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Urban Lumber Co. transforms discarded urban trees into usable wood

Kevin Anderson (left), vice president of Missouri Organic, and Tim O’Neill of Urban Lumber Co. examined trees at Urban Lumber. Neighborhood trees are reclaimed into board lumber and scrap lumber is recycled into compost at nearby Missouri Organic.
Kevin Anderson (left), vice president of Missouri Organic, and Tim O’Neill of Urban Lumber Co. examined trees at Urban Lumber. Neighborhood trees are reclaimed into board lumber and scrap lumber is recycled into compost at nearby Missouri Organic. The Kansas City Star

The artist-entrepreneur strikes again at Urban Lumber Co., where designer and woodworker Tim O’Neill has teamed with partners Kevin and Jason Anderson of Missouri Organic to transform discarded urban trees into usable lumber.

“Missouri Organic has a 15-year contract with KC Parks and Rec to manage tree yard waste,” Kevin Anderson explained during a recent tour of the Urban Lumber sawmill and showroom at Interstate 435 and U.S. 40. “Knowing we were going to be inundated with ash trees coming down because of the ash borer, we contacted Tim.”

The week after Urban Lumber’s May 17 opening, O’Neill was clearly in his element as he watched the company’s big bandmill cut through a 30-inch discarded tree. The sawmill’s open doors offered a view of dozens more to cut in the yard outdoors.

“It’s beautiful, accessible, fun to work with and it smells great. It also makes sense from a carbon footprint standpoint,” he said.

How did you get into this business?

I’ve always been a woodworker. I made the transition to city wood after reading a book by Sam Sherrill, “Harvesting Urban Lumber.” We lost a hackberry (in an ice storm) and I used it to make everything in my house.

What’s your background?

I went to Missouri State University in Springfield and graduated with a degree in illustration and design in 1995. Beginning in 1999, I taught in the design department at the Kansas City Art Institute for a few years. From 2006 to 2013, I was an exhibition designer at the Nelson. I worked on the Monet show, and I personally cut the 672 wedges of wood in the Luis Tomaselli op-art piece installed along the Bloch Building gallery walk.

The Star has talked to you before about your Round Tree Design business.

That’s me making stuff, mainly custom orders for people with unusual situations who want design help with a special fixture. I’m still doing that.

And then you branched out into urban lumber?

I started 10 years ago on a small scale. Since 2005 I’ve been collecting and using urban lumber for my own work. It’s a great resource. Everybody sees something unique in the wood, and it’s fun to see people light up. It’s making good use of trees and providing artists with an amazing raw material that nobody else can get. That’s fun for me, like being an enabler.

The boards are displayed in racks in our showroom. You get a cart and pick the boards you like.

What kind of lumber do you offer?

We have great walnut — I made a coat rack out of walnut from Overland Park — and elm is a wonderful wood to work with. We have hickory, mulberry, honey locust, soft maple, ash, sweet gum and sycamore.

Hackberry, which you can find in everybody’s backyard, is a white wood with a lot of crazy color. I have some spalted hackberry that shows the beginning states of fungus or decay. Catch it early and it makes a great visual feature.

Where do the trees come from?

A variety of sources. In addition to KC Parks and Rec, regular tree services bring us logs, and sometimes homeowners call me with logs.

What’s involved in making the trees usable?

The logs come in and are dumped in the yard. We sort them by species, choose one we want to cut and load it onto the deck where we trim it up and put it on a forklift to take it to the saw. It’s a portable bandmill and it can saw an 18-foot log with a 36-inch diameter.

Most other sawmills won’t accept urban lumber. They’re afraid of nails, which can wreck the blade. Traditional sawmills use a circular saw with carbide teeth. They’re expensive. We’re using a $25 light steel bandsaw blade that we can resharpen five our six times before discarding.

What’s the difference between kiln-dried wood and air-dried wood?

We air-dry our boards and weight them down to keep them flat in dry stacks. Most of the moisture is lost at the end, so when necessary, we’ll shorten the window by putting the boards in the kiln for a week.

Completely air-dried wood works better in my opinion. It’s more relaxed with less tension and built-up pressure. It’s like sawing toast, and it saves energy.

I read that you do something called “log bucking.” What is that?

It’s the step where we trim the ends and branches and cut it to the final length before we bring it to the saw. We turn the leftovers into mulch. None of it gets wasted.

Tell me about the “lumber connection” listed on your website.

We want to try to get people who love wood and want beautiful wood in their house together with people who can successfully work with wood. It’s crucial for our business to bring the two together to have good outcomes with wood.

The Urban Lumber Co., 7200 E. U.S. 40, is open 1-6 p.m. Wednesday and Friday; 9 a.m. to noon Saturday and by appointment. For more information, 816-888-7947 or www.urbanlumberco.com.