Three years ago, a visionary project called the Urban Tree Forge almost toppled with the death of founder John Metzler. It could have disappeared altogether if not for others who shared his passion for trees.
Today, artist Jason Boone carries on that vision at Urban Tree, a new name and a new location in Pittsburgh.
“It's been a lifelong dream to have a workshop, bring in the wood on one side and the furniture comes out the other,” said Boone.
Like many life passions, Boone's love of woodworking started at an early age, on a farm near Kansas City, Mo.
“My parents were brave enough to allow me to have a fair amount of tools in the garage,” he said, laughing. A young entrepreneur, he would buy pattern books, go around town getting orders and return later with the finished piece.
Trained as an architect, Boone moved to Pittsburgh in 2006 to work with the firm of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson. Yet his hobby remained a central part of his life. After running out of room in his apartment kitchen to do the kind of woodworking projects he wanted, he started working as a resident artist at the Urban Tree Forge.
He said the direction of his life changed the day Metzler died in 2010.
“He passed away May 13, and he had a bunch of jobs waiting to be finished,” said Boone. “I jumped in and helped finish up. Then in July, I got laid off from the architectural firm.”
Boone's dream remained with the forge, and so did he. However, many of the other artists drifted away.
“I started up my own company, buying out pieces of the Urban Tree Forge, even some of the wood,” he said.
Last July, he made the move from the old location to the new one. It still functions as a cooperative, with five businesses sharing the space.
Boone's dream of a “full-cycle” workshop came closer with the building of a drying kiln, a key component in creating quality furniture.
“It was a big investment. ... I either needed to build it or buy a truck to haul the stuff back and forth,” he said.
Important to Boone's vision is keeping everything local; building the kiln was an obvious step. “I source things here and do everything here. ... It's one step closer to having the whole process.”
The process begins when someone calls to donate his raw material. A board member of Tree Pittsburgh who has participated in Arbor Aid for five years, he is sensitive to people's feelings about trees and the years they have invested in them.
“In general, people don't want to cut their trees down,” he said. “They come down for reasons out of their control.”
Not concerned with the type of tree, he is looking for big ones, 30 to 36 inches in diameter, that he can slice into slabs with his monster of an Alaskan chain saw.
“I get a lot of pin oak, ash trees, beech and maples along with a few cherry and a few walnuts.”
After four to six hours of work, he ends up with six to eight planks, which are transported back to Urban Tree. They are stacked to air-dry in a large room in the front end of the warehouse for a year or two before they go to the drying kiln.
In addition to the new kiln, Boone also has completed a custom-built flattening table, a project he had started working on with Metzler when they built a meeting table for the G-20 conference held in Pittsburgh in 2009.
Kiln-drying time for wood varies with the species. Some take as little as a month, while others may take as much as four months. Some wood is turned into furniture that customers can pre-order, while other pieces end up as sculptures. Either way, the final pieces are individual works of art, showing off the beauty and strength of the original tree.
“People make a personal selection based on its shape or the location in the city where it came from, or they find the grain pattern really interesting,” Boone said.
In his free time, Boone does what he loves best — his sculptural work.
“I balance to meet all the bills but not getting too big. If it slows down, I can go do some sculptures. It's sort of a retirement career ... just much busier.”
Boone and Urban Tree can be reached at email@example.com.
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