Turning Urban Wood Into Gold

Recycling Municipal Trees in Virginia

How can arborists, foresters and others turn urban wood into gold?  Find out in this video…

Turning Urban Wood Into Gold

Transforming Old Wood into a New Business

Sometimes a tree comes to the end of its life due to old age or sickness, and whether its a fruit tree or a native tree it can be heartbreaking to send it to the chipper. A project in Virginia is working hard to link up arborists, foresters, millers and artisan woodworks to save trees from that sad fate. The Virginia Urban Wood Group is a joint venture between the non-profit TreesVirginia and the Virginia Department of Forestry and their goal is to teach people how to recognize good wood, how to process it, and how to turn it into a marketable business.

Urban Wood Utilization Workshops in Virginia

An Urban Wood Utilization Workshop in Virginia in March 2017.

Part of the program is to offer Urban Wood Utilization Workshops to local foresters, arborists, landowners and woodworkers to give them the tools they need to explore business opportunities when it comes to recycling urban trees. One of the attendees in a workshop in March 2017 was Trevor Saville, a forester whose passion is supporting landowners with smaller woodlots.

“(Small woodlot owners) may only have a few trees but a lot of times those trees are worth more in certain areas like speciality woodworking,” he says.

The Appeal of Urban Wood? It’s Not Perfect

Amazingly, one of the things that makes urban wood so valuable today, is its imperfections, according to Joe Lehnen, a forest utization and marketing specialist from The Virginia Department of Forestry and one of the organizers of the wood utilization workshop.

Imperfect wood…including wood from sick or partially rotten trees…can be beautiful when integrated into furniture.

“One of the biggest trends right now in hand crafted furniture is called “live edge”. People want to see the contour of the tree as it stood in the woodlot. They are not necessarily looking for straight edges. And evidence of imperfections is actually desirable to some folks. So there is a whole new market developing for trees that are not perfect,” he says.

One local woodworker who has already made waves in recycling urban wood is Bill St. Pierre, of St. Pierre Woodworking in Floyd, Virginia. He uses reclaimed and often heritage wood to make fine furniture and other products for his customers.

“We don’t want perfect wood. We want more character, more knots, more rot, and that’s how we get the character we get in our tables.”

Learning to Identify and Value Urban Wood

In March 2017 about 20 people attended The Urban Wood Utilization Workshop to learn what is involved in that kind of business. The morning session was packed with information.  Participants learned how to identify good wood and how to value and cut it. They also learned the qualities of the different types of wood in terms of rot resistance, strength and workability – and all are important when considering whether to turn logs into cutting boards, furniture, sculptures or cabinets.

Article Continues Below

You might also be interested in:

VIDEO: Why arborists have a love/hate relationship with fruit trees
VIDEO: North American tree climbing championships
WORKSHOP: Fruit Tree Care for ISA Certified Arborists (up to 8 CEUs)


Indeed, some urban trees are more valuable than others and certain types of wood are best for specific applications. For instance, white oaks are highly decay resistant and used for flooring, furniture and even boats. The wood from spruce trees is sometimes used to make musical instruments. And black walnut is excellent for furniture, cabinetry and gunstocks. Because it resists decay it can also be used for outdoor benches that can withstand rain and moisture.

Urban Wood Business Equipment and Resources

Often it’s expensive to transport logs from city lots to commercial mills. One solution is to bring a portable wood mill to the site.

During the afternoon session participants also saw a portable sawmill in action. Often transporting large logs to sawmills can be very expensive so it’s more economical in the case of urban trees and small woodlots to process the wood on the site.

“To do this type of urban wood business you need speciality equipment,” Joe Lehnen explains.

“The traditional larger logging equipment will not work on smaller lots. You need smaller equipment like a portable sawmill. They are mobile, they can go to any site, like an arborist yard or an individual homeowner.”

Once the logs have been processed, the boards must be dried in kilns or in other ways.

The program is still in its infancy, but developing these local initiatives has to start somewhere, with local people working together, sharing resources and coming up with a plan.

Here are a few Interesting links discussed in the workshop:

To learn more about these workshops contact TreesVirginia.

Arborist Training in Fruit Tree Care - Click To Learn More

ISA Arborists can earn up to 8 CEUs for fruit tree care training. This online course covers specialist fruit tree pruning, pest and disease prevention, fertility management and more.

Susan Poizner

Susan Poizner

Director, OrchardPeople.com Fruit Tree Care Education Online

Susan Poizner is the author of the award-winning fruit tree care book Growing Urban Orchards and the creator of the award-winning online fruit tree care training program at www.orchardpeople.com. She is also the host of The Urban Forestry Radio Show and Podcast.  She is an urban orchardist, journalist and film maker living in Toronto, Canada.