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Salvaged and chic: downed trees get new life as furniture, home decor

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Run your fingers along the end of a table or shelf made with a live edge — meaning it still maintains some of its original shape or texture — and you’re not just touching a unique piece of furniture. You’re touching something with a story.

And furniture and decor made from salvaged wood is all about stories. They’re made from trees that have often come down not far from where they’re crafted into something else. Rather than throw those logs into a landfill or grind them into wood chips, they’re milled for future use.

At least two Metro Detroit companies, both outgrowths of tree services, are giving new life to locally grown trees, cutting them into slabs and processing them so they can be crafted by local furniture-makers, contractors and DIY-ers into one-of-a-kind tables, fireplace mantels and bowls.

A live edge coffee table by Tree-Purposed Detroit.

Live Edge Detroit in Troy is a go-to source in Metro Detroit for salvaged wood. Founded in 2016 by Mike Barger of Mike’s Tree Surgeons, his daughter, Jenny Kwiecien, and son, Joe Barger, it has agreements with several local country clubs such as Oakland Hills and Red Run Country Club to take trees they cut down and mill them.

Inside its Troy warehouse, slabs of roughly a dozen kinds of wood, including red oak, white oak, maple, cherry, black walnut, American elm and ash are spread out across the spacious floor and line the walls to show customers what they offer.

A stack of beech slabs, each one flattened to give it a deeper sanding and smooth out edges, rests on the warehouse floor at Live Edge Detroit. The firm sells roughly a dozen different hardwood species, including red oak, white oak, black walnut, beech, black locust, ash and elm.

Sales manager James Meek said from spring through fall, they mill logs and then dry them in kilns, of which they have two and are in the process of building a third. They supply wood to hundreds of DIY-ers, designers and artisans, he said. 

“Every piece is unique,” said Meek.

Outside their warehouse, dozens, if not hundreds, of huge logs, each tagged with a number, are stacked, waiting to be milled. In fact, the firm has so many logs it isn’t accepting log donations right now. 

Outside Live Edge Detroit's warehouse and showroom, dozens of logs -- if not hundreds -- are stacked and numbered, waiting to be milled. The firm works with several local country clubs and golf courses to take their downed trees or ones that are being removed. At this point, they have so many logs they aren't accepting outside donations.

Tree-Purposed Detroit

Salvaged wood is different from reclaimed wood in that it hasn’t been used in a building or elsewhere before.

And the process of turning a tree or downed log into something else isn’t quick. Once a log is milled into slabs, they have to air dry for at least two years. Then they’re put through a kiln to kill any remaining bacteria or bugs.

A log at Live Edge Detroit is cut into slabs that are then each assigned a letter. DIY-ers or furniture makers can pick two slabs from the same log so they'll have the same markings.

Tree-Purposed Detroit is another local sawmill and custom workshop that specializes in live edge slabs. Started by Arbor Man LLC, a tree removal service, the Livonia firm offers locally sourced maple, walnut, elm, oak and sycamore. 

In its front showroom on Merrimen Road, beautifully marked slabs finished with a natural oil rest against one wall. Customers can just pick out the tabletop they like, select a style of steel legs to be attached and they’ll have a one-of-a-kind table. Full-size slabs run from from $200 to $2,750; premium and over-sized slabs can be anywhere from $3,000 to $8,000.

The lines and story of what was once a butternut tree show is this custom made desk and chair handcrafted at Tree-Purposed Detroit, a sawmill and workshop in Livonia.

Owner Evan Burger said he started the firm because before, whatever trees he cut down had to be taken to a Mid-Michigan Recycling facility for disposal.

“We didn’t need to do it,” said Burger. “And it’s expensive.”

In Tree-Purposed’s warehouse is one massive elm tree that once stood on Seminole Street in Detroit’s Indian Village. Cut down in 2016, it’s been processed and cut into slabs, waiting for its next chapter.

Lead mill worker Nic Engler said they’re definitely seeing more demand for live edge slabs. They’ve made custom furniture for several local restaurants along with residential customers.

“Bar tops are really popular,” said Engler.

But if you’d like to donate a log, you’re out of luck. Tree-Purposed only takes trees it cuts down from its tree service unless a log is really unique.

Wood is ‘star of the show’

Long White Beard is a furniture studio in Ferndale that specializes in using live edge wood for its pieces.

“Live edge wood is a wonderful way to display the variety you get in wood,” said co-owner Shelby Holtzman.

The business has come a long way since Holtzman and co-owner Daniel Erickson started it in 2014, selling furniture that was a mix of rustic wood and steel pipe on Etsy.com. Today, they have a 3,000 square foot workshop and showroom on Livernois where they make custom dining tables, coffee tables, mantels and desks. They also make smaller items like charcuterie boards, bath caddies and shelves.

A custom bookshelf, desk and wall-mounted shelf stand in Long White Beard's showroom. More than 70% of what the studio makes is custom.

Prices start at $1,000 for a custom mantel and $2,000 for a dining room table.

All of their pieces have a distinct modern aesthetic, a mix of wood with sleek metal, a look that really comes from Holtzman, a self-taught woodworker who got her start making furniture for her own apartment.

“I like clean lines and good proportions,” said Holtzman.

But every piece at Long White Beard — the quirky name is an ode to the craftsmanship and quality of their work; Erickson also used to be in a band with the same name — really lets the wood shine.

Long White Beard co-owners Dan Erickson, left, and Shelby Holtzman stand in their 3,000 square foot warehouse in Ferndale. There's a small showroom in the front. Erickson and Holtzman started the company in 2014 with Holtzman, a self-taught woodworker, making furniture out of her garage.

“The wood is the star of the show,” said Erickson.

Holtzman is now in the process of designing a new collection that will focus on solid wood pieces in standard sizes, in materials and finishes that have been popular with clients. She said as much as furniture from a retailer like IKEA has a place in the marketplace, what they create is more sustainable. You know where the wood came from and it’s solid.

Even better, it has a story. And that’s a draw for customers, said Erickson.

“People are interested in authenticity,” said Erickson.

Salvaged wood chic

  • Live Edge Detroit: offers live edge slabs, all sourced locally, in roughly a dozen kinds of wood, including red oak, white oak, maple, cherry, black walnut, American elm and ash. Showroom and warehouse is at 241 Park Street. It's open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Friday and Saturday. 
  • Long White Beard: Ferndale-based furniture creates custom and standard furniture and home accents from locally sourced hardwood trees. Its showroom and warehouse is at 860 Livernois. It's open from 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Friday and 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday. 
  • Tree-Purposed Detroit: workshop and showroom offers slabs from locally sourced trees, including elm, maple, walnut, oak and sycamore.  Its showroom at 13340 Merrimen in Livonia is open by appointment only. Call (734) 506-8583.

mfeighan@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mfeighan