Turning Downed Arizona Trees Into Furniture

Published: Thursday, January 14, 2016 - 5:09pm
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(Photo by Mark Brodie - KJZZ)
Silas Kyler (left) and David Hildreth are behind the upcoming documentary, "Felled."
(Photo by Mark Brodie - KJZZ)
LaVor Smith cuts into a tree.
(Photo courtesy Tiny Chair Pictures)
The big "reveal:" A freshly milled slab from a local urban tree.
(Photo courtesy Tiny Chair Pictures)
A dinner table made by James Hamstra and Silas Kyler from a local Aleppo Pine tree.

Rex Condie is prepping a log to go under the knife at the Wine Glass Bar Saw Mill, just north of Sky Harbor. It’s a big piece of lumber, and it’ll likely become a piece of furniture.

Condie said people think Phoenix only has cactuses, but people who’ve come from elsewhere want trees in their yards.

"Nurseries have tried to accommodate that and have found trees that are acclimated to this climate from around the world and brought them here so people can have trees. And a lot of those trees have just gorgeous, beautiful hardwood in it that’s suited for making fine furniture," he said.

Condie and his partner and fellow retiree, LaVor Smith, started their mill about two years ago. It was about that time they realized most Valley trees that came down, because of storms or other reasons, went to the landfill. Smith said that’s a shame.

"We didn’t even know that all this hardwood was in the Valley going to the dump. And there’s four to five species here that only grow kind of here in Phoenix that come from all over the world. All of a sudden, we found out all this wood’s going to the dump or being wasted," Smith said.

So, the two did some research and found a subculture that goes around town looking for trees that have fallen and makes something out of it. Silas Kyler is a woodworker and one of the people on the lookout for interesting lumber.

"When you work with wood, you start to appreciate the details of the grain and the beauty of the different species. In an urban environment, there’s so many species that I’ve never seen before as lumber, so some of it’s unknown potential where I see a log and think that could be really cool," Kyler said.

Kyler is also a videographer and, along with documentary filmmaker David Hildreth, is working on a film about the process of turning fallen trees into furniture. It is called “Felled.” Hildreth said it’s about potential.

"Here is this wood that was really cool when it was a tree in somebody’s front yard, and it meant a lot to them when it was in their front yard, but once it hit the ground after a storm, it was trash. It was worth nothing. Most of the tree was in the back of a truck, cut up for firewood when we got there," Hildreth said.

This wood is more than trash, he said. It could be a dining room table for a family, a desk, chair or any number of other things. The movie tracks an Aleppo Pine tree that came down in Tempe during the 2014 monsoon being turned into tables.

This seems to be a trend that’s catching on in the Valley. Smith said there are a bunch of old growth trees around town that are coming to the ends of their lives that would be perfect for turning into furniture. Mesa resident Otto Shill had a couple of them, walnut trees, in his yard.

"The tree was planted either by my grandfather or my great grandfather, I’m not sure which. But, they’re probably over 100 years old, and there were two trees," Shill said.

Shill wants to make a dinette set or a desk with the wood. He said if he can’t have the trees anymore, having furniture made from them is the next best thing.

"Every tree’s different, and it’s like opening a Christmas present," Smith said.

You can’t go into a home improvement store and buy this kind of wood, he said. Much of the furniture being built now is not using this quality of lumber. What he and Condie are doing is a win-win: It helps create unique furniture, and keeps valuable wood out of the landfill.

"We’re not in this for the money," Smith said. "We’re just in this for the enjoyment of seeing excitement about saving these trees and what people can do with them."

Condie said this isn’t just for people who want to turn their trees into a table. They’ll also go out and pick up trees, mill them, and then sell the lumber to woodworkers. In those cases, they keep a record of where the tree came from and why it came down.

Hildreth said that after storms Craigslist is awash in trees people don’t know what to do with. There are lots of people both here and in other cities trying to figure out how to make this process work better. In many cases, it’s something people just haven’t thought about, but makes sense to them once they do, he said.

"Most of us have, like, IKEA furniture, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But people recognize quality still, even though we all buy whatever is cheapest. I think there’s still something out there that people want something that’s quality, something that’s well made. And, this is a really economical way to do it." Hildreth said.

So far there’s no real industry around this process of turning fallen trees into furniture, but he said he is hopeful that will change.

Condie and Smith said that in a typical day about a 100 trees come down in Phoenix. Their mill can only handle about five or six of those. There are a few others people doing this kind of work, but even if more started, together they still wouldn’t be able to work with all of those trees. The goal is to eventually turn their mill over to someone younger, who can do more with it.

The film, “Felled,” is set to be released later this year.

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