Behind The Business: Urban Tree Salvage
Urban Tree Salvage is a furniture enthusiast’s dream. Using salvaged Toronto trees, UTS crafts everything from benches to cheese boards to conference tables.
When I walk into the showroom on a late fall morning, the smell of fresh wood is everywhere. In the front, gorgeous furniture sits on display; in the back, the faint buzz of a saw reminds me that UTS is a hands-on business.
I sit down with Melissa Neist, UTS’s co-owner, to discuss how and why she got into the business of salvaging Toronto trees and Ontario barns to create beautiful pieces of home decor.
“My partner (co-owner Sean Gorham) and I started in the fall of 2004. He went to school for Arboriculture, Landscape Design and a lot of his friends ended up being arborists. He went into landscape design and always did furniture on the side. Then he started looking at his friends coming home at the end of the day from cutting down trees and thought, ‘well, what are you doing with all the logs in the back of your truck?’ It’s a waste product. It’s like that worldwide.”
Melissa and Sean salvage directly from the City of Toronto, which grants them access to “forestry dump sites”. Melissa tells me that these sites are basically, “fields where they dump logs, with a fancy name.” UTS salvages city-owned trees that come down for a variety of reasons: storm damage, insects, disease development.
Annually, UTS salvages a year’s supply of wood from the dump site. “We bring in an excavator, trucks and stuff like that. We’re usually there for a week or two, just moving things along. You can usually see one (log) — I’m talking huge piles of logs — way in the back, then you have to move like fifty just to get the one. That way, we get the best quality of the bunch.”
Melissa tells me that whatever trees UTS doesn’t salvage typically go to mulch. “The ones that are rotting, that’s a perfect use for them, but,” she continues, “the ones in perfect condition, it’s a shame to turn that into mulch or firewood.” She strokes the table at which we sit — a large dining table — as an example of the potential for some of these “waste” products.
UTS doesn’t do residential salvaging because of the logistics. It’s inefficient to grab logs one at a time, so the annual dig at the forestry dump site is the company’s main method of sourcing.
While UTS’s primary focus is the City of Toronto tree salvage, they also re-purpose old barn board from Southern Ontario farms. Melissa notes that this practice is mostly powered by current trends. She says that barn board furniture and fixtures, like the coat racks hanging behind her as we talk, are in high demand at the moment.
She tells me that the difference between reclaimed and salvaged is often blurred. “Salvage is basically when you’re taking a new tree — a new product — and re-purposing it. Reclaim is when you take something that already existed as a product, like the barn board, and make it into something new.” She loves that, after a barn board has been reclaimed, she can tell her clients the town or region that the piece came from — a bit of history and storytelling that seems to drive UTS.
In fact, throughout the interview, we always came back to the wood itself — the story. It’s not only the ethics behind the salvage, but the history. When you know that your bench came from a Toronto tree. When you know that your table used to be a barn in Muskoka. That all adds to the furniture’s value as a life-long piece.
On that note, I ask Melissa if she ever gets personal requests for sentimental re-purposing. If my childhood treehouse is being cut down, can UTS make something out of it? “Absolutely. But it’s up to the home owner to find the means to get the log over to us.” She says that perhaps once or twice a year, they get requests of this nature.
UTS was the very first business of its kind in Canada, and Melissa notes that they got into the game just as the shift toward salvaging and ethically-sourced furniture really started to take off. She’s hesitant to call the shift a trend, because she thinks it’s a change in mindset that’s likely to stick around, rather than fade away as the next new thing moves in.
“I’d have to say, probably over the last 5 years, there’s been a good shift in getting out of the IKEA mindset, where you buy disposable furniture. We all have IKEA products — they’re great, they’re cheap, they’re cheerful — but they only have about a five to ten year lifespan. I think people are starting to say ‘you know what, these pieces are more expensive, but it’s an investment piece.'” She notes that the pieces crafted by UTS should last a lifetime.
UTS is a build-your-own experience. You can choose the hunk of wood from the showroom. You can choose the finish, the size. Everything is customizable, and suited to your needs, and as Melissa points out, that just makes it all the more likely to stay with you for a very, very long time.
Not ready to invest in a custom-made piece? UTS also sources salvaged and reclaimed wood. While in the shop, I browse walls lined with beautiful boards, moderately priced, just ready to find their way into someone’s next woodworking project. Melissa and the team are happy to coach DIY enthusiasts and she says that, often, she’ll get calls mid-project. “They’ll call and be like, ‘what now?’ And we’ll talk them through it.”
As far as locally-sourced businesses go, Urban Tree Salvage has to be among our favourite discovered so far. They’re reducing waste and telling the story of Toronto, one tree at a time.
Check out Urban Tree Salvage on FS Local.
Urban Tree Salvage uses reclaimed and salvaged wood to create furniture and accessories for home and office. They’re on Twitter @urbantreesalvag and visit their online showroom at urbantreesalvage.com.
Urban Tree Salvage is located at 753 Warden Avenue, Scarborough.