Urban Lumber: What Is It?

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Urban lumber is freshly milled wood from trees removed from urban settings. It's beautiful, sustainable and likely to become more widely available.

Have you ever wondered what happens to a tree that gets blown over by the wind or has to be removed to make way for a power line or other development project? In the not-too-distant past, that tree would have been ground up into wood chips or burned, both expensive processes with few community benefits and no regard for carbon sequestration. These days, thanks to entrepreneurs like Seth Carlson, founder and CEO of Dakota Timber Company, it’s increasingly likely to end up in your living room as furniture or on the outside of your house as siding.

Carlson grew his company from a post-college side hustle to a full-scale sustainable wood manufacturing plant in nine short years, and it isn’t the only business of its kind. “In our communities across North Dakota alone,” he says, “there is enough wood coming down from our city streets to produce well over 1 million board feet of lumber each year.” Altogether, the U.S. Forest Service estimates that urban wood mills have the potential to supply 30 percent of the lumber market for the entire country.

Far from being an inferior product, urban wood has character. According to Carlson, “The quality of urban hardwood is much more unique than what would traditionally be found in the commodity hardwood market. More unique grain textures, colors and defects actually add to the beauty of this material,” he explains

What Is Urban Lumber?

Put simply, urban lumber is wood that comes from trees that grow in urban settings. Although it has been reclaimed from the wood chipper or burn pile, it isn’t what is generally referred to a “reclaimed wood.” That term refers to pre-used wood usually salvaged from demolition projects. Urban lumber is freshly milled, new wood.

Because it is milled from individual trees, some of which may be uncommon species and decades old, urban wood often has colors, textures and grain patterns that have all but disappeared from the lumberyard. Unlike reclaimed wood — which has already been milled and used — urban wood can be custom-milled for use in high-end furniture, tabletops and cabinetry. “Although this is recycled wood,” says Carlson, “we actually are able to produce some of the most contemporary and high-end wood products.”

Urban wood can also be milled into ship-lap siding, fencing panels, beams and other types of utilitarian lumber. The best use depends on the type of tree, its size and which parts of it are useable. There’s no single standard because of the sheer variety of trees that grow in urban environments.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Urban Lumber

Besides the obvious ecological benefit of turning trees removed from an urban setting into lumber instead of wood chips or smoke, urban lumber offers a number of other benefits, such as:

Pros of urban lumber

  • It’s beautiful: Some urban wood comes from old trees with well-developed grain patterns and lush colors, and some comes from species that are no longer common, such as chestnut, walnut and cherry.
  • It’s locally sourced: Urban lumber mills source their material from the immediate region, reducing transportation costs and fuel usage. When you buy urban wood, you’re supporting the local economy.
  • It’s a heritage material: An old oak or walnut tree that has been part of the community for a hundred years is part of local history. When it finally has to go, as all things must, its wood has historical value.
  • It’s a renewable resource: The number of new tree plantings in most communities typically exceeds the number of trees cut.

Cons of urban lumber

The number of drawbacks of urban wood is too small to make a list, but two are significant: The quality of the wood is unpredictable and trees that grow in the city often contain metal, which complicates the milling process and drives up costs.

According to Carlson: “One out of two urban salvaged logs has metal in it….you know, from that tree house you built or that bird house you nailed on your tree or the “Garage Sale” sign you fastened onto the tree on the street corner. All of that human contact over the years left its mark. And the evidence is in the log, in the form of sawmill blade-destroying metal fragments. So you can imagine the cost of blades alone is quite insane.”

Price Comparison To Traditional Wood

According to Carlson, many urban lumber producers have small operations, and they process the wood they mill into furniture and other finished products. A number of lumberyards do offer a selection of milled urban lumber to customers, and when they do, they grade it as #2 lumber, which allows for knots and other defects. The price is usually comparable to a higher grade of traditional lumber, such as Select or FAS, and is typically from $3 to $5 per board foot. Some species of urban hardwood, such as elm, aren’t available on the commodities market, which makes a price comparison for those species irrelevant.

Where To Find Urban Lumber

Carlson claims you can find locally sourced urban lumber no matter where you live, but that may be a little optimistic. It’s probably fair to say, however, that you should be able to find a source within a few hundred miles. There are small operations on the West Coast (Urban Wood Rescue, Street Tree Revival) in the Midwest (Wudeward Urban Forest Products, Urban Wood Goods and Carlson’s own Dakota Timber Company) and on the East Coast (Urban Specialty Woods). You can also shop online at the Urban Wood Marketplace or search for a supplier on the Urban Wood Network.

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Chris Deziel
Chris Deziel has been active in the building trades for more than 30 years. He helped build a small city in the Oregon desert from the ground up and helped establish two landscaping companies. He has worked as a carpenter, plumber and furniture refinisher. Deziel has been writing DIY articles since 2010 and has worked as an online consultant, most recently with Home Depot's Pro Referral service. His work has been published on Landlordology, Apartments.com and Hunker. Deziel has also published science content and is an avid musician.