Woodworker of the Urban Forest
The 2010 Victoria’s Secret fashion show was the last straw for Megan Offner, who was helping to build the sets. She had been doing that kind of design/build work in New York City for the better part of a decade, but was increasingly uncomfortable with the notion that trees were cut down for material to make things that would end up in a dumpster after only eight hours. So she set about changing careers, learning how to wrangle a portable bandsaw mill and how to rescue perfectly usable trees that would otherwise be landfilled or ground into mulch. Today, she runs New York Heartwoods LLC, one of a number of companies that try to make the most of the resources in the urban forest. Working in a spacious shop in Kingston, N.Y., she and her associates now make custom furniture and store displays, using rescued wood from a network of local sawyers. “I’m so grateful to have a beautiful, creative life making things that can actually benefit nature,” she says.
WM: How did you get from knowing you had to change your career to actually getting a new business off the ground?
MO: I took courses in Permaculture and Sustainable Building and Design at the Yestermorrow Design/Build School, in Vermont. Friends then invited me to help with a natural building project, where I met Dave Washburn. He had managed a 50-acre wood lot for 40 years. Dave invited me to join a workshop on how to convert dying and diseased trees into flooring and other products. By the end of that week, I absolutely knew this was the kind of work I was meant to do. Two weeks later, Dave introduced me to Jed Bark, a fine art framer who had 70 acres of woods and a WoodMizer that he hardly used. He trained Dave and me to use the mill. Nine months later I moved to Warwick, N.Y. (where the WoodMizer was) to do New York Heartwoods full time. It really felt fated. I didn’t really have a plan, I just kept following the opportunities that were presenting themselves.
WM: How has your business changed?
MO: At first, I was just milling and selling wood and slabs. Pretty quickly, however, people began asking me to make finished products. Eileen Fisher contracted us early on to make seasonal displays for all 65 of their women’s clothing stores. And increasingly people wanted tables made from the slabs we were selling. I found a space in Kingston, N.Y. and hired Marcus Soto, a woodworker with fifteen years of furniture-making experience. He’s largely responsible for the designs in the collection we launched in 2017. With the success of the fabrication side of our business, we stopped milling our own wood about four years ago and now source lumber and slabs from local sawyers who share our ethos. Having done everything needed to transform a tree into finished furniture, I’m increasingly overseeing that process so our clients can have the trees they enjoyed live on as furniture in their homes. It’s an incredibly rewarding way to work.
WM: How would you describe the wood you use?
MO: Most of the wood we use is milled from trees that have fallen in storms or from urban removals here in the Hudson Valley. Some of the most beautiful hardwoods in the world grow in the Northeastern U.S., but so many trees just get cut into firewood, chipped, or landfilled. Besides being mindful of the material we use, we’re also mindful of how we use it. We developed a line of accessories to use up beautiful scraps. We donate leftover wood to a local wood-fired bread maker. Our sawdust goes to farmers and pit-firing ceramicists. We hardly throw away anything.
WM: You’ve found everything from ant colonies to barbed wire inside the trees you’ve milled. Isn’t that risky?
MO: Urban trees often have metal in them, so they rarely have commercial value. The circular saw blades that larger mills use are prohibitively expensive to replace. Small bandmill blades, however, are pretty cheap so there’s less risk. If you hit something, at most it’s $25 to replace a blade. Portable bandsaw mills are really helping the urban wood industry to grow.
WM: You’ve been in business for ten years. Where would you like to be ten years from now?
MO: We’ll be milling and drying our own wood again, and we’ll have a wildly successful line of sustainable furniture. I’ll be consulting with architects and designers to help them transform trees into site-based designs. And we’ll be offering more classes, especially to women and gender non-conforming folks. I had few female mentors, but they helped me learn because I could see myself in them. I want to be able to provide that for others.
What to know before you mill
Megan Offner has some advice if you think you want to mill a tree into boards:
- First, check for rot and metal. Mushrooms growing at the base are a sign that the tree may not be completely sound. Once the logs are on the ground, check for blue/gray spots or streaks that are created by metal in the tree.
- Second, plan out the logistics. Do you have a flat area where the sawyer can set up the mill? Make sure the tree service knows the length of the log you want, and make sure the sawyer knows the thickness of the boards and slabs. Unless you plan to air-dry and work with the wood yourself, know who will cart the wood off to be dried.
- Third, understand the costs you’ll incur for this work. In the end, it may be more than you’d pay at a lumberyard, depending on the amount of wood being milled, the dimensions you need (slabs and wide boards are generally higher in value and better candidates for custom milling) and how far it needs to be transported. The more you can mill at once, the more cost-effective it will be.