Up From the Ashes
business to use wood from doomed local trees
A 2014 meeting of the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce Green Committee raised concerns about the emerald ash borer’s toll on the Chippewa Valley’s many ash trees.
Eau Claire City Forester Todd Chwala projected that 40,000 ash trees in the city will need to be cut down in the coming decade due to the impending invasion of the green, jeweled beetle. Although the borer hasn’t made its way to Eau Claire yet, it’s predicted to arrive in the near future. This, Chwala said, will create a demand for efficient, cost-effective ways of using the resulting supply of lumber – uses that would be an alternative to burning through city funds at a rate of $500 an hour to rent a tub grinder to dispose of the trees.
“Ash is such a beautiful wood, and the maples and some of the other woods that are in the urban setting make really interesting furniture.” – woodworker and entrepreneur Julie McFadden, who hopes to use urban trees cut down by the City of Eau Claire to create decorative and useful products
In attendance at that meeting was Julie McFadden, a local craftswoman with a degree in studio art and a knack for power tools.
The city’s looming dilemma was planted in McFadden’s mind when she later attended an urban wood seminar in Spring Green. What she learned at the seminar piqued her interest and sparked the creation of a sustainable business opportunity.
McFadden’s answer to the challenge of re-appropriating the wood from felled ash trees is Eco Urban Timber. Her new company will turn that wood into things such as ornaments, craft beer caddies, and even skateboard decks.
“It’s sort of the concept of a boutique lumber mill,” McFadden said. “You aren’t doing huge operations, but what you are doing is turning the wood into high-value products. That really sparks my curiosity.”
McFadden vetted the logistics of her plan through UW-Eau Claire’s entrepreneur program and, after being assured that Eco Urban Timber has legs to stand on, turned to UW-Stout for laser etching training and prototype development.
Backing for McFadden’s enterprise comes through the Milwaukee-based Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corp. Mike Hetzel, the WWBIC’s director of funding, said she convinced the group of the potential for her project.
“Julie’s experience makes this a unique business opportunity, because she does have that background in art and design,” Hetzel said. “Specialty lumber options is something we thought we’d like to be part of.”
The first round of WWBIC small business loans McFadden has been approved for totals slightly more than $100,000, to be dispensed in two phases. The first phase of loans, worth about $30,000, will help her establish her new business now that she has relocated from her Menomonie home studio to the Chippewa Valley Innovation Center in Eau Claire.
Meanwhile, the craftswoman is keeping busy tinkering with product prototypes and exploring methods of utilizing all aspects of the ash – from repurposing cutout scraps to bagging and selling sawdust.
This year’s Leadership Eau Claire class – a leadership skill-building and community education program run by the Chamber of Commerce – assisted in localizing Wisconsin Urban Wood, a nonprofit group that facilitates new uses for urban wood, whether it comes from construction, storm damage or, in McFadden’s case, invasive species.
On June 9, the Eau Claire City Council approved a contract with Wisconsin Urban Wood which allows the nonprofit group access to the city’s Jeffers Road brush site and the felled trees that city crews bring there. Because these trees would otherwise be ground into mulch, city leaders believe the agreement will save the city money as well as time.
McFadden will purchase lumber from some of the 30 partners in Wisconsin Urban Wood until borers are detected in Eau Claire and the local ash trees begin to come down, allowing her to mill independently. She said that making connections with those partnered sellers is proving beneficial to expanding her lumber fluency.
Twink Jan-McMahon, executive director of Wisconsin Urban Wood, said McFadden’s environmental consciousness is essential to the direction she hopes the consortium will take – particularly because McFadden is one of the group’s first Chippewa Valley partners.
“She’s not afraid of the challenges of learning a new industry,” Jan-McMahon said. “What’s fun about Julie is that she’ll be dealing with every aspect of the urban tree – from relations with the arborist that takes them down to sales and marketing the end product.
“She’s got absolutely all of it covered.”
Phase two for McMahon, after proving her project’s stability, is gathering the necessary capital equipment, including a bandsaw, a mill, and a kiln.
“At that point I’ll have the full stream, from the log being dropped off at the yard all the way to the product being sold,” she said.
A key piece of equipment McFadden already has ordered with her initial WWBIC loan is a $12,000 laser, which is en route from China. The machine is a driving force for the design elements to be included in her project, such as precision etching and customizing products for buyers.
Once “a viable financial basis” has been secured, larger art works are her next steppingstone, McFadden said.
Her son, Aiden Bard, a furniture designer, assists with Eco Urban Timber as a side player – lending his time on weekends to familiarize McFadden with shop techniques.
“Furniture is one of the pieces we’re looking to get into,” McFadden said. “Ash is such a beautiful wood, and the maples and some of the other woods that are in the urban setting make really interesting furniture.”
One goal, McFadden says, is to involve her entire family in Eco Urban Timber. Along with her son, McFadden plans to introduce her twin 16-year-old daughters, Sylvia and Mara, to the craft.
Sculpture, too, could find its place in her studio. During her undergraduate days at the University of Minnesota, McFadden specialized in large-scale sculpture.
She said that developing “a crossover between technology and natural elements” is her aim in finding ways to incorporate the savvy she brings to her art from her career as a software development instructor at Chippewa Valley Technical College. Solar powered lighting encased in the ash wood is one possibility she’s considering.
For now, McFadden is testing the waters by running prototypes through several local outlets, including Etsy, an e-commerce hub focused on handmade products, and Volume One’s Local Store in downtown Eau Claire.
When the borer is detected in Eau Claire and ash trees begin to fall, keep a watchful eye out for McFadden’s re-appropriated Eco Urban Timber products as they begin to pop up around town.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Chippewa Valley Post (cvpost.org), “an online source for community and nonprofit news in Eau Claire, Chippewa and Dunn counties.”