Even though Bruce and Erika Horigan aren't doctors, they spend their days working to extend lives. The lives of lumber, that is.

In 2003, fed up with watching Chicago-area trees cut down and made into firewood and mulch, the Horigans sold their tree care business and opened Horigan Urban Forest Products Inc. in Glenview, Ill.

The company's goal is to get as many "lives" as possible from a tree taken from the urban landscape. If lumber from a tree can be used in a piece of furniture or cabinetry, then it can have a "life" of many more years, Bruce Horigan explains. Then, when the furniture or cabinetry is no longer needed or wanted, the hope is that the lumber will be re-used in another "life." The last life for any lumber is to become firewood or mulch.

Different markets

The supply of urban timber is almost overwhelming for the Horigans. The challenge now is to let people know they can keep their trees even after they've been cut down.

Bruce Horigan says there are several different markets that they work with in extending the lives of urban timber. "One market is the private resident who says 'Hey, I've got a tree I want something made out of,' and that's a great market because then that sort of drives the whole process. Then the woodworker will definitely use our wood."

We can refer these customers directly to a woodworker, who'll have a job without selling it. We try to work with cabinetmakers and woodworkers, says Erika Horigan. If we get somebody who has a tree coming down, and they like the idea, we can refer them.

While Horigan UFP is primarily a sawmill and kiln, the Horigans work with a local woodworking shop that does straight-line ripping and surfacing. "We can get wood dimensionally dressed for cabinetmakers," Bruce says.

Another market is homeowners who want to be environmentally friendly. "These people say The tree's coming down, and I need new furniture or I need new cabinets. I'm not going to take down another tree from the woods I'm going to use the one from my own yard,'" Bruce says.

The Horigans currently have two builders who have used trees from property they were building on to make either wainscoting or mantel pieces.

Green for cabinetmakers

The Horigans note that many cabinetmakers like using their lumber because of its environmentally friendly history. "This lumber is as 'green' as you can get from an environmental standpoint," Bruce says. "We can honestly say 'Zero trees were cut down for lumber.'"

Erika says this is becoming a big point for many. "They want FSC or something that's environmentally friendly. We're not FSC-certified, because we don't manage a forest, but what we do is green. What we do is recycling." Bruce notes other environmental positives. "It's local, it's recycled, and it's applicable for innovation and design credits, so if someone is going for LEED certification, we have potential credit in those three areas."

The Horigans are quick to point out that trees from the urban landscape have more branches, more limbs and therefore more knots and character. On panels, cabinetmakers often like this character, and Horigan UFP is still able to provide clear lumber for stiles and rails.

The Horigans discourage people from taking down trees "just for the heck of it." If a homeowner is determined to take down a tree, the Horigans refer them to local tree services. Sometimes homeowners contact a tree service first, and sometimes they contact Horigan UFP first. The city of Chicago has also asked Horigan UFP to work with them to take care of cut or fallen trees.

Capabilities and inventory

Horigan UFP produces lumber in sizes that are generally not available at lumberyards. "We do wide boards and book matching. A lot of people like the 8/4 live edge slabs that we have for tables and other unique projects," Erika says. The Horigans can cut lumber up to 23-1/2 inches wide.

Lumber purchased from Horigan UFP is more than at a home renovation big box store, but it is comparable to what one would pay at a lumberyard. But, the Horigans can tell you the street address of the lumber.

Surprisingly, the urban forest of Chicago produces a wide array of species. A cursory review of Horigan UFP's inventory includes such species as black walnut, honey locust, hackberry, persimmon, white oak, catalpa, Siberian elm, spruce, silver maple, ash, red oak, American elm, ginkgo biloba, black cherry, buckeye, shag bark hickory, cedar, sycamore and plum, among others. Currently, Horigan UFP mills about 750 board feet a day and has about 40,000 board feet of dried lumber in inventory.

Not purchasing trees

The Horigan's business is based on debris reduction, and as such they do not purchase logs. As Bruce explains, most people do not understand what all is involved in taking down a tree in a suburban setting. For the Horigans to be able to offer even a small amount of money for the purchase of someone's tree, they would have to be able to essentially "cut and run" quickly cutting down a tree, letting it fall and dragging it off destroying houses and yards in the process and leaving behind debris. Aside from being unneighborly, a number of ordinances and laws would be violated in the process.

The sawmill

The first step in processing for Horigan UFP is that a tree is located that is either down or will be coming down. This information at times comes directly to the Horigans or from any one of a number of tree services in the area that the Horigans work with.

Trees are brought to the Horigan's mill by the tree service that is doing the cutting. Ideally, prior to the tree coming down the Horigans know what is going to be made out of that tree, which gives them the opportunity to coordinate the cuts. Once the tree arrives at Horigan UFP, it goes to the sawmill. The Horigans use a Wood-Mizer LT40. "It's a wonderful machine," Bruce says. "Someday we'll probably have the industrial-size Wood-Mizer machine. The amount of wood that we could mill in the Chicago area is probably a million board feet a year."

The Horigans mill despite the presence of foreign objects such as lag screws, flag pole holders and nails. One time they even cut a bullet in half thankfully it was spent. "If a homeowner wants their tree back, then they'll get it back, after we have removed the foreign objects," Bruce says. The Horigans will also mill timber that has partial rot, cutting pieces only from the good part of the tree.

Drying

Once it is cut, lumber is then stacked for air drying. "What we try and do here is take it from the green say 70 percent moisture content down to about 25 percent. In the Chicago area, you can air dry down to about 10 to 12 percent moisture content, but we use the kilns to take it down to 8 percent."

The Horigans have two kilns, which are actually refrigerated container units that have been taken out of service and retrofitted with Nyle L200 dehumidification kiln units. The Horigans operate the kilns from 90 to 120 degrees, and over the space of several weeks, the kilns are run up to 140 degrees to kill all insects and larvae. The high temperature also sterilizes the wood and kills any bacteria or fungus.

The Horigans are anticipating a move and in their new location they plan to set up a throughput system for the kilns, so lumber can be stacked on carts for air drying at one end of the kiln, moved into the kiln and rolled right out as soon as it is done. Their current system requires about a week to load and unload a single batch of lumber.

Building a business

While interest in and revenues at Horigan UFP are on the rise, the Horigans acknowledge they have a long way to go. "We're three years into a business that didn't have any customer base, and didn't even have a market, so we're creating a market and a customer base at the same time," Bruce says. "We're on a learning curve. We doubled in revenues between year number two and three, and our goal is to double again this year."

Bruce notes that according to Steve Bratkovich of the USDA Forest Service, if all the wood products from the urban forests throughout the nation were used, it would equal approximately 40 percent of the annual wood usage of the entire United States.

"Think about what that would do out in the woods," Bruce says. "Technically, you'd be able to cut down 40 percent fewer trees. You would then have old growth forests again, because you wouldn't be taking the trees on as quick of a turn."

Timber reclaimed from the urban forest has yet to catch on in the lumber market. "This is what drives me crazy," Bruce says, motioning to a pile of cut timber in front of their facility. "We've already got 40,000 board feet of lumber in our warehouse. So this? This is all going to be made into firewood and mulch."

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