Salvaging Urban Logs for High Value Lumber

Building a home from the ground up is a remarkable experience in which the home owner has a unique and very personal involvement in the design and construction. A growing number of home builders have taken the next step by harvesting trees from their own property and milling the lumber themselves. They forge a close connection with their homes, and with the land that yielded the wood. It also gives them the opportunity to build with quality lumber that is simply unavailable at any lumber yard, such as a 7 meter long by 30 cm exposed square beam, a solid walnut countertop or flooring cut from beetle-killed ash trees.

Jonathan Arnold from Barrie, ON knows this connection well. As co-owner of Shady Lane Tree Service, he was tired of seeing good logs being cut up for firewood or ground into mulch.

The search for a way to put urban logs to a better use led him to the conclusion that he needed a small sawmill. “We bought a Norwood LumberMate sawmill about three years ago, and it has been a really good fit for our company,” he explained.

It was a good fit for the house he was building, as well. His first milling project was a walnut tree which he milled into 3” thick slabs for a counter top in his kitchen. “Without the sawmill, this walnut would have been cut into firewood or left to rot,” he noted, as he ran his hand over the smooth, rich brown surface of the counter. The hardwood floors in his home all came from oak and ash logs that he had salvaged through his business and milled on his portable sawmill. “The outcome was fantastic,” he exclaimed. “You can see the different color and grain in the wood—we love it!”

Milling urban lumber has its challenges, as well as rewards. Working with a variety of species, he has learned the properties of each, and the best way to mill them. Urban trees grown for shade tend to have lower branches and the logs are often shorter than most mills care to handle, but Jon has found that the lumber from these logs is well worth the effort. Urban trees often have metal embedded in them. Nails are the most common, driven into a tree to post a yard sale, or steps for a tree house. Other metal found inside urban logs include bolts, fence wire, and even bullets. Jon takes this all in stride, simply replacing the band saw blade when he cuts into wayward hardware.

Even though he had no previous sawing experience, Jon says that learning to use the mill was easy, and that it only took a few practice logs to feel confident in running it. “The best way to learn is to get one and learn as you go,” he said.

With his house nearing completion, he continues to mill salvaged lumber to sell to other homebuilders. He has stacks of white oak, red oak, ash, walnut, cherry, spruce, and pine air drying in his mill yard. Dozens of high-quality logs are decked up waiting to be milled. “I like the fact that the wood isn’t going to waste, plus there is no way I could buy this quality of lumber,” he noted.

Some of his customers buy lumber from trees he removed from their property. Others just like the idea of the trees being used for lumber instead of mulch or firewood. Jon’s advice to people interested in milling lumber for their homes is simple. “If you’ve ever thought about trying one [a sawmill] out, get started!”

Originally published in Fall 2013 Edition of The Working Forest


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