Urban Wood

Ontario’s Urban Tree Salvage is using urban wood from around the Toronto area to slice itself a piece of an increasingly environmentally conscious wood products market.

By Paul MacDonald

Urban Tree Salvage president—and Leafs fan—Sean Gorham (above) felt that setting up a company that would use salvaged urban wood was a natural move, considering the trend towards using environmentally friendly wood products.  

It sounds a bit like a sawmiller’s dream: all the logging is done for you and you’re able to buy the timber at less than market value. That’s kind of the situation Ontario’s Urban Tree Salvage company finds itself in.                                   

Located in Scarborough—part of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA)—Urban Tree Salvage has recently expanded its operations further, opening a showroom which features not only the slabs and lumber produced from urban wood, but also the furniture the company manufactures from the salvaged wood. Over the last several years, the company has been wholesaling wood to a number of wood products manufacturers, and the showroom will give Urban Tree Salvage an opportunity to further broaden out its market, says company president Sean Gorham.                                   

“We deal with homeowners here and there, but now we’ll be able to offer them an indoor lumber product area and also be able to market our furniture,” says Gorham. The company has already had success on an international basis, selling and shipping its wood and furniture to customers in the United States and Asia.                                   

The real interesting twist to the story is that every single piece of wood the company produces for lumber or for furniture comes from salvage or so-called urban wood, mostly from the GTA and, further to the west, from the municipality of Oakville. Urban Tree Salvage has negotiated contracts to receive wood from the GTA and Oakville municipal governments and this is where paying less than market value for the timber comes in.                                   

The idea of starting a company that uses urban wood came to Gorham while he was studying landscape design. “A lot of the people I went to school with were arborists and they used to be left with piles of logs in their trucks, and they said how much of a problem it was to get rid of the logs. Right off the bat, I had the idea to utilize that wood to produce lumber and furniture products.”                                   

Gorham, whose father and grandfather were both cabinetmakers, had already been working with salvage wood for some time. He’d often go in after hydro crews had done clearing work, salvage some of the logs and have them cut at a local mill. “Or if any trees came down on my grandfather’s property, we’d use them.” Gorham felt that with the trend  towards using environmentally friendly wood products, setting up a company that would use salvaged urban wood was a natural. “It’s become huge in the marketplace,” he says. “It goes beyond just the furniture manufacturers to the architects, the interior designers and the homeowners. We’re finding that a lot of architects and designers are coming to us and spec’ing our lumber and our furniture.”                                   

Gorham sees this move to environmentally friendly wood products being more of a permanent market shift than simply a trend or fad. “I think we’re going to see a broader recognition of the interest in where wood products come from—it’s not going to be restricted to lumber coming from the shelves of the local Home Depot.”                                   

There is no shortage of urban timber for Urban Tree Salvage. In the GTA alone, upwards of 9,000 trees a year are taken down, some of them substantial. They can be up to six feet in diameter and up to 140 feet high. “You can imagine the volume available in those trees,” says Gorham.                                   

Species run the range: apple, cherry, elm, hard maple, soft maple, red oak, black oak, white oak, willow and walnut. And all of these trees are going to come down regardless—it’s not like they are being taken down specifically for Urban Tree Salvage.                                   

In the case of wood from the GTA and Oakville, the bucked timber is trucked to central sites, where Gorham gets to select which wood they want. “We don’t actually go out to the sites where the trees are removed—the municipalities look after that. That means there is a lot of trucking that isn’t needed on our part because the wood is being moved by the municipality anyway,” notes Gorham.  

The company also deals with developers, the largest of which would also stockpile wood at designated locations.                                   

Initially, and quite logically, Urban Tree Salvage tried moving the timber from these central sites with logging trucks, but decided that might eventually cause problems. Moving timber by trucks through forestry towns like Thunder Bay or Prince George may be nothing unusual, but having logging trucks on the urban highways within Toronto is a different story. “People in Toronto aren’t used to seeing a logging truck on the 401 or the QEW,” notes Gorham. “A bit of bark flying off a truck might be enough to cause an accident.”                                   

They now use a 40-cubic-yard steel bin, which is loaded with logs and then tarped off so they don’t have to worry about any debris escaping during the trip to the yard.                                   

The business approach at Urban Tree Salvage, although it sounds fairly straightforward, requires a lot of skill and forestryrelated knowledge, Gorham notes. “These trees are not the normal trees you’d find in a forest,” he explains. “Quite a few of them are under tremendous stress, due to a lack of nutrients and other environmental factors. Many of the trees are grown on sites with a soil volume that was not set up to maintain a tree.” Some of the trees might contain metal, mostly nails. Gorham uses a variety of industrial metal detectors to pinpoint the metal and remove it.                                   

And Gorham himself takes great care in cutting each log on the company’s diesel-powered Wood-Mizer LT40 Super Hydraulic, ever mindful of the stress. He uses a Case 60XT skid steer to move wood around the yard.                                   

“A lot of it is learning how to mill wood in a different way than a typical mill would handle wood. If you do it wrong, you’re not going to relieve that stress in the log. It’s going to be left there, and when it goes into the kiln, you’re going to have a lot of defect.”                                   

Much of the approach towards cutting a log the right way is intuitive—not necessarily something that can be explained easily. “But it’s something that you can learn,” notes Gorham. That said, they still have ongoing challenges dealing with salvage wood. When he has questions, Gorham has had great help from staff at the Faculty of Forestry at the University of Toronto. “They’re a great resource. Even with a wood science background, there are still lots of things I don’t know on the science side.

One of their more interesting jobs involved salvaging wood of a different sort—old growth pine from the old Queen’s Wharf on the Toronto waterfront. The wharf itself dates back to the early 1800s, while the wood is estimated to date from the 1600s. “They called us up and asked us if we were interested in the pilings—we had to make a decision overnight whether we wanted it,” explains Gorham. “We were up all night coming up with plans on how we could use it and making calls to people. There was a lot to consider. It’s not regular wood anymore—it’s been sitting underwater, set in clay, and bacteria has been eating away at it.”                                   

They decided to take 70 truckloads of the Queen’s Wharf wood. They developed custom drying times for the timber, which was essentially saturated with moisture. It is now being used for furniture and wide plank flooring— and lumber. They’re using the fact that it comes from the 1800s waterfront as part of their marketing. “People like to know where the wood comes from. We do that a lot with architects and designers.”                                   

Urban Tree Salvage has received a lot of interest from people—and municipalities—across Canada about setting up their operation elsewhere. “But at this point, we’re still trying to improve our operations here and determining what products will work,” says Gorham.                                   

The company is essentially trying to develop a new industry, which takes great patience. “It’s not something you can fast track. It takes time, capital and lots of knowledge.” But they have a business plan, and they are on track to achieving their goals, says Gorham.                                   

“We think about expanding,” he says. Urban Tree Salvage would seem to be a natural business for franchising. “But there’s still so much knowledge to be gained, and we want to be able to supply people we go into business with, with that knowledge.”                                   

Gorham adds they have to be careful, noting that a lot of businesses have tried the salvage wood business and failed. “We need to get things right on the knowledge side, on the capital side and especially on the marketing side,” he says. “Marketing is everything—even though we are a small company, we have our own marketing manager.”                                   

Some of those companies have failed because they approached running an urban wood operation as a side operation, a part-time business. “That’s fine if someone is looking to salvage a log here and there for building small furniture. But as a business, you have to move the wood. We’re moving anywhere from 12,000 to 15,000 board feet of material every month.”                                   

Inevitably, Gorham receives regular calls from homeowners who think they have a tree worth thousands of dollars sitting in their front yard. “We’re constantly telling people that, no, we can’t pay them for their tree.” Many urban trees are not usable, he says.     

Sean Gorham takes great care in cutting each log on the company’s Wood-Mizer LT 40 Super Hydraulic (left), mindful of the stress that might be present in the logs, due to a lack of nutrients and other environmental factors.  

They also don’t want to set the precedent of paying for the wood, he explains. “As soon as you start paying, you are creating a market, and that’s not what we are about.” They don’t want trees coming down specifically to supply Urban Tree Salvage, he says. “We’re about salvaging the trees that are coming down due to structural damage, development, insects and diseases.”                                   

Besides, Urban Tree Salvage does not need this additional wood. “We get contacted every day, and we’re turning down wood that is coming down right and left.”                                   

There are still plans to grow. In addition to the timber from the GTA, Oakville and development companies, they are looking at taking wood from arborists. “If we could arrange to have the wood trucked right to the yard, it would make it very manageable.                                   

“That would be a huge step for us. And there would be the potential for charging fees for dropping the wood off. There would still be savings for the arborists because they would not have to truck it out of town.”                                   

Historically, much of the urban salvage wood from arborists and municipalities has been used to generate mulch. “But at some point the need for mulch caps out,” says Gorham. “And you don’t want to be sending that timber to the landfill.”                                   

Utilizing that wood, and taking it up the value chain, seems to be a natural, he says, because the flow of urban wood is going to continue. “As long as we are growing trees in the city, there are always going to be trees coming down.”  

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