You don’t need to see a forest to get at the trees.

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Once upon a time, the path from tree to lumber mill to craftsman and, ultimately, the end user was rarely more than 50 miles. Nowadays, that path often covers a distance spanning half the globe.

Matt Seiler
Matt Seiler

But it doesn't have to be that way. You may have a ready source of materials right in your immediate area. It's called urban lumber, and it just takes a little ingenuity and logistics wrangling on your part to bring it all together.Urban lumber is anything sourced from trees located in parks, parkways—even backyards. The urban forest makes up an estimated 20% of all of the woodlands in the United States, and it's a great source for local lumber. Trees need to come down every day for a variety of reasons, and local municipalities often look for ways to get this resource into the hands of people who can upcycle it in the most positive way.

Get your hands on urban logs 

Your best starting point for acquiring local lumber is a city forester. His or her crew is out there every day and knows what's already cut and what's yet to come down. The bonus: The species on their menus range far wider than the choices at your local hardwood retailer.

With a source for logs secured, you need a lumber milling service (which may also have a kiln). Check with mill manufacturers, such as Logosol (877-564-6765), TimberKing (800-942-4406), and others. They can provide contact lists of mill owners, and it's pretty straightforward to hook up with somebody in your general area.

What to expect

The time from tree being felled to sliced up, partially air-dried, and kiln-dried can last six to nine months. But the often-inexpensive yield comes with the added benefit of custom sizes.

Urban wood is a lot like Forrest Gump's proverbial box of chocolates: You never know what you'll get. Don't be surprised by high-end figure and knock-back-your-eyeballs grain. It's not as uncommon as you might think, and something that a lot of us don't routinely get to work with.

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One benefit of urban-source lumber: sequentially cut flitches that would be nearly impossible to acquire at a lumber retailer

The stacks shown above contain silver maple, honey locust, cherry, Norway maple, and spruce trees that came down from the same piece of property. The owner and I have been pecking through this pile for the last several years to create some of the finished projects pictured below.

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Echoes of the tree can be seen in these pieces that celebrate crotch figure and bark inclusions, an opportunity afforded by custom-cut wood.

If you happen to be working with lumber from a person's own backyard tree, converting it from a lifelong companion into heirloom furniture, such as rockers or a bedroom set, you're not just building a project. You're building a story and a legacy for the family. You're changing the way that they live and giving this precious resource a place within their lineage. You just can't buy that at the store.

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Urban ash, as used in this showcase piece by the author, is becoming increasingly available as cities remove trees affected by the emerald ash borer (EAB). Learn more about the EAB at emeraldashborer.info.