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Rethinking Damaged Urban Trees - Waste to Resource

A mill in Hartford receives nearly 4,000 urban trees a year from which to salvage lumber.

Bob Wesp admits the city tree trucks waiting inspection are not a pretty sight. We’re standing across the road from his lumber store off Highway 41 in Hartford - staring at an unruly pile of tree trunks.

“You get elm, you get ash, but we get a lot of maple,” Wesp says.

Despite the magnitude of the pile, it represents only a small fraction of Wesp’s business and is the only wood he mills. Most lumber stacked in his showroom arrives ready to sell to contractors and cabinetmakers - in standard lengths.

“Most saw mills, if the log isn’t 8 feet long, it’s not a log,” Wesp says.

However, the urban trees arrive damaged, and in odd shapes and sizes.

“Those logs are four, five and six feet long, but there’s still a lot of useable lumber in them, and we saw those,” Wesp says.

Bob Wesp outside his sawmill.
Dwayne Sperber crafted the table behind him as part of an annual furniture show. All of the pieces are created from resourced urban trees.

Wesp walks me through the mill. The air smells of the pine he’s been cutting. Wesp says before running the logs through, he often has to remove embedded metal.

“A lot of the trees that come out of the city have metal in them – nails that were pounded in over the years. Sometimes they actually put a bolt through the tree to hold it together. It’ll add 10 or twenty years to the trees life, but it sure doesn’t do us any good,” Wesp says.

Wesp invested in a hand-held detector.

“You have to check every log and you have to check four faces - as it lays on the ground and then you roll it and check the bottom and make sure there’s nothing in there so there’s a lot of labor that goes into it,” Wesp says.

Yet Wesp is confident he can turn a profit by recycling urban trees. For example, shipping companies could use the imperfect planks to hold big pieces of machinery in place for transport.

“You get a lot of different products out of it. Some of it ends up in tables, some in trim or wainscoating, but some of it is pallet lumber and industrial blocking as well,” Wesp says.

During my visit, Wesp’s mill stood silent. He says his challenge, is to build markets for urban wood. Dwayne Sperber is on board. He’s a furniture crafter and a connection maker.

“I learned about a U.S. Forest Service study that said if all urban trees were turned into lumber, it would equal 3.8 billion board feet of lumber; which is about 30 percent of what is produced in a year commercially,” Sperber says.

Sperber says it’s not a tree-hugger thing, but rather capitalizing on what’s usable. However, he says it’s not as simple as filling a warehouse with urban lumber.

“A general contractor won’t generally come in and ask for urban wood unless he’s directed to use it,” Sperber says.

He has been targeting architects and customers.

“These people need to feel really good that this is wood that can be used like any other wood and it’s a little delicate sometimes,” Sperber says.

Re-purposed ash in Clock Shadow Building

He and Wesp have started connecting. Urban ash now threads dramatically up five flights, in the form of 88 stair treads in the Clock Shadow building in Milwaukee’s Walker’s Point neighborhood.

Wesp says, today, another order will head out his door. A new day care center on the UWM campus will incorporate his urban ash, as paneling and trim.

Wesp says he noodled the idea of repurposing damaged city trees a long time before he made the move.

“I think the biggest reason it came to be was because of the Emerald ash borer and the awareness that there’s going to be a lot of wood coming down. Municipalities are starting to realize they have to figure something out other than putting it in the landfill,” Wesp says.

While Milwaukee is Wesp’s biggest supplier, he says it has not been bringing him loads of ash. The city is opting to treat rather than eliminate its ash canopy. However, he still receives nearly 4,000 urban trees a year from which to salvage lumber.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee has slashed its tree disposal costs in half.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.