Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Large oak tree in process of being cut down © Steve Apps

A 150-year old oak tree had to be removed at the American Girl headquarters but it lives on in beautiful products.
© Steve Apps

October 2012

Branching out

When trees get a second life, local business can benefit.

Natasha Kassulke

The idea for the next American Girl™ doll might be born around a conference table. Perhaps she'll be an arborist, urban forester or artisan.

And that conference table? It could come from a 150-plus-year-old bur oak grown on the site of American Girl headquarters in Middleton. When the company moved to its current location in 1988, American Girl founder Pleasant T. Rowland saw the magnificent tree as a perfect symbol of the company's bold beginnings and it served as a steadfast reminder that, "Mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow."

The tree, which had been growing and gaining popularity since it was a seedling in the pre-Civil War era of the late 1850s, was regularly cared for and monitored by certified arborists. But over the years, gypsy moths and harsh Wisconsin weather had their way with the tree.

In 2010, after a couple of years of severe decline, the tree did not leaf out and soon would have collapsed. Based on the advice of several experts, the company decided to bring down the decaying tree.

On Dec. 11, 2010, just before a major snowstorm, Gere Tree Care Inc. removed the oak. During the snow and sleet-filled day the owner, Sean Gere, and his skilled crew carefully sawed the tree apart, and then used a crane to lower the pieces to the ground.

Most of the small branches were too decayed to preserve. The crew saved the intact smaller limbs, along with large limbs and the main trunk. The parts were removed from the property, but not forgotten.

The tree lives on in beautiful products.

Coming full circle

The Wood Cycle is a custom woodworking business founded by Paul Morrison on a 40-acre rural town of Oregon parcel. Morrison, a former engineer, started the business 11 years ago when he gave into the fact that woodworking was in his blood.

Where some people find problems, Morrison finds possibilities. When Morrison first acquired the town of Oregon property that would become The Wood Cycle, it was in disrepair. A barn he moved to the site from its original home two miles away is now the mill's flagship building. The headquarters also house a solar kiln, sawmill (converted turkey shed), workshop with a finishing area and a gallery.

Stacks of lumber drying in a solar kiln © Natasha Kassulke
Wood is dried on-site in a solar kiln at the Wood Cycle.
Natasha Kassulke

From Fish Hatchery Road, the mill looks like a traditional Wisconsin farm. As you enter the property, you pass a worn-out barn locally known as the "goat barn." The barn earned its reputation when a previous occupant housed goats that would sit on the roof and watch cars drive by.

Morrison built his house at the far end of the property using local wood. In between is space to plant trees for future use.

Morrison was 10 years old when he got hooked on wood working. He grew up on a farm surrounded by hardy Wisconsin hardwoods. His grandfather was a traditional Dutch cabinetmaker and one of many artisans in the family.

Trees that tell stories

Whether you live in the country surrounded by woodlands or in the city near a park with trees, you probably have a fond tree memory. Maybe you built a tree fort. Or you recall the tree under which you shared a first kiss. Trees connect us to our past but also may be links to our future.

"I like to deal with wood that has a story," Morrison says.

On Aug. 18, 2005, a tornado carved a 10-mile path of destruction across subdivisions and farms just north of Stoughton. Afterward, one family chose to rebuild, using a walnut tree from their property. The tree is a reminder of how the community came together in a time of tragedy to clean up and restore the area.

Morrison remembers bookshelves he made to hold the Wisconsin Statutes collection, crafting the shelves from a tree felled on the Capitol Square.

Another log became a dining room table and chairs. The tree came from a neighborhood near the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison. A pulley remains embedded in part of the tree – a remnant of a 1960s neighborhood playtime activity. Monkeys that escaped from the zoo once hid in the tree until recaptured. The tree section with the embedded pulley is drying but will go to one of the adult children who grew up in the home, playing in and around the tree.

Morrison also recalls the desk he made to commemorate the Oregon Library centennial, building it out of pieces of the prior desk along with 15 wood species donated by local residents. And there is the squirrel cage table, an unusual piece that features walnut that re-grew over an old squirrel hole, with nuts still encased.

"The business of reusing trees is part of the growing interest in buying local," Morrison contends. "People also have a sentimental attachment to trees."

That was definitely the case at American Girl, when they commissioned The Wood Cycle to work with the old oak tree.

Facing foreign competition

Much of Morrison's job is educating clients about the many uses for wood. And patience is a must. Proper wood drying can take over a month, so stump to finished product typically runs three months or more. The Wood Cycle works primarily with unique lumber cuts, incorporating natural log edges whenever possible, seeking knots instead of avoiding them, and emphasizing distinctive heartwood and sapwood coloring.

Terry Mace, a forest utilization and marketing specialist with the Department of Natural Resources, has more than 30 years' experience working with the wood industry.

"We need markets for the forest industry to remain viable," Mace says. "We can't manage just for the sake of managing forests…about 60,000 people work in Wisconsin's forest industry."

Twenty-eight Wisconsin counties look to the forest industry as their primary manufacturing employment sector. But wood products manufacturing, like many other American industries, faces intense foreign competition. China is the largest furniture producer and exporter in the world, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Foreign Agricultural Service.

Wisconsin competes well on quality, but not as well on price. To become more price competitive, the forest products in- dustry needs to adopt more sophisticated production technology, recruit a more highly skilled labor force and diversify.

One Wisconsin company, Arcways in Neenah, has found international success. The company manufactures ornate custom stairways.

Re-purposing sentimental trees is a niche market, but it is gaining popularity. Mace also recommends buying wood grown locally rather than importing products such as bamboo for flooring.

Wisconsin Act 208

Wisconsin Act 208, signed into law in 2007, directed the forest outreach program at the University of Wisconsin- Stevens Point along with the Department of Natural Resources to create a basic lumber grading training program. The act permits limited circumstances in which dimension lumber (lumber that has not been grade-stamped under the authority of a lumber grading bureau) to be used for home building.

Under Act 208, the person milling the lumber must sell the lumber directly to the person who will live in the house, or to the person acting on his or her behalf. The act further requires that the milled lumber meet or exceed requirements of the one- and two-family dwelling code.

Act 208 enables the use of locally grown lumber and smaller sawmills that would otherwise find producing gradestamped lumber cost prohibitive.

Mace teaches short-courses for sawmill operators in how to produce and grade dimension lumber. Graduates earn a place in the Wisconsin Wood Using Industry Online Database.

"I would love to see people be aware of the quality of the products they are buying and buy local," Mace says. "It might take a little effort to find the producers, but heirloom quality furniture will last for generations."

Urban trees earn respect

Dwayne Sperber, founder of Wudeward Urban Forest Products, LLC in Delafield, is trying to raise awareness and acceptance of urban forest products. Besides being a business owner, he serves on the board of Town and Country Resource Conservation and Development, Inc. (RC&D).

RC&D works to enhance and improve the quality of life in the 13-county area of Southeast Wisconsin by promoting healthy communities, a healthy environment and sustainable economic growth. The region represents 2.7 million residents. Sperber leads the Urban Wood Market Development project with RC&D.

Sperber defines urban wood as, "lumber from trees removed for reasons other than harvest." Every year, trees from streets, backyards, parks and other green spaces come down due to storms, construction or pests such as the emerald ash borer. Most end up as wood chips or logs in municipal landfills. Sperber says we can do better.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, urban trees, if milled into lumber, would yield almost 30 percent of the nation's yearly commercial hardwood lumber output or three billion board feet annually.

"That's enough wood to create over 250 million coffee tables or enough flooring for two million homes, annually," Sperber says.

With over 74 billion trees in U.S. metropolitan areas and plantings outpacing removals, urban wood is a sustainable resource. Urban wood transforms our communities' fallen or condemned trees into functional, beautiful products we can use.

Instead of buying lumber shipped from out-of-state or overseas, Sperber wants us to buy local.

"Every tree should have a local destination when it has to come down," he says. "Products created from these lost trees support a sustainable way of living and support local economies, all while benefiting our environment."

A recent product that showcases Sperber's efforts is the Clock Shadow Building in Milwaukee's Walkers Point neighborhood. Ash stair treads and flooring came from Milwaukee area trees that had to come down. Traditional processes were followed in manufacturing products for this project. The only difference was that the wood came from trees that once grew in an urban area – urban wood.

"People forget, sometimes, that wood comes from trees," Sperber says. "And wherever wood is used, urban wood can be used."

Although Sperber has been a commission furniture maker for 16 years, he became more aware of the environmental implications of unwanted trees and became a strong advocate for local wood utilization, founding Wudeward, where along with sustainable hardwood building products, he still creates custom furniture.

"My furniture is simple, yet refined – a union of nature and culture," Sperber says. "Occasionally, the wood takes my design to where it wants to go. I'm never truly in control anyway; we just come to terms."

Sperber says that his craft allows him to make a positive environmental impact and to give a tree a second life filled with "history, emotion and celebration." Flooring is a great option for urban wood. But sometimes it is the artistic value that gets the most press.

His work has been displayed the last two years at the Urban(wood)Encounter furniture exhibit held in Milwaukee as part of the Historic Third Ward's spring gallery night. Urban Encounter pieces had to be produced from wood taken within a 150-mile radius of Milwaukee. Wudeward organized this exhibit and is invited back next year.

"Together we can think differently about sustainability and see the beauty of a resource that may literally be right outside our doors," says Sperber. "The exhibit represents a community – high school and college students, novice and amateur craftsmen, accomplished and celebrated furniture makers – all coming together to increase awareness and acceptance of urban forest products… products from trees otherwise wasted."

Sperber says good things are happening in the urban wood industry – namely, municipalities are recognizing the benefit of returning trees as viable products to the communities where they once grew.

In addition to losing trees, municipalities must absorb the costs associated with tree removal. Rising labor and transportation costs, increased landfill or tipping fees and lost opportunity costs (money that cannot be spent elsewhere in the community) create a financial burden for municipal tree program managers. In addition, landfill space is dwindling and tree disposal in landfills has been either outlawed or reduced by regulations in many states.

"At this time, the decision to use urban forest products is typically a topdown decision," Sperber says, referring to commercial projects. "Success will come when the public demands this product and when architects, designers and others confidently specify this product. And wouldn't it be wonderful if every condemned tree had a local destination – a second life? I love to tell the story of where wood came from."

Mysteries ingrained

For the American Girl oak, it's been a long journey but short trip from tree to table. The journey was more than 150 years of growth, followed by 12 months to saw and dry, and then building the finished products. The short trip refers to the local processing.

Oak conference table © Photo submitted by Paul Morrison
The finished conference table is the centerpiece of products made from the American Girl oak.
Photo submitted by Paul Morrison

After it was brought down in late 2010, parts of the tree were transported to The Wood Cycle sawmill to be split and evaluated. Morrison discovered the tree was home to wasps that slowly awakened as the upper trunk sat in the shop for cleanup and inspection. The tree also was loaded with gypsy moth egg masses. But the fact that they only had to move the wood 17 miles from stump to sawmill to dry kiln to shop saved fuel and protected against further invasive species movement.

Morrison developed a list of potential projects to use the lumber, including pen and business card holders, conference tables, bookshelves and artwork.

He then set aside suitable pieces of wood to turn into wood bowls that showcase the unique grain patterns of the tree. One bowl was presented to Rowland at the company's 25th anniversary celebration.

In late 2011 wood for the conference table arrived at the workshop's finishing room, a space that smells much like an old middle school wood shop. Morrison strives to keep the natural colors of the wood using mostly water-based polyure thane varnish. He says the quality of water-based finishes has improved so much it's not necessary to use the less environmentally safe volatile finishes of the past.

When finished in January 2012, Morrison moved the table to the Hayloft Gallery to await its delivery back to its original location.

The American Girl table encapsulates a few mysteries, too.

One mystery is the story behind the bullets embedded in the wood and preserved in the finished table. Another mystery appeared while cutting the base slices. Morrison's crew found three spikes driven into the tree. He speculates one may have been an original survey marker placed as a benchmark while the American Girl facilities were under construction. Another spike was deeply embedded and was probably driven in 60 to 80 years ago.

Bruce Allison, author of "Every Root an Anchor: Wisconsin's Famous and Historic Trees," requested a wood slice with a spike for further research at the University of Wisconsin. Allison, like Morrison, knows that trees have stories to tell. In Allison's book we learn that naturalist John Muir had his first botany lesson under a giant black locust on Observatory Drive in Madison.

"We are a far more mobile society than ever before," Morrison opines. "And the good news is we can take some parts – like our trees – with us."

Natasha Kassulke is editor of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.