Woodworker Salvages Fallen Trees by Designing Custom Furniture

Reader Contribution by The Wood-Mizer Team
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Brian Presnell of Indy Urban Hardwood Co. utilizes his portable sawmill to salvage fallen and diseased urban trees in Indianapolis, Indiana. In addition to providing high-quality salvaged wood furniture to homeowners and local businesses, Indy Urban Hardwood Co. works closely with Herron School of Art by donating salvaged wood to art students to learn woodworking.

In 1983, Sam Ruff and his wife became the proud owners of his mother’s home in Indianapolis. Sam’s mother had purchased the home from her own mother, which had been passed down from her grandfather. Four generations had maintained and cultivated the beautiful property since 1906.

In 1989, the CSX railroad defoliated their right-of-ways. In doing so, deadly chemicals drifted to the Ruff residence, killing all of their long-standing trees. Sam and his wife lost seven giant spruce trees, an old walnut tree, and many ash trees.

The Ruffs were devastated. However, endeavoring to keep their wood alive in some way, Sam called Brian Presnell, founder of Indy Urban Hardwood Company.

“Brian’s an artist, no doubt,” Sam says. “He sees art in things other people don’t. I guess that’s how artists work.”

Brian transformed Sam’s dying trees. Sam knew Brian was trustworthy enough to save his trees because Presnell’s company illustrates their foundational mission in every project:

“Indy Urban Hardwood is the creative problem solving of Brian Presnell and the introduction of urban milling into the Indianapolis design scene. Many cities across the Midwest are facing an excess of dying ash trees due to the emerald ash borer. This epidemic has led to the clearing of trees and a surplus of firewood around city curbs. Indy Urban Hardwood is hoping to save some of the wood that would ordinarily be mulched or burned. After the raw wood is kiln dried it can be sold as slabs to local builders or made into custom furniture by our design team. Additionally, we are building relationships with furniture design students by offering discounted or donated wood.” –

“I’m doing this because I want us to do better as a community,” Brian shares. Presnell was surprised that Indianapolis had done so little to save urban lumber and wanted to make a difference.

“You know, I’m really excited,” he shares. “Like the farm-to-table movement is so hot in food right now—and we’re yard-to-table. We’re going to come to your yard and take your tree and bring you back a nice table.”

Brian started out as a college student at the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis, studying furniture design and sculpture. After finishing his degree, he began to work with his friend, Cory Robinson, at the Indianapolis Museum of Art in the exhibit design department. Together in 2,000, they milled trees for the first time at the IMA, trying to save wood.

“They [Herron] were the first ones to give me some of my tools to get out here and go to these museums and go to these galleries,” Brian says, “and travel around and be taught by artists around the country how to do shows right. I mean, it was huge.”

Indy Urban’s day-to-day activities involve extensive manual labor through on-site milling with a Wood-Mizer LT40WIDE, placing wood in their KD250 kiln to dry, or conducting site visits to new properties. Once their kiln wood has reached a moisture level of 6-8%, Brian and his team design handcrafted wood pieces—no two are the same.

Brian’s close friend and colleague, Cory Robinson, is the Chair of Fine Arts at Herron and an associate professor of furniture design. He explains how Brian’s business is also dedicated to reaching college students who study furniture design.

“I think what makes Brian’s business model a little different is that he set out to understand how he could impact educational environments in the region as part of his business model,” says Cory.

Brian uses Cory’s position at the school as an outlet for the products he produces. He chose to donate and discount some of his wood to students who likely can’t afford lumber at its original retail price. Cory helps to offset the cost of materials for the students as well.

Remembering how the school and professors at Herron enabled him to be successful, Brian says, “When Phil Tenant gave me that old, fat zebra board, I flipped my weight—as any kid would. You go give some kid a $500 walnut board and see what they can do with it. I think that’s what I want to help do more than anything.”

Indy Urban Hardwood Company has such a dynamic passion for their mission, it’s hard not to be a part of it. They strive to:

Stop burning trees

Educate the public about urban milling and responsible tree clearing

Use local wood to create custom furniture, casework, counter tops, etc.

Introduce more local goods into the building market

Create partnerships with tree removal services and contractors

Discount or donate lumber to students

“Hopefully, over time, we gain some traction here,” Brian shares. “I’m trying to go to big people in town that can make a difference with me and make this impact, because I believe trees are worth saving.”

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