A Backyard Trunk Could Be Your Living Room's Treasure

Seven hundred to 800 square feet of flooring could be made from this eight-foot section of a 59-inch-diameter elm tree, which once stood in a private yard in southeast Michigan.
Seven hundred to 800 square feet of flooring could be made from this eight-foot section of a 59-inch-diameter elm tree, which once stood in a private yard in southeast Michigan. (By John Haling For The Washington Post)

By Katherine Salant
Saturday, July 15, 2006

Imagine: "The flooring was made from trees we cut down before we built our house," the homeowner proudly tells her guests. "Top that for cachet!" she adds to herself.

Our catty homeowner is correct. Flooring made from the trees on your building site or from trees that your city had to remove is unusual.

But not because such wood is rare.

To the contrary, the number of hardwood trees cut every year by municipalities and private homeowners is huge. If the logs were sawn into boards instead of being mulched or tossed into a landfill, the volume, in board feet, would be equal to about two-thirds the amount of hardwood lumber produced annually in the United States, according to Stephen Bratkovich, a forest products specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service in St. Paul, Minn.

I set out to find out why such a vast wood source has not been tapped. After interviews with forest product specialists, urban foresters, urban timber experts, owners of private tree services, commercial timber sawmill owners, palett makers, recyclers, municipal administrators and sawyers (people who saw logs into boards), the answer was clear, if disheartening.

Urban timber cannot be supplied in the quantities and quality demanded by the high-volume, low-margin, commercial hardwood industry.

To the average suburbanite, all trees look attractive, but a commercial logger sees things differently. A job that entails only three or four trees -- a large number for a private homeowner or municipality -- will not interest him. To justify the expense of bringing in a crew and large tree-cutting equipment, a commercial logger wants at least 50 trees. And he wants to take out the 50 trees in one day, not spend an entire day on one tree because of the time-consuming logistics that confront an urban tree service crew. The crew must avoid hitting power lines while staying clear of houses, gardens and driveways -- a 500-pound section of a tree hitting an asphalt driveway on a hot summer day will leave a big dent.

To avoid these hazards, an urban tree service crew may have to bring down the tree in small chunks. This makes the job even less attractive to the commercial logger. He wants to bring down each tree with its trunk intact because it will be worth more. But even when urban trees can be taken down without cutting up their trunks, a commercial logger will still shun them because they often have large crowns (the part of the tree that includes the branches and leaves) and shorter, squatter trunks that are full of knots.

In a commercially managed forest, the trees are closer together, and they have to compete for sunlight. Their branches go up, not out, and their trunks are long and straight. As a consequence, a commercially harvested hardwood tree yields, on average, about twice as much millable wood as an urban hardwood tree, Bratkovich said.

And then there's the "hardware" issue -- all the nails, sections of metal fencing and even horseshoes that are commonly found in urban timber. To a commercial sawmill owner, these are an expensive headache. They can damage the blades of the large sawing equipment used in commercial sawmills; everything stops while the blades are replaced.

Clinton, Mich., palett maker Bob Moore's experience is typical. He recently tried using urban timber in his factory because palett-grade commercial lumber has been in short supply. The hardware in the wood caused work stoppages as often as three times a day, costing him several thousand dollars in repairs and labor costs while the plant was idle and cutting his daily output by two-thirds.

Finally, there's a quality issue. When timber logs are milled into boards, the boards are graded according to their visual characteristics. The two top grades, which are clear of visual defects such as knot holes, command a premium. The lower two "utility" grades, which have "character" marks such as knot holes, small holes and mineral streaks, are worth less. Urban timber is largely utility grade, and this makes it less attractive to commercial loggers.

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