Hamilton furniture maker wants to use ash borer wood, city says NO

Local furniture maker Nick Hamilton Holmes wants to use some of the ash trees dying from the emerald ash borer. But while many North American cities are being creative in ways to stop thousands of felled trees from going to waste, Hamilton says no.
Over the next 10 years, Hamilton will lose thousands of trees to the emerald ash borer. Nick Hamilton Holmes wants to make furniture with some of them, but the city says no. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Over the next decade, the city will chop down thousands of healthy ash trees because of the deadly emerald ash borer. Nick Hamilton Holmes wants to make furniture with some of them, but the city says no.

The Kirkendall neighbourhood furniture maker wants to make the most of a bad situation and not see the wood go to waste. He envisions hearty frames for art and pictures, or solid chairs made with the ash wood.

So far, his attempts have led to bureaucratic roadblocks. While cities across North American are finding creative ways to use the felled trees, Hamilton is not one of them.

Holmes contacted the city last fall to ask for some of the ash wood. The city will spend $26.2 million over 10 years to chop down nearly every ash tree it owns, resulting in 22,738 trees lost to the invasive species.

First, staff told him the trees are chopped into wood chips, which are then given out to the public.

Seeing the trees used for something good takes a little of the sting away.- Edith Makra

But larger trees would be difficult to chip, Holmes countered. And it would be a waste of good wood. Could he get some and mill it himself?

Needs $2 million in insurance

City staff told him that he couldn’t buy the wood from the city, nor could he enter the lot and pick it up for free without $2 million in insurance coverage.

It’s frustrating, he said. Making beautiful furniture from the wood helps ease the pain of losing the trees. And with an increasing interest in local products, he believes there’s a market for it.

“If the wood comes from their city, made by someone in their city, it becomes exciting for people,” he said.

What to do with felled ash borer wood has been an issue for every area touched by the pest. In Illinois and Michigan, state and federal governments spend money to find creative ways to use the lumber.

In Illinois, where the borer hit more than 10 years ago, the Emerald Ash Borer Wood Utilization Team has held furniture shows to showcase ways to use ash. It has also partnered with a college furniture-building program.

Making baseball bats for kids

One small town mayor felled an ash tree and made baseball bats for a Little League team, said Edith Makra, chair of the utilization team. In the village of Mount Prospect, officials gave an ash key to the city to native Lee DeWyze when he won American Idol.

We now have more chips than anyone can get rid of anymore.- Edith Makra

These uses soothe the loss of precious tree canopy, Makra said.

“People are upset about losing trees in high numbers, and seeing the trees used for something good takes a little of the sting away.”

In Hamilton, Davey Tree Service has a contract for $12.44 per centimetre to remove the tree and dispose of the wood, said Mike McNamara, the city’s director of forestry services.

Davey chips the trees and sends them back to the city yard, where they’re distributed for free for mulch.

Toronto holds an ash design competition

The city hasn’t thought much about to what to do with the ash wood, nor has it budgeted for it, McNamara said. And it doesn’t have the staff to deal with wood requests.

In Toronto, woodworkers access city wood from a depot. The city also contributed trees for a woodshop competition at IIDEX Canada in September.

Fifteen designers used doomed ash trees to make end tables, coffee tables and other furniture, said Josh Brasse, competition organizer. Some of them are being mass-produced now.

“Part of what we were trying to do is raise awareness of the ash borer infestation and the consequences of it all,” he said.

The infestation has resulted in a sudden surplus of ash, Makra said. And there are no easy answers.

The rough life of a city tree

Urban trees have rough lives, she said. “They get hit by cars. They have garage sale signs nailed to them.” But recent studies show that at least 40 per cent of urban trees contain salvageable lumber.

And as the trees pile up, chipping only goes so far, she said. In Illinois, “we now have more chips than anyone can get rid of anymore.”

“Most municipalities want to see the material reused even if it costs them a little bit extra to get it to sawyers.”

Holmes still wants to make furniture from local ash trees. In the meantime, he’s focusing on other projects.

“I just wanted to have an open discussion with anyone about it, and I just kind of got ‘We don’t really do that.’”


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