southern California were mostly treated as trash -- perhaps firewood or mulch, officials say.

PHOTO GALLERY: How salvaged trees become hand-crafted furniture

Dominguez, who has been charmed by wood since playing standup bass in youth symphonies, said he would like to make more connections with furniture makers and wood artisans and see more closed-loop recycling: A tree falls and gets turned into lumber that’s used in flooring in, say, a city building. ‘Walk into City Hall, and you’re walking on street trees,’ he said.

Ferris Kawar, a recycling specialist in Burbank, says about 1% of what goes to the landfill is wood -- an amount he calls ‘obscene.’ Branches from downed trees become mulch, he says, but the trunks often go to the landfill.


Setting up a system to use downed trees, perhaps in a public-private partnership, is a pet project for the city’s Public Works Department recycling coordinator, Kreigh Hampel. The obstacles include finding space for processing the trees and for storing lumber. But the payoffs are fewer trees sent to landfills, less transporting of lumber and something less tangible. ‘People have a connection to wood. They don’t want to see it go to waste,’ said Marina del Rey furniture maker Cliff Spencer, among a growing number of artisans and entrepreneurs for whom fallen trees offer not only beauty and durability but an environmental opportunity.

‘Here’s the value of urban lumber: It’s growing in your town, on your streets,’ Spencer said. ‘We have a botanical wonderland.’


1. Selecting

Arborists and artisans report an uptick in clients who want a tree in their garden cut down and used for furniture or building projects. In other cases, the tree already has fallen. Municipalities can contract with companies such as West Coast Arborists to remove downed trees from public land; individuals also can hire specialists such as Brent Cashion of Urban Logs to Lumber. For the tree above, he used a chain saw to cut off branches and roots from one of three fallen trees on a Thousand Oaks property before dragging the trunk, with a chain and strap attached to his pickup, to his mobile mill.

2. Positioning

One tree, about 3 feet in diameter, had fallen against a large moss-covered rock, forcing Cashion to saw close -- but not too close -- to it. ‘Did I mention there is absolutely no science to this?’ he joked. Arms on his portable band saw lifted the trunk onto his mill. Cashion worked a cant hook and used branches as levers to settle the trunk, estimated to weigh 2,500 pounds, onto his mill.

3. Sawing

Cashion operated a band saw with five levers, choosing the thickness of the slab and moving the blade through the trunk. He left the oak slabs with his client to air-dry. Cashion’s fee: $100 an hour. He spent three hours on one tree, and though the temperature was in the 30s, he was sweating.


4. Drying

Slabs milled at a different site, above, are stacked so that air can circulate. Slabs must be ‘stickered,’ which means putting spacers between pieces so air can circulate. If that’s not done properly, the wood might be ruined in days, Cashion said. Green wood that hasn’t been dried properly could crack and shift. A general guideline is one year of drying for every inch of thickness; a 3-inch-thick future tabletop would air-dry for three years. A kiln speeds up the process and kills bugs. Some people say it also alters the color of the wood. Dominguez of West Coast Arborists said his company’s dehumidifying kiln in Placentia can dry a 1-inch-thick slab in 2 1/2 months.

5. Make something

Furniture artisans including William Stranger, Richard Patterson and members of the L.A. Box Collective have developed followings with designs made from urban trees. The oaks milled by Cashion will be used for flooring. Marina del Rey furniture maker Cliff Spencer made an 8-foot-long desk, above, from salvaged claro walnut and incense cedar. One of Spencer’s more recent projects was a countertop, below, made from parts of an olive tree felled in fires that struck Malibu 15 years ago. ‘They will know it’s from their grandfather, and they love it,’ he said of his clients.


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-- Mary MacVean

Top photo credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times