Finding good use for damaged trees

Workers pile brush and woodchips collected after the December ice storm on the old quarry lands at Victoria Park Avenue and Gerrard Street East. PHOTO: Andrew Hudson
Workers pile brush and woodchips collected after the December ice storm on the old quarry lands at Victoria Park Avenue and Gerrard Street East.
PHOTO: Andrew Hudson

Smelling of wood chips and with trucks rumbling by full of tree limbs, the former golf range at Gerrard Street and Victoria Park Avenue felt like a sawmill yard last week.

Converted into a temporary holding site for waste wood, it is now part of Toronto’s $75 million clean-up from the December ice storm.

But for salvage companies, there may be a second windfall between the heaps of brush and wood chips – a gathering stack of saw logs.

“It’s part of the cycle, and maybe something that in the past we haven’t thought enough about,” says Janet McKay, founder of LEAF, a non-profit dedicated to Toronto’s urban forest.

“What happens to those trees when they have to come down?”

The ice storm is neither the first nor the last time Toronto will see so many trees go down all at once.

Sean Cosgrove is a city planner and one of the people behind Neighbour Wood, a new project that started largely as a response to the emerald ash borer infestation that is expected to kill most of Toronto’s 860,000 ash trees.

This fall, Neighbour Wood published an online directory of companies who use Toronto wood – from arborists to carvers to furniture designers – and held a roundtable talk with 50 mostly smaller-scale artisans.

“I still think it’s fairly early days in the conversation here,” said Cosgrove, who was at the November roundtable.

“We’ve seen Chicago, Detroit and some other cities faced with the emerald ash borer saying this is very recoverable wood – you know, this is wood that is used to make baseball bats and hockey sticks.”

When it peaks, Toronto’s ash die-off could double the 200,000 trees killed by natural causes every year. And according to Toronto’s urban forestry division, after the cost of felling and moving it – a tricky job downtown — an eight- by two-foot ash log may be worth $15 to $40.

But turn that log into Garrison Creek baseball bat, an iPad stand or a whole kitchen set, and Cosgrove said the value can increase a hundred-fold.

“If we start from really high-quality, recoverable urban hardwoods for artistry and artisans – which is already happening, but is not that well known – we can start to revalue the whole chain of urban-wood forestry.”

Melissa Neist has seen it happen, and almost entirely at one place. When she and her partner Sean Gorham started Urban Tree Salvage in 2005, it was the only urban tree-salvage company in Canada.

It was also just the two of them, a pick-up truck and a chainsaw, she said, laughing.

Today, the Scarborough company has six full-time staff plus its own sawmill, drying kiln and furniture shop for custom designs.

“I’ve definitely seen a change in mind set since we started,” Neist said.

“There are people now who are looking for pieces that are knottier or more unusual, trying to get away from the every-grain-looks-the-same veneer you get at the usual box stores.”

Because urban trees grow up with more stresses than those in a forest, Neist said they often have more character.

One especially character-rich tree was a mature spruce felled at the home of a Group of Seven painter.

When they got it into the shop, Neist said they found an old bullet inside, which the owner opted to keep embedded in their dining room table.

“It was very small, but just big enough that if the light caught it you could see the shimmer of silver,” she said.

While business is going well, Neist said there are still big hurdles.

One is the issue of whether some salvage companies can scale up from artisanal work to higher-volume products.

In September, Urban Tree Salvage designed a modular shelving unit that can be mass-produced as part of a design challenge at a trade show. Other companies are looking at things like blanket boxes, or even flooring, said Neist.

But besides economies of scale, higher production means shipping outside Toronto, she added, and that requires getting industry certified to show the products are heat-treated well enough to kill off all ash-borer larvae.

“They are doing their best to come up with ideas, but the quarantine is creating more challenges,” Neist said of the Neighbour Wood project.

“I think over the next year or so, with everybody putting their heads together, there will definitely be some more options.”

For homeowners like LEAF’s Janet McKay, there is already a growing list of options for salvage projects of the smallest scale – preserving a backyard tree.

It took an arborist, a woodworker and a friendly neighbour, but McKay turned a dying black locust in her backyard into one bench, slabs for three more, and many smaller pieces that would make great cutting boards or cheese trays.

“It’s really, really beautiful wood,” she said, adding that after milling it with a portable sawmill on site, she managed to keep most of the 50-foot tree.

“I probably have enough wood to make all the gifts I’ll ever need for people.”

To learn more about Neighbour Wood and see a copy of the Toronto urban wood directory, visit the Resources page at

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