Turning dead trees into woodwork with character

| 03 Jan 2013 | 06:25

When Hurricane Sandy ripped four trees out of her yard, it was “one of those synchronistic moments” for Kim Gabelmann.

Gabelmann owns the Conscious Fork in Warwick, a new farm-to-table eatery and market, where herbs grow in boxes salvaged from a local organic winery. She’s planning to dig a garden in her backyard, to grow kale, carrots, beets, micro-greens and herbs to supplement the food at the restaurant. But mostly kale. After all, the restaurant’s phone number is 988-KALE. When the storm hit, she’d been cutting pictures of garden fences out of magazines. What she wanted was not just a barrier high enough to deter deer and deep enough to keep out groundhogs, but a fence that was itself a piece of art.

In the hands of a certain sawyer she’d met at a farmer’s market, Gabelmann wondered whether the trees that had come down right where her garden would be could become the fence posts. She called Megan Offner.

Megan Offner, 36, is getting to be known as the Log Lady. A graduate of the Yestermorrow Design Build School in Vermont, she migrated from Brooklyn to Warwick and, with the dad-of-a-friend named Dave Washburn, started a sawmill in 2011 called New York Heartwoods. The company consists of one portable sawmill, a passive solar kiln, a tractor, some hand-made drying racks where boards sits for a year after they’ve been milled and before they go into the kiln. Personnel are Washburn and Offner, one part-time employee (Dave’s brother Steve) and a couple volunteers. The philosophy: repurpose local dead and dying trees, which would otherwise be chopped into firewood or chipped into mulch, into high-value products like live-edged furniture, flooring, house frames, or artisanal cutting boards.

Four billion board feet of wood end up in the landfill every year, explained Washburn, who for decades managed a 50-acre woodlot. Meanwhile, the country’s entire wood products industry uses only two billion board feet a year. In other words, if we could make good use of our “worst” trees, we’d never have to cut down any trees at all.

“The trend in forestry practice is high-grading, taking the best trees, clear cutting. Our forests aren’t regenerating,” said Offner. “We’re turning that model on its head.”

Taking advantage of the material on offer from dead and dying trees is only feasible if you process and use the trees near where they fell. As the price of fossil fuels escalates, the transport of heavy lumber will only become more cost prohibitive. What we need is “a sawmill on every corner,” as Washburn put it – a network of local sawmills like New York Heartwoods.

New York Heartwoods is nestled into the back of a Warwick farm owned by the appropriately named Jed Bark. Bark owns the sawmill, which he used to use to make wood for his fine art framing shop in New York City. (Rumor has it he framed a Van Gogh in wood from a walnut tree from his property.) Bark lets the sawyers work on his land and use his sawmill in exchange for wood. Barter seems to be New York Heartwood’s preferred way of doing business, which is only natural, given the company’s focus on creating resilient local networks independent of outside resources.

The sawmill is a modest affair; the entire operation could be moved in a day. It was 14 months before they even got a tractor. “People would drop off logs and say, ‘Where’s your heavy equipment?’” recalled Washburn. “I’d point to my brother.”

But sometime between hurricanes Irene and Sandy, Offner and Washburn stopped thinking of themselves as a niche producer. With a lifetime’s worth of work piled up within a 10-mile radius, they find themselves with an overwhelming and essential role to fulfill. “With all the trees that have come down during Hurricane Sandy, we could be building and rebuilding thousands of homes,” said Offner in a promotional video they just shot so they can start fundraising for a bigger kiln. It was time to stop being shy.

“I think before too I wasn’t ready to promote what we were doing because I had this idea of, who am I to do this work? But as quickly as things are changing, we don’t have time to become experts. We just have to follow our intuition, learn as we go,” said Offner. “We know what doesn’t work. The way forests have been managed aren’t making good forests. So it’s like okay, I know what not to do. So let’s try out something, see what does work.”

A month after Sandy, Offner and a crew of three guys loaded eight-foot-long logs from Kim Gabelmann’s yard onto a trailer hooked up to a Chevy pickup. The downed trees were three ash and one cherry, which won’t make good fence posts. They’re not rot-resistant enough. The cherry logs, though, have lots of knots -- “character features,” Offner calls them – and will make gorgeous artisanal cutting boards. The larger ash might have a future as furniture or flooring. The ash that’s too small to be worth milling can be chopped up to use as mushroom logs or firewood (see sidebar).

I followed the pickup and its load of five giant logs the five miles from Gabelmann’s house, past farms and wetlands and up an unmarked gravel road to the sawmill. When we got there, Washburn was slicing a black locust log into “live-edge” boards, which means the bark is still on. “Black locust is nature’s own pressure treated lumber,” he said. Washburn will talk to anyone, anytime, about trees. “We never turn down black locust. These logs are from Blooms Corner Road. They came down in Irene.”

“You mean Sandy?” I corrected him.

“Nope, Irene,” he said. “We’re still taking in Irene logs.” Suddenly I understood the extent of the glut.

For the wood that she donated, Gabelmann will get a credit toward lumber based on the stumpage value of the logs, as assessed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. That credit will go towards some hardier wood – locust, eastern red cedar, pine, hemlock – for her fence. The precise wood that she gets will depend on what’s in stock and ready when Gabelmann wants it. Unlike the big sawmills, New York Heartwoods air dries boards for a year per inch of thickness before putting them in the kiln. That saves on costs and resources and preserves wood’s character, but it also means they can’t turn orders around pronto-presto.

“We tell ‘em it’s not McDonalds,” Washburn said.

Offner is keeping her eyes open for cedar, which would be ideal for Gabelmann’s fence. “We were waiting to see if we got any cedar from the storm, but cedar is really pliable, and didn’t fall down,” she said. Another potential source of cedar is Lowland Farms, which will soon be clearing more land for its grass-fed beef. Conveniently, that land is right next to the sawmill.

It could be another synchronistic moment in the making.