In handcrafted furniture, damaged trees find a second life
At Urban Hardwoods, madrona planks serve as backdrop for an elegant elm dining table, which features a custom stain finish, a glass centerpiece and legs of torched fir with plexiglass.
WHEN A DECAYED old madrona fell down recently on Washington state Department of Transportation property, it escaped being chipped for mulch or chopped for firewood. Its hefty bottom half, at least 5 feet across, went to Urban Hardwoods, a unique furniture business dedicated to giving trees a second life. The madrona's leafy upper story went to the Woodland Park Zoo, where it serves as shelter and plaything for the orangutans.
"A couple of years ago we would have missed out," says Urban Hardwoods founder Jim Newsom. "Now we know how to salvage and use these monster trees."
The diseases that sometimes kill urban trees create lovely patterning on the glossy tabletops or curvaceous chairs designed and built by the trio of dedicated woodworkers at Urban Hardwoods.
Newsom started out by cruising Puget Sound in a rotten old tugboat, dragging discarded pieces of wood to his shop on the Duwamish River. He lamented trees being cut down around the city, knowing they could be recycled rather than destroyed. Over time, he developed ways to mill, dry and work with hardwoods. Now his shop has expanded to a woodworking warehouse where the walls are lined in grain-rich planks waiting to be turned into furniture. A couple of miles south is the log yard piled with fat trunks of big leaf maple, elm, sycamore and madrona. Here the wood is milled, bundled to air dry, then put into the kiln to complete the drying process. It can take six months to a year for a tree to travel from raw material to finished furniture.
Newsom is joined at Urban Hardwoods by furniture makers John Wells and Seth Meyer. All three are passionate about woodworking. "We're looking at logs most people would have given up on long ago," says Wells. "You cut into the wood and read the tree's life — when it was pruned, what happened to it."
A long history of the human hand is revealed in the pruning cuts, nails and notches they find when shaping the wood into furniture. "It isn't about how much wood we can get out of each plank but the best use of each log," Meyer explains. Such sensitivity to shape and grain results in organic-looking furniture with a sleek, modern aesthetic.
"We try to bring a Northwest feel to European styling, warm it up a bit," says Wells. They keep the design simple to show off the character of the wood. Often pieces are inset with bands of steel for a crisp, clean look; others are rustic slabs of wood. All are sophisticated in design and expertly finished.
A recently completed circular elm table stands in the warehouse, swirls of grain enlivening its dark, glossy surface. Knot holes, distinctive grains and irregular patterning wrought by fungal disease all make these pieces so tactile and sensuous that even the most minimal and modern demand a close look, a stroke, an appreciation for the natural material.
Furniture design here is collaborative. Clients peruse the planks and choose the wood they love best. Then Newsom, Meyer and Wells, who has a degree from the Rhode Island School of Design, work with the customers to design what best suits both their home and the wood itself. Right now they're busy turning the trees felled to build a house on Bainbridge into its floors, doors and furniture, so the trees will stay on the property, albeit in different form.
Most trees, however, travel farther from where they grew. Newsom is working to develop both suppliers of wood and markets for hardwoods (deciduous trees and madrona, not conifers, which are soft woods). He's been helped from the start by King County Link-Up, a program that supports businesses making new products from recycled materials. Newsom has formed productive partnerships with arborists, developers, the state Department of Transportation and the University of Washington to salvage the trees they take down. And from them, new life.
To See the Goods
CHECK OUT URBAN Hardwoods furniture in Seattle at the new Merrill Hall at the Center for Urban Horticulture (3501 N.E. 41st St.), in the showrooms at Urban Ease (2512 Second Ave., 206-443-9546) or on the company Web page at www.urbanhardwoods.com.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is email@example.com. Tom Reese is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
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