How to Salvage Urban Logs for Carpentry

hands sanding log with power tool

When a residential tree has to be taken down or falls during a storm, it usually becomes firewood, wood chippings, and mulch. Homeowners will call a tree removal service, and the tree stays in their yard as a former facsimile of itself in the shape of logs.

While firewood and mulch are beneficial to homeowners, they aren’t the only ways that an urban tree can be used, nor is it utilizing the most valuable source of a tree: its lumber. In fact, there are thousands of other ways to use the tree stock in both carpentry and woodworking projects.

Urban logging and portable milling have been gaining popularity for this very reason. There’s a lot of money being wasted by not using trees for their lumber, and these services can be very lucrative for anyone in the business.

This article will go over what you need to know about salvaging urban logs for carpentry.

Why Urban Trees Need Removal

There are many reasons why trees need to be removed from a residential yard. Storms will rip trees right out of the ground, often destroying other structures around them as they do. The clean-up can be harrowing, and many homeowners call in professionals to cut up and mulch the tree.

Trees also succumb to disease, and instead of waiting for the tree to die, it’s better to cut it down to avoid it falling on its own. It can also be beneficial to other trees in the neighborhood if the pest is invasive and poses a threat. This way you can manage it in stages, and make sure that no other structures are damaged in the process.

A major culprit is the emerald ash borer that wreaked havoc on urban ash trees in 36 states, mainly in central and eastern parts of the U.S. Over 20 million ash trees were killed by this invasive beetle in southeastern Michigan alone.

Some urban tree salvaging companies were certified to fell and use the wood from these trees rather than destroy them. Portable sawmills were then able to salvage much of this wood rather than let it go to waste by either taking the wood or allowing the homeowner to use it.

This saves time and money for all involved, and is a much greener practice.

fallen tree in grassy yard

Should You Salvage Your Tree?

Before you go browsing through your backyard for possible lumber, there are a few things to know about a tree’s value. While you can cut down a live tree at any time for various reasons, a dead tree needs to be cut down within a year.

Also, consider the ecological benefit of your tree for birds, pollinators, and other animals. If your tree is a food source, it may be worth trying to save rather than cut down. Get a reputable company to come by and give a health assessment before you cut down any trees.

If the tree is in fact dead or dying, size is very important if you're going to use the wood. Trees should have a base that’s around 6 feet of unobstructed, disease-free wood that’s at least 12-inches in diameter to make it worth milling. Not all diseases can be treated, and some affected trees will have to be properly disposed of no matter what.

You should also think about why you might want to use the tree stock. What would you use the wood for? Do you have a place to store it? Freshly milled lumber needs to dry out, sometimes up to two years or more. It will need to stay put in a safe spot until it can be sold or used in a project.

Make sure you communicate your plans to any tree removal companies before it comes down as the service will cost less if they don’t have to take it away from the site, but you also don’t want to be left with unusable wood.

Profitable Urban Trees

Many yard trees are quite large because they’ve been left to grow until a grand old age. They usually have a story to tell, as well. Homeowners often get attached to their trees, and for good reason: families make memories around trees, children play around them, and gardeners get attached to the things that grow in their yard.

In this way, the best trees to mill are ones that homeowners want to keep around for sentimental value, whether it’s for a larger project, or so they can make unique pieces themselves. A small tree can only make so many things, after all, so cutting the wood into usable pieces to make tables or bowls can be enough.

Not all wood species make good lumber, however, so that’s another thing you need to check before you plan on using your tree for a project. The best trees will be native species of a good size, and even if there’s no sentimental value, the wood can either be used or sold.

“High-value” trees will be tall and straight, and species-specific. Hardwoods like oaks, maples, ash, cherry, sycamore, beech, and alder are generally more profitable than softwoods. Not only are they denser, they have a better grain aesthetic that makes them popular for use in woodworking, flooring, cabinets, and furniture.

Softwoods come from evergreen trees, and some common types used for carpentry are pine, cedar, redwood, poplar, and Douglas fir. Softwoods are versatile, and often used for framing or as cheaper furniture material. Cedar is prized for its outdoor use in decks and fences.

There is value in both kinds of wood, and any tree that’s able to reach maturity will be the most lucrative, as they will have the longest unobstructed trunks and typically higher grade stock.

Specialty Wood

Some properties are fortunate to have specialty trees planted on their lot, which may bring big earnings if you are looking to sell. Considering how much tree removal services cost, sometimes you have to part with the wood to break even, but specialty ones like mahogany, walnut, or sycamore can potential make you money.

If you have one of these types of trees, hope that it grows tall and healthy for some time before you have to cut it down. For example, a walnut tree values around $5-$10 a board foot.

So, if your tree is 12-feet of high-quality grade A veneer with at least 18-inches in diameter, it can fetch you around $900. That’s a lot for a tree that isn’t that big. If you let it grow taller and wider, the price keeps going up.

Some people will even pay big bucks for the “walnut crotch” which is where two main branches break away from the main trunk. Depending on the buyer, just this piece alone could be worth hundreds.

chainsaw cutting tree

How to Cut Down an Urban Tree

If mother nature hasn’t brought down a tree for you, and you know your tree is dying or have other reasons to cut it down, you have a couple options in how to cut down the tree: do it yourself or call in a professional.

DIY tree removal is tricky and dangerous. However, it’s not impossible to do, especially if the tree is manageable. For a small tree, you may be able to take it down with a chainsaw and some wedges, as long as you have some experience with this type of work.

You also need enough clearance to allow the entire tree to fall without hitting other trees, buildings, and structures. If not, the tree will have to be taken down in stages, and a lift or crane should be rented to get at the crown. As long as the main trunk of the tree can be cut down unobstructed, the wood stock will be useful.

The best time to cut down a tree is when it’s gone dormant; late winter or early spring before budding is best. Dead trees may not have the luxury of waiting until the proper season, nor does it matter since it’s dead. Dormant trees are easier to cut down because there are no leaves, twigs, or fruit to deal with.

When to Call in a Tree Removal Pro

Let’s say you have a large one hundred-year-old pine tree that needs to come down. There’s no way you can safely cut it down yourself without professional help unless you’re in the tree removal business, yourself.

A professional crew would need at least one full day with one person working up high, and two people working from the ground to cut and clear it properly. The crown needs to be removed first, and on a tree this size, this could end up being around 8 thousand pounds worth of material.

If the tree is going to be used for its lumber, the crew would safely bring it down in stages and organize it into manageable pieces. Then, a portable milling company would come and cut it into lumber. Of course, there may be a company that offers both services, so call around to get estimates and ideas.

Even if you can't use the lumber, the majority of tree salvage companies will find a way for your tree to be used for building materials. While this may not make you money, the service will be less expensive or possibly free, and you'll know the tree was kept out of the landfill.

pro in tree with ropes and saw

How to Store Logs and Lumber

Logs should be processed as soon as possible once the tree has been cut down. This allows for the drying process to start sooner, while preventing wood rot and deformed boards.

Best to saw off the bark, as this is a moisture-barrier, and wood dries better with air hitting all sides. The rule of thumb for drying times is one year per inch, plus another year for some species.

Wood can be left to dry outside on top of concrete blocks and shims as a foundation, as long as the climate isn’t abnormally humid. It must be stacked with enough spacers and stickers to create airflow to all sides of each piece of milled lumber, so laying them in a criss-cross formation works well.

If you have enough yard space, the wood stock can stay on site while it dries, but this will depend on the size of the tree and other variables. If you are planning on using the wood stock for an on-site project like a new garage, shed, fence, deck, or interior renovation, being able to store and dry it in a yard is a low-carbon option, while keeping costs down for the homeowner.

Business Opportunities

The opportunities to create a business out of urban logging are vast, especially as more people become aware of the ways they can utilize their yard trees. You can be as big or small a business as you want, depending on your time and skill level.

A one-person operation can be selective about the trees they salvage, and a quick search on sites like Craiglist and Kijiji will quickly rile up business. Usually, the deal is that the homeowner gets their tree removed for free, and you get the wood stock for the price of your time and labor.

The opportunities are also there for unique species and materials, but you would have to be able to mill the wood, or at least get good at selling it quickly. Storing tree stock needs a large space that is conditioned properly to allow for a natural drying process.

Accessibility is important when making a decision about whether to take an urban tree. You may get a call about felled trees after a storm, but they’re deep in a forested area. You’ll need assess whether or not the ground is clear enough to get the trees safely, as well as the proper equipment to retrieve it, otherwise the wood should stay on site.

Starting your own portable sawmilling business could be very lucrative, as well, and again, you could operate as a one-person service or get a crew started if you have the experience. With the right strategy and connections with others in the tree removal industry, providing on site milling could keep you very busy.

worker sawing large tree chunks

Equipment Needed

For small one-person jobs where a tree is already down, a truck and trailer with a log lift, chains, and binders will be necessary to haul wood logs and chunks away. A couple of chainsaws and accessories, a hand saw or two, jacks, cants and peaveys, logging tongs, winches, and blocks of wood for wedging is enough to get your started.

For tree removal, things are more complicated as you’ll need a crane, lift, or climbing and rigging tools to get up high. A crew of at least three people is recommended. Again, chainsaws and some basic logging equipment can be enough to get the job done safely, and usually a chipper takes care of the smaller branches and twigs.

For portable milling services, you can be as big or as small as you want, but you'll need a portable sawmill to bring on site to cut and plane logs into lumber. That means you’ll also need a truck and trailer, and other wood-processing equipment, as well as the basic tools for moving logs into place.

Proper insurance, training, liability, and safety equipment are paramount for any type of wood-salvaging business, so it's not something to take on lightly. If you already have some experience with tree removal, there may be some excellent opportunities to provide unique services to homeowners.

Urban logging is offering cities and homeowners exciting possibilities and greener options for dealing with dead or fallen trees. If you find yourself wondering about the state of a tree in your yard, don't despair. Find a local company to give you some insight, and keep in mind that your dying tree may still have some life in, yet.

While it may not stand tall forever, you can likely salvage your urban tree logs for carpentry, woodworking, or even sculptures and art. This way, it can live on forever in new and creative ways.