June 29 2011 12:00 AM

Kelvin Potter rescues urban wood from the shredder

    art6030

    Kelvin Potter has bagged two-ton game and bigger, but he’s
    not the macho type. His straw hat is only shredded on top because his
    3-year-old son sat on it. But when he stood in the lumber yard of his
    workshop in Bath Township last week, he looked like Teddy Roosevelt
    posing next to a fallen elephant.


    Potter was checking on a giant elm log weighing about
    4,000 pounds. Weeks before, he cut the log into 700-pound horizontal
    slabs, now stacked and drying in the sun.


    A Lansing family treated the beloved tree for Dutch elm
    disease for 20 years — an expensive proposition — until it finally
    succumbed last year. They called Potter’s one-man outfit, Ravenfarm
    Recycled Wood Products, on Clark Road in Bath.


    “I get calls about these, because people are usually very sentimental about them,” Potter said.


    Potter deals in storm-felled, diseased, or just old and
    tottering trees. He takes the behemoths away, cuts them up, planes them
    down and dries up the finished boards until they are fit for what he
    calls the “highest use.”


    Urban waste wood usually goes to a
    chipper, a biomass burner, firewood dealers, pallet makers, or
    landfills. But city logs, like city people, can be neurotic and
    complicated, and some folks like them that way. 


    In woods or on tree farms, trees grow straighter and
    taller in the vertical race for scarce sunlight. In the city or on a
    rural homestead, they have room to twist and sprawl to epic dimensions.
    They’re curvy, knotty, barky, and often full of funk and fungus.


    Mass marketers shun them, but creative home builders,
    hobbyists and musical instrument makers prize the rich grain and
    unpredictable patterns.


    “The industry wants lumber that looks like a computer made
    it — telephone pole trunk,” Potter said. “We go for just the opposite. A
    big, stubby trunk with lots of branches gives you wood with character.”


    Potter’s three-story house, made entirely from waste
    Lansing trees, is quilted and stilted to the hilt with 20 varieties of
    wood. He lives with his wife, Rachel, who works for the state, and two
    “howler monkeys,” 3-year-old Ben (the hat crusher) and Eli, 10 months.


    The house’s huge pine beams were literally pulled from a fire where a friend of his father was disposing of them.


    The central staircase vibrates with dozens of knots and ripples of grain, like water bugs on a pond.


    “This was a big white pine that was in a park somewhere in
    Lansing,” he said. “I remember this tree because I’d never seen a pine
    that big.”


    The rescued elm slabs in Potter’s lumber yard might end up as tabletops, bookshelves, floors, clocks, or all of the above.


    A year ago, Potter found an elm even bigger than the one
    drying in his yard. It was 6 feet in diameter and more than 150 years
    old. Potter spotted the leviathan, felled by wind in a farmer’s front
    yard, north of Lansing.


    “The tree covered his whole front yard all his life,” he
    said. “He wanted to do something better with it than cut it into
    firewood.”


    Another man asked Potter to convert a favorite tree,
    fallen after many years, into finished boards for the coffin maker, so
    he could enjoy its shade in the next world.


    Sentiment isn’t the only reason to rescue urban trees from
    the shredder. There’s a tree-roots movement across the country to
    harvest urban wood, especially active in places like Ann Arbor and
    Milwaukee. Millions of trees, many of them lost to pests like the
    emerald ash borer, are going to “lower uses” — biomass burners, pallets,
    even landfills — while the nascent industry finds its footing.
    Recently, MSU forestry Professor David McFarlane estimated the greater
    Detroit area could yield 5 million board feet of lumber a year.
    Nationally, the urban recovery potential is a staggering 3 billion board
    feet, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Potter’s Raven Farms is
    part of Urbanwood.org, a southeast Michigan network of suppliers and
    sellers of urban wood, organized in 2005.


    The urban wood movement also gives artisan-lumberjacks
    like Potter, who would be miserable in a commercial logging or milling
    operation, a shot at a satisfying life. Potter grew up in the Lansing
    area working on birdhouses and other projects with his grandfather, a
    Grand Rapids furniture maker. He got an education degree at MSU, but he
    was too restless for the classroom. While working as a canoe guide in a
    remote area of Maine, he watched the park rangers use a portable sawmill
    rig, flown in by helicopter, to turn fallen trees into picnic tables,
    outhouses and such. He returned to Lansing with a new pair of eyes and
    got his own rig as soon as he could.


    “I started seeing logs everywhere going to waste,” he said.


    Lansing’s waste wood used to go to a stockpile at Crego
    Park, where Potter scrounged most of the wood for his house. Now it goes
    to Hammond Farms Landscape Supply, where a lot of it is turned into
    mulch, but Potter still rescues interesting logs from Hammond. He also
    goes on site when a tree removal service spots something he cold use.


    Tucked into a converted barn dating from about 1860,
    Potter’s workshop has a kiln for drying boards, a big planing machine
    and a storage area for finished boards, classified by type of wood and
    cut. 


    Potter air-dries the logs for a few months, loads them
    into a cart and dries them in the kiln — but not too fast, or they’ll
    split. His most personal touch comes in the final cut, when he uses a
    technique called “quarter sawing.” Most lumber is plain sawn, or sliced
    horizontally like deli turkey. Potter quarters each log into wedges
    first, and then slices up each quarter diagonally.  It
    takes four times as long, but you get stronger boards and pretty grain
    figures (they’re called medullary rays) suitable for Arts and Crafts or
    Mission furniture, and even mandolins.


    For half a minute, Potter pretended to be the heedless,
    lever-pulling commercial sellout he never became. “They’re in a cab a
    hundred yards away, listening to Metallica, going ‘arrrrrrrr,’” he
    scowled. “I’m right there, I’m slow, I can follow the figures in the
    wood."