Located on Madison’s east side, Baraboo Woodworks is helping redefine the local wood economy in South Central Wisconsin. Opened just one year ago, Baraboo Woodworks is at the forefront of the new urban wood movement. “It’s still very typical for people to go to a lumberyard and have no idea where the wood they are buying came from,” says owner Fred Clark. “We offer the choice to buy local wood and support the area forest owners and infrastructure with lumber that comes from trees that grew in this community.” With an infectious can-do mentality, Baraboo Woodworks supports this new economy as a working sawmill, retail lumber outlet, and crafter of custom wood furniture.
Starting Baraboo Woodworks was a lifelong project of passion for Fred. Having worked in the forestry and conservation industry all of his career, as well as serving three terms in the Wisconsin State Assembly, he has seen first-hand the enormous amount of quality wood that goes to waste. “There are hundreds of thousands of forest owners in Wisconsin who take good care of their property, control invasive species, and do everything it takes to keep forests healthy. What we do is create a way for them to get better value from that investment,” says Fred, who also serves as Executive Director of The Forest Guild, a non-profit dedicated to promoting sustainable forestry. “It was frustrating to see wood constantly being thrown away simply because there was nowhere to bring it.” With his team of three full-time staff—Mike Breezee, Matt Hegge, and Josh Rice—Baraboo Woodworks is determined to change just that.
As the Buy Local movement has grown, so has the new concept of “local urban wood.” Urban wood is classified as wood from trees that were not harvested for their timber value, but rather removed because of death, disease, or circumstance. Add the term local and you have a pretty good idea of the unique selection of wood Baraboo Woodworks sources. Generally, most urban wood ends up in landfills or is turned into mulch. The U.S. Forest Service estimates urban wood waste could produce 3.8 billion feet of lumber annually, which is equal to 30 percent of all the hardwood lumber the United States produces each year. “The entire concept of Baraboo Woodworks is to connect local wood with local buyers. We want to create better options and reduce waste by connecting forests and tree owners with people who care about local products and locally made materials,” says Fred.
Luckily, Madison has served as an ideal location for setting up their shop. “We’re fortunate to live in a place with good hardwoods,” says Josh, a woodworker who also co-manages the business alongside Mike and Matt. In the Dane County area, there are about 40 types of wood, including well-known varieties such as ash, cherry, hickory, and oak, as well as unique street trees such as catalpa, hackberry, and honey locust. “We’re able to utilize a lot of wood that the commercial wood industry won’t, often because they think it has too many knots or isn’t viable for their business.” Because of diseases, insects, or hazardous conditions, thousands of trees in the City of Madison are removed every year. In 2014, the City of Madison began a multi-year preventative cutting plan to take down ash trees because of the emerald ash borer epidemic. The wood from such trees is still safe to use as wood and, instead of being thrown away or turned into mulch, can be brought to Baraboo Woodworks to be transformed into something one of a kind.
Baraboo Woodworks is especially passionate about the custom side of their business. They have built everything from furniture to cutting boards, kitchen tables, shelves, and even a food cart! Earlier this year, they helped the Filipino-American food cart Masarap craft a unique wood-paneled cart made with charred eastern red cedar. The Madison Mallards also debuted a new a custom check-out counter at the ballpark this season, which was made by the Baraboo Woodworks team out of ash sourced in Madison. Most of their custom orders are from homeowners looking for something special for inside their house. “There is nothing cooler than taking a tree that fell down in someone’s yard outside and turning it into a beautiful kitchen table someone can enjoy forever inside,” says Matt. Adds Mike, “Our customers know where the wood is coming from and who is making it. It is heirloom quality—we make it so it is built to last.”
Ensuring the quality of their wood is easy as they are directly involved in every step of the wood cycle. It is a timely process to take wood from a tree and turn it into a retail-ready lumber product, often requiring up to a year of work. Once a tree is down and removed, it is brought to the Baraboo Woodworks shop where it is cut into slabs, stickered, and left to air-dry. Allowing it to air-dry at a given humidity level helps season the wood. The process can take up to a few months depending on the type of wood, its moisture level, density, and thickness. Next, the wood is placed in a kiln for an additional few weeks or months. The kiln offers a more controlled, higher temperature environment that ensures quick and even drying. Finally, the wood is finished and ready to be sold in their retail store or utilized for a custom order.
The local wood movement is growing rapidly across the United States. Businesses and organizations are collaborating on a local, regional, and national level to build networks in hopes of eliminating urban wood waste. Companies similar to Baraboo Woodworks have popped up across the country, including Tree-Purposed in Detroit, Wood from the Hood in Minneapolis, and Wood From Our Hood in Portland. In our state, the Wisconsin Urban Wood organization was formed to promote the use of urban wood, and offers resources to those looking to support local wood. “We’re living in a time where makers and consumers are needing to rethink how they make and buy stuff,” says Josh. “There’s a growing awareness of the value of local products, local manufacturing, and now, local wood. At Baraboo Woodworks, we have all the pieces in place to make a new economy around local wood here.”
Holly Whittlef is a freelance designer and writer who lives in Madison and blogs about her love of good design and food at Hollis Anne.