Urban Wood Lab
Tree service finds use for often-overlooked resource

By Laurie Arendt - News Graphic Correspondent

Jan. 13, 2015

August Hoppe of Hoppe Tree Service shows a wood slab that came from a tree that was more than 200 years old. It is being made into a tabletop.
Photo by Laurie Arendt

For more than 40 years, Hoppe Tree Service has perfected the art of removing trees. What happened to the trees after their removal was also pretty typical: The company usually just chipped and chopped them up into mulch.

“We were happy and content to do that for years and years,” said August Hoppe, president and general manager of the Milwaukee-based company. “But then we started thinking about the trees, and enough people started whispering about how we could utilize that wood.”

The company experimented with sending off the cut trees to mills and then realized that there was a hidden opportunity waiting to be explored: take control of that process, expand the business and establish the Urban Wood Lab.

For the past year, suitable urban wood felled in the Milwaukee area has been sent out to the company’s new facility in the town of Grafton.

“This land had been in our family for years, and it was a great place to establish a collection yard and kiln facilities,” Hoppe said.

Urban wood is a resource that has been traditionally overlooked by commercial timber harvesters, but one that lends itself naturally to Hoppe Tree Service’s business model.

To qualify as a Wisconsin Urban Wood product, trees must be cut down for a reason other than their lumber and it must be milled within 50 miles of where it has been cut. Hoppe’s Urban Wood Lab is a member of Wisconsin Urban Wood, a statewide organization comprised of arborists, sawyers, kiln operators, woodworkers and craftspersons who “recycle” urban trees back into the community.

“First of all, timber is usually harvested in much bigger quantities, not one tree at a time,” he said. “But that’s how we work - we’re arborists; we’re not in the timber business. When we get a call, someone typically wants us to remove a single tree that is no longer suitable for its space.”

Secondly, urban wood is not as pristine as its forest relatives.

“There can be all sorts of weird things in a tree service tree, like nails and concrete,” he said. “Additionally, because they are not competing for sunlight with other trees in a forest, urban trees tend to be much larger, which the mills aren’t always able to accommodate.”

Suitable tree service trees are brought out to the Grafton facility, where they are sorted by species and then cut by band saw. They are then processed by time and controlled temperatures through time spent in an air drying shelter and dry kiln.

“We have three different chambers so we can dry out the wood at separate speeds,” he said. “It really depends on the species and the thickness of the wood.”

For example, boards cut to a 1-inch thickness, or dimensional lumber, typically have a 22-day cycle in the kiln. Two-inch thick boards with a “live edge” are dried in a 40-day cycle. 

Hoppe said their wood products are being sold to general contractors, hobbyists and interior designers.  Hoppe Tree Services sells its wood out of a showroom located in Milwaukee.

“Walnut is always in demand, and people are also interested in soft maple, which is used for cabinets,” he said.

The concept of urban wood also gives new life to a tree that’s in trouble right now due to the Emerald Ash Borer.

“We can and do process ash trees, but the Emerald Ash Borer wave hasn’t crested yet in this area,” said Hoppe. “We’re just starting to see tree decline.”

While he said some people are proactively asking Hoppe Tree Service to take care of their ash trees, other people are using treatments to stop the insect from damaging their trees.

In fact, unless the tree is already in advanced decline, an ash tree that has been hit by the insect may still provide viable wood for the Urban Wood Lab. The insect damages the tissues right below the bark, effectively starving the tree but leaving the sapwood and heartwood intact. These are the portions of the tree used for lumber.

Another growing client is actually someone who calls Hoppe Tree Service for tree removal services and isn’t quite ready to say goodbye to the tree.

“Usually people call us for tree removals because the tree has outgrown its space,” he said. “They like the idea of having us process the wood and then using their tree as a mantle or having it made into a piece of furniture.”

Hoppe said that urban wood is a concept that is growing in popularity as more people hear about it.

“Harvesting urban wood redirects this lumber out of the waste stream,” he said.

“It really gives the wood a higher calling. It’s also the ultimate in shopping local: The wood is cut, dried and sold all within 50 miles of where it was cut down.”


Urban Wood Lab

a division of Hoppe Tree Service