Sometimes Tim O’Neill feels like a sommelier of wood.
“What can I pair you up with?” he asks customers at his Urban Lumber Co. showroom, where rows of smooth, straight-edged planks mix with curved slices of wood that resemble the living trees they came from.
Many boards are in perfect condition. Others have knotholes, crevices or marks from old nails, clotheslines, even bullet holes — these can be filled with epoxy or simply embraced as character, or what O’Neill calls “wood with a story.”
“There’s a unique and wild look to this lumber, particularly in the variety of species found around town,” he says. The boards he saws and dries with the help of two craftsmen, Tony Melby and Ray Kristek, include traditional walnut, oak and maple, but also hackberry, ash, elm, sycamore, mulberry, sweet gum, hickory, pecan, locust and tree of heaven. Each works well for something.
“There’s a board for every occasion. I’ve seen great projects made from even the dodgy stuff,” O’Neill says. “It’s a really fun business.”
Until 15 years ago, O’Neill was an exhibition designer at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and built furniture and other projects on the side through his own design company, Round Tree.
When a large hackberry tree in his Independence backyard fell during an ice storm, he had it sawed and got nine logs from it. He also got an epiphany: “I’d been spending lots of money on lumber, and all of a sudden I had a large pile. It was super cheap and easy to find, since dead trees are everywhere. It was interesting to work with, too.”
O’Neill began acquiring local logs, storing them at his in-laws’ farm and selling the air-dried wood to fellow artists and carpenters or using it for his clients. Large commercial lumber companies have little interest in logs from urban areas because the trees often contain bits of metal that can damage expensive saw blades, he explains. He bypasses this problem by using a $25 blade that can be easily sharpened or replaced.
Companies like Urban Lumber are part of a nationwide trend to find a higher use for wood in metropolitan areas. “Local food, local beer — why not local lumber?” he says.
O’Neill was inspired by Sam Sherrill’s “Harvesting Urban Timber” book, which estimates the United States wastes 3 to 4 billion board feet each year.
“That just blew my mind,” O’Neill says.
In 2012, he purchased a professional TimberKing sawmill and began a partnership with brothers Jason and Kevin Anderson of Missouri Organics, building a shop next door to one of the sites where they store logs. It’s a natural fit — O’Neill rescues the best logs, and Missouri Organics grinds the rest into mulch. He also has an arrangement with the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department, which supplies damaged and diseased trees from city property, especially those dying from the emerald ash borer.
Some Urban Lumber customers like the way the wood is locally sourced. Others are looking for boards with irregular live edges, a rustic look that first became popular in the Arts and Crafts movement. Still others are attracted to the unusual character of noncommercial species.
Brian McBee was researching unusual bar tables for his Prairie Village home when he came across Urban Lumber’s website. While visiting the showroom, he was attracted to a pair of inch-thick, slightly S-shaped walnut boards.
“Tim challenged himself to join the pieces together with a curved glue line that matches the outer edges,” McBee says. “I sketched it out and Tim added to the idea. I could see the table in my mind before it was built, and Tim has that same talent.”
Now he and O’Neill are working on another project: a live-edge dining room table made from three hackberry tree boards that came from a Methodist church yard in Platte County. McBee likes the local factor.
“It’s really cool knowing you’ve got a piece of Kansas City history in your room,” he says.
Dale and Diane Wassergord gave O’Neill free rein to design a floating entertainment cabinet to hold wires and speakers on the wall below the TV in their Crossroads loft. The cabinet’s top and front are made from a composite, but the sides are local hackberry boards distinguished by a striking vertical crack.
“That’s the hip factor,” O’Neill says.
The Wassergords consider the cabinet functional art and had the boards dyed blue to match their contemporary art collection.
On another project, O’Neill and his co-workers removed 150 trees from a six-block area at Prospect Avenue and 27th Street before construction of the Kansas City Police Department’s new East Patrol Station, (aka the Leon Mercer Jordan campus) began. The trees were cut into boards and returned to the neighborhood as a paneled wall in the station’s community room.
The 40-by-10-foot wall was built with nearly 200 individual boards of varying thicknesses from more than a half-dozen types of trees.
“It’s neat to think that all those trees were there two years ago,” he says.
Does O’Neill have a favorite wood?
“I love all my children,” he says, before launching into a description of attributes: the surprising colors shooting through sycamore; the rich, cinnamon beauty of elm; the contrasting tones of hackberry and mulberry; and the suppleness and decorative “pen and ink” pattern in spalted sweet gum.
“The best part of my job is enabling creativity. I feel like it’s an art supply store, and I love that,” he says.
Urban Lumber typically carries about 14 types of wood at any given time, with prices ranging from $4.50 to $12.50 per board foot. “Our store is a lot like a farmers market or a butcher shop in the sense that we get what comes in, we saw it and dry it, and when it’s sold, we get new stuff. We never know what’s coming,” he says.
Local lumber has other uses beyond furniture, shelves and paneling. Rick Maude of Wild Woods makes artisanal cutting boards sold at specialty shops, including the Phoenix Gallery in the Plaza, and a Lee’s Summit business is interested in purchasing rail stock for picture frames.
O’Neill’s goal is to grow the company and stockpile enough lumber to produce flooring in addition to paneling. Eventually he’d like to offer incentives to acquire trees from homeowner associations and tree services. “We probably won’t get to that spot until we have a much larger operation,” he says. “But that’s the big vision.”
When Urban Lumber first opened for business, O’Neill thought most customers would be woodworkers. Now he has discovered a larger market of “wood lovers.” While that’s unexpected, he’s not entirely surprised.
“People want to bring the outside into their homes, into their lives,” he says. “There’s a whole community that appreciates how wood is timeless, and how trees and nature touch something deep within us.”
The Urban Lumber Co.
7200 E. U.S. 40
For hours and current inventory, go to urbanlumberco.com. The website has a Lumber Connection page that links “artisans for hire” with “woodworkers wanted,” and customers are encouraged to post photos of finished projects.
The company can accept usable logs from individuals, but the source is responsible for transporting the logs to the sawmill.