Wood From the Hood (WFTH) is a green business based in Minneapolis that collects trees which have either fallen naturally, been taken down because of disease or have to be removed for some other reason. Instead of going to a landfill or being processed as mulch or firewood, WFTH gives these trees new life by processing them, treating them, and cutting them into flooring, custom cabinets and furniture, and other household goods such as picture frames and cutting boards. Jon Buck, customer sales representative, gives us the story on what WFTH is all about.
Where did the idea of Wood From the Hood come from?
A few years ago, Rick and Cindy Siewert were forced to cut down an ash tree in their yard because of disease. They didn’t want to the tree to just go to a landfill or be turned into woodchips. So they started looking around for another way to use the tree. Rick is the president of Siewert Cabinet and Fixture, a local company that does custom millwork. He tried to find someone to cut the tree and dry the logs but it actually proved to be much more difficult than he thought. Wood From the Hood was created to find use in urban wood.
WFTH was launched in March 2008, but we actually began collecting, treating and cutting the logs long before that, in the summer of 2007. The first thing we came up with was wood flooring made out of elm. We chose elm because of the high numbers of urban trees being cut down because of Dutch elm disease. But Elm can get weird when you dry it, it twists and turns a lot, which people don’t really want to deal with, so it really isn’t commercially available as flooring. That was just the start. From there we said, let’s make lumber – maybe people will want to buy that. We were working with Seward Co-op on some of the custom woodwork and we saw these bamboo cutting boards. We said, we can do that. So from there we decided to create a retail product line. Mostly it was just to get name out into the public as a form of advertising. We wanted to show people what the different species of wood look like and demonstrate their usability.
What does the name Wood From the Hood mean?
Wood From the Hood is wood that comes from local, urban neighborhoods. A couple of private tree services provide us with 90% of our trees and take care of collecting and cutting the logs and getting them to us. We train them as to what is a good saw log in terms of usable lengths, sizes, species and other characteristics. So when someone calls them to take care of a tree, they have a pretty good idea of what we’re looking for and what we can use. They either drop off the wood or we go pick it up. Regardless, they tell us exactly where it came from, either it’s a zip code or the actual street address. We enter that information into a spreadsheet and assign that tree a color code. We then seal the logs with that color. We have to seal the logs to keep them from cracking and drying too fast. This allows us to keep track of where the tree came from.
How many people work behind the scenes?
We actually have only four employees. However, we operate inside of Siewart Cabinets. So we have the resources of an established millwork business, a 45,000 square foot shop and all of their employees to help us out. In the beginning, each of us had day jobs. Rick was running Siewart Cabinets and I worked for him as an engineer. Cindy was a mom to three children. A lot of the work took place in the evenings and after our day jobs, until about September 2009. It just got to be too much and was distracting me from my day job. And we had people that wanted to come in and look at the products during the day. So we needed someone to work on it full time. Now we’re getting to a point where we are too busy. We do the design work and build some of the products, but we also use Siewart to help in the production.
What type of volume are you reclaiming and how do you measure it?
It varies. It’s a lot slower right now. It’s winter in Minnesota, so the tree trimming business slows down. Except for ash. We’ve had a big problem here with the Emerald ash borer attacking a lot of the ash trees. The solution is to remove the tree in the winter because it takes the bugs with them and they can’t infect other trees. In terms of volume, it’s actually kind of hard to put into words. I can tell you that we’ve gone through about 25,000 – 30,000 board feet of lumber.
Is there something special you have to do to work with the trees infected with Emerald ash borers and Dutch elm disease?
We had to do a voluntary certification with the USDA and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. There are a number of specifications for dealing with infected wood. You have to cut and dry the wood onsite. They do random inspections where they check our kiln schedules to see if we’ve dried any ash and check out the lot where we store the trees. This is mostly to stop the spread of the borer, which is similar to the beetles that affect elm trees. They don’t actually harm the wood. They burrow into the cambium layer underneath the bark.
Do you have any other certifications in terms of the business?
Not at this point. Siewart has been certified as a green business by the city of Minneapolis. They’re also FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified, which we are not because the FSC doesn’t recognize urban wood as having any value. That could change in the near future as we’re in the process of creating an urban wood coalition which would put a descriptor on what exactly urban wood is and maybe act as a certification board for the Midwest, and eventually nationally, for working with urban wood and urban wood products.
Why doesn’t urban wood have value?
Because the supply varies so much it would difficult to provide a large sawmill with the wood needed to produce hundreds of thousands of log feet. And urban wood had too much metal in it that could wreck a big saw blade. We cut slabs individually and after each, we run a metal detector over it to check for metal. Nails, bullets, chain-link fence, arrowheads, you name it, we’ve seen it come out of the wood. But it’s interesting because it’s just a part of the story the wood tells.
Do you still produce waste with the cutting and processing of the trees?
There is some waste. There is all the sawdust that comes from cutting the wood. The top and bottom pieces are usually waste because you have to make a couple of cuts to get down to the wood to get the bark off. But you can still them burn for firewood. Sometimes we take it to the tree dump where it’s ground into mulch. We collect all of the sawdust and give it to a local farmer that uses that for livestock bedding.
What type of marketing or outreach do you do?
As of right now it’s mostly been word of mouth. We sparingly use social media to post events and other kinds of fun things we’re doing. But we’ve lacked on that quite a bit. The only real print advertising we’ve done is Sprout, the Seward co-op newsletter. That led to an article in Midwest Home magazine. We’ve had write-ups in local magazines and news coverage. But that is about it.
What would you say to people looking to replicate Wood From the Hood in their areas?
To get a business like this up and running does take some money. Having the cabinet shop to work in is extremely helpful. We actually looked at franchising the concept to other cities that have similar types of urban forests. If we were to franchise it, we’d look for places where we could use the inside of a millwork or cabinet shop that we can to produce some of the products.