For the love of wood
As arborists decide the fate of urban trees, The Wood Cycle is ready to give them beautiful, new life.
From the pages of In Business magazine.
Just a short jaunt south on Fish Hatchery Road to Oregon, Paul Morrison, founder of The Wood Cycle, lovingly transforms Wisconsin’s hardwood trees into tables, entertainment centers, cabinets, or whatever a customer desires.
This is not the wood you’d find in any retail store. Morrison and his small staff of craftspeople create artisan furniture and other items from urban trees — pieces that will last a lifetime and hopefully be passed through generations, and that’s the difference, he explains. “These are trees with personal stories,” he says.
Morrison spent 20 years as an engineer before realizing his lifelong dream.
He opened The Wood Cycle in 2001 choosing to work with urban wood. “I didn’t want to go from a well-paying engineering job to making the same thing everyday,” Morrison insists. “I wanted to focus on trees that had stories. That was my business plan.”
He’s never regretted his decision, and wishes more young people would follow suit. “It seems like a lot of our youth are too focused on money, and that there’s too much emphasis on science, engineering, and math. Some people just aren’t wired that way.”
If wood could talk
Morrison maneuvers a large walnut trunk with a skid steer.
The beauty of a black walnut tree is instantly evident as an employee moves it through a saw.
In the third-floor showroom, a sampling of chairs and other furniture is on display.
Morrison guides a tree through the first cut.
Rather than a smooth table top, one customer preferred a ruddier though beautiful finish. Morrison obliges by scraping the wood to add character.
An employee works on a bathroom vanity in the workshop.
The day before we arrived, Wood Cycle staff discovered a penny inside a newly sawn board. “A limb had been cut off, the tree scarred over, and we found the penny. This happens on a regular basis,” Morrison explains.
On another occasion, a No. 6 billiard ball was found embedded in a tree. “Who put it there?” he wonders aloud. He may never find out, but trusts someone knows.
Whether wood comes from a tree that once held a tree house or provided shade for decades of family gatherings, nearly every urban tree has a story beyond its rings.
One customer, for example, lost his home in the Stoughton tornado years ago. Now his current home includes accent pieces made from the wood of a favorite tree that once graced his former yard.
The Wood Cycle focuses on trees that have to come down and relies mostly on trained arborists to make that decision. “Arborists are highly trained to care for a tree. They want to keep a tree rather than make money on cutting it down. I don’t deal with trees until arborists or owners decide it’s time to come down (or they come down on their own).” About half of the wood cut at The Wood Cycle is made into furniture, while another third is sold to the Habitat for Humanity ReStore for hobby woodworkers.
“Some of the world’s most valued wood grows around here,” Morrison remarks, “like black walnut and cherry.”
But quality isn’t a fast process. Transforming a tree into a piece of furniture can take as long as two-and-a-half years, and the cost of artisan craftsmanship isn’t necessarily in the type or age of wood, Morrison explains, it’s all about the drying time. Here, cut boards and slabs are stacked under the protection of a large, solar kiln resembling a greenhouse.
There’s a clear distinction between an urban tree and one that grows in the forest, Morrison explains. “The structure is different. Forest-grown trees grow strong and tall, straight up to the sun, whereas an urban tree may have a limb at 6 feet, then another limb at 7-feet, forming higher-character trees.”
As two employees finish sawing boards from a tree trunk, Morrison jumps into a skid steer and nudges another huge walnut log onto the vehicle’s front fork. He spins the vehicle carefully, and drops it into place on the saw.
“The most efficient way of sawing is to pass it through once or twice and then rotate it,” he explains. “Once that first pass is done, you typically rotate it 180 degrees, then rotate it and turn it another 90 degrees.”
It is a science, he says, to get the right cut for the project at hand. “Sometimes we want the highest character in the wood, sometimes we want the cleanest board, so we talk about each project before cutting a tree to see what makes the most sense.”
On this day, freshly cut black walnut boards are loaded onto a pallet for one customer who provided his own trees. “This one log might make enough wood planks for a dining set,” Morrison states, “or a couple of larger logs could produce enough wood for a full kitchen.”
The dark, rich grain of the walnut slabs is evident to the naked eye even in its raw form. “In general, knots or cracks are considered defects in the commercial world, but for a furniture maker looking for character, this is perfect,” he says admiringly. “Even decay can sometimes be beautiful.”
Several trees are in various stages of refinement on the property. The Farwell tree was named for the Maple Bluff street it came from. “It will be a long time before this tree will be used,” he explains. “We can’t cut it until spring because of the quality of the wood we’ll get out of it. It will dry through next summer and ideally for another year after that. Then we’ll put it in the solar kiln for three to five months before finally being ready to do something with it.”
The before-and-after effect: One set of table legs has been oiled, and the other is about to be.
Oiling the unfinished table leg with a mixture of linseed and polyurethane brings out the true beauty of the wood.
Another chair design that can be created at The Wood Cycle.
Steps away, UW–Madison’s “Elmer” tree, now in huge chunks, finally succumbed to old age after more than 100 years. The largest elm tree on campus produced a slab measuring a whopping 11 feet across, end-to-end. It will eventually return to the campus, albeit in an entirely new, still-to-be-determined form.
Trunks of ash trees delivered to The Wood Cycle in an arrangement with Madison Parks could end up in the new Pinney Library on Cottage Grove Road. “We haven’t sawed those logs yet because we don’t know what we’ll need,” he says. Whether they become paneling or furniture when the library is built will depend on the city budget.
The Wood Cycle’s shop is actually a repurposed dairy barn that Morrison had moved to this site in 2008. Inside, craftsmen work on several projects — a bathroom vanity to a 4-foot by 8-foot dining table destined for Oshkosh. They shave the table top by hand as the customer requested, providing a smooth but ruddier texture.
Upstairs in a finishing room is where the magic truly occurs, when furniture is oiled in a hand-applied mixture of linseed and polyurethane. Instantly, the wood’s true rich beauty and grain appears. This is the payoff, or “fun part,” Morrison smiles.
Nearby, a two-toned dining table is ready for delivery. No straight lines here, it’s removable leaves fit together like puzzle pieces. Each leaf takes a day to create, Morrison notes, which adds to the table’s uniqueness and cost. Color variations, from yellows to deep browns, occur naturally. “The outer layer of the tree is lighter in color because it transmits sap,” Morrison says. “The inner part is just old wood.”
Morrison believes there’s been a sea change. “Decades ago, craftsmen were retiring or dying out because cheap imports took hold and baby boomers didn’t have a lot of spending money. Now the opposite is happening. I believe there’s a general frustration with poor craftsmanship, and more and more people are rejecting junk.”
And he couldn’t be happier, because beauty, he insists, needs to be more than skin deep.
“I’m focused on making something that will last. That’s my biggest joy.”
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