Handmade heirloom woodworks from batch-milled urban trees
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Fort Collins woodworker turns urban waste into treasure

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Fort Collins woodworker turns urban waste into treasure

The Greeley Tribune

July, 6 2011

By Chris Casey
ccasey [at] greeleytribune [dot] com

It’s been more than six years, but Ryan Baldwin still remembers the grain pattern and century ring in a historic ash tree that once graced the Platteville Public Library.

“It had been pretty beat up over time and had a hard life, but we got to processing it and found it had tight grains,” said Baldwin, owner of Baldwin Custom Woodworking in Fort Collins. “It had beautiful wood in it — probably 1,000 board feet of material out of that tree.”

Baldwin discovered the ash, which had died, contained 100 growth rings and was likely one of the first trees planted when Platteville was settled. While the majority of material for Baldwin’s woodworking business — he crafts trees cut down in urban areas into distinctive furniture, cabinets and other items — comes from Larimer County, he occasionally hauls off trees cut down in Greeley and other Weld County towns.

About 18 months ago, the Greeley forestry division asked Baldwin to pick up a walnut tree or two that were removed from Linn Grove Cemetery. The planks from those trees were processed at Baldwin’s north Fort Collins sawmill — a separate business he runs — and are currently drying. He hasn’t built anything out of them yet.

Shiloh Hatcher, Greeley’s forestry manager, said Baldwin’s service helped reduce the disposal costs of the maple. If he hadn’t been available, the maple would have been turned into mulch or sent to a landfill, he said.

“Down the road we’ll be looking at ways we might be able to entice some of these portable mills to come in and process some of our wood and put it to good use,” Hatcher said. “It’s kind of a new and interesting thing that’s hitting the industry in the last several years — what to do with urban wood waste. … (Baldwin) is extremely gifted with what he does. I’m pretty jealous.”

Baldwin, a South Dakota native who moved to Colorado in 1999, started milling hardwood about 10 years ago while working as an arborist “simply because no one wanted these large hardwood logs.”

He and a partner who started the mill had the idea to mill the hardwood and sell it, “but we also ended up hoarding it for our own furniture projects, too.

“I’ve always been into woodworking,” said Baldwin, 33. “As I got some lumber, friends and family would inquire about a coffee table or a jewelry box. That’s when I came to realize it could potentially be a viable business sometime.”

Working as an arborist in Fort Collins, his work took him across northern Colorado, where he got to know forestry division chiefs in Greeley, Loveland, Longmont and other cities. In 2008, Baldwin made the leap from arborist to full-time business owner.

His sawmill operation sits on a lush patch of land owned by a friend in north Fort Collins. The operation includes a solar- and woodstove-heated kiln where the milled boards are dried.

“The kiln is what helps by assuring we’re down to that moisture content that we need to sell, which is typically 8 to 10 percent,” Baldwin said.

Most of the trees processed are hardwoods — elm, ash, maple, oak, fir, honey locust and hackberry — but some are also softwood pine and spruce. About 5 to 10 percent of the softwood pine Baldwin mills is from beetle-kill trees. The mountain pine beetle has been infesting large swaths of Colorado’s forests, leaving dead stands after the beetles spread a fungus through the trees’ vascular system.

“We’re starting to see a lot of activity in Fort Collins with dead pines from beetle kill and that kind of thing,” Baldwin said. “It’s pretty heavy in Fort Collins right now. We’re seeing it on all sides of town, especially the west and north side.”

Although the sawmill is buffered by rural countryside, urban neighborhoods are less than a quarter-mile away, so Baldwin has to be careful about the diseased trees he takes in.

“We either have to mill it right away or get rid of the bark and do the kiln process,” he said of beetle-killed trees. “We’ve turned down perfectly good logs before simply because we didn’t want to take on the responsibility of” possibly spreading a tree disease to neighboring properties.

He points to a stack of boards inside the kiln, where the temperature reaches 160 to 170 degrees.

“This stack here is owned by the Loveland library and will go to a donation wall,” he says. “We’re going to take these slabs and put ’em up on the wall (in the under-renovation library) and they’re going to put on the plaques of all the people who donated to their library.”

Baldwin is finishing a conference table for the renovated library using wood from a large oak that was cut down on the Loveland site last fall.

Likewise, he is drying planks of American elm trees cut down from the site where Colorado State University will be adding to its engineering campus. He said it’s possible the wood will be transformed into furnishings that will be housed in the new engineering building.

As for the 100-year-old Platteville ash, the tree ended up in a couple of furnishings in Baldwin’s house, and other furniture pieces from the tree went to a buyer in Aspen and buyers elsewhere around the state.

“It’s gotten around the Colorado area,” he said.

Reach business editor and columnist Chris Casey at (970) 392-5623 or ccasey [at] greeleytribune [dot] com.

Copyright 2011 The Greeley Publishing Co.. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Greeley Publishing Co. July, 6 2011 12:49 am