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Urban Renewal: George Hessenthaler finds new uses for old wood

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Urban Renewal: George Hessenthaler finds new uses for old wood

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George Hessenthaler shows a jewlery box that he made. (Eli Lucero/Herald Journal)

Jason Turner | Posted 21 hours ago

What a lot of people see as an old, decaying tree, George Hessenthaler sees as a potential masterpiece.

Hessenthaler is the owner, founder and president of Urban Forest Wood Works, a mill in Logan that takes old, discarded wood and turns it into well-crafted jewelry boxes, gun cases, briefcases, urns and other treasures.

The 73-year-old specializes in purchasing aged city trees — mainly from Cache Valley and mainly from arborists, tree trimmers and landfills — and saving them from being burned or turned into mulch.

“A tree grown in the city, after it’s given its 50, 60, 80 years of shade and comfort and pleasure is greeted with a horrible demise because it’s cut into chunks and burned, or taken to the dump, and I think it has a higher and better use,” Hessenthaler said. “It has a greater destiny than being cut into firewood, so I hope a customer, when he or she buys a box will realize it’s been made out of a tree that would have otherwise been dumped in the landfill.”

The California native started doing this in 1988 while living in Salt Lake City, and moved to his current location in 1993. Hessenthaler, who graduated from BYU with a degree in journalism in 1969, vacationed with his family in Cache Valley when he was younger and fell in love with the area and the mountains.

“Have you ever been to Salt Lake?” Hessenthaler said when asked how he ended up in Logan. “(If so) there’s your answer. I like Cache Valley. It’s a great place. It’s colder than hell in the winter, but I like it.”

He used to work in the public relations field, but “I got tired of sitting at a typewriter,” Hessenthaler quipped. Hessenthaler then opened a cabinet shop in Salt Lake City in the late-1980s, and that’s where his focus in life changed.

Hessenthaler, who is still going strong despite recently being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, was working at his cabinet shop when he watched a man get ready to haul away 10 black walnut trees in a 40-foot trailer. Hessenthaler approached the man and found out the man’s boss had instructed him to take the trees to the dump.

Hessenthaler offered the man $1,000 in cash for the trees, but the man did as his boss instructed.

“And from that point on, I became aware of the incredible resource that’s available in terms of discarded city trees,” Hessenthaler explained. “Then I started buying them, and then I bought a Wood-Mizer bandsaw mill and started sawing them, so (my interest) grew naturally. But there’s an incredible treasure, a treasure trove of unbelievable hardwoods that can’t be purchased anywhere else. The only way to get it is to saw it and dry it yourself.”

Over the last 20 years, Hessenthaler said he has sawed 500,000 board feet of lumber. Hessenthaler harvests lumber from more than 20 different species of deciduous (hardwood) trees. Hessenthaler, who doesn’t work with softwood species, especially enjoys crafting items out of all kinds of fruit — “apricot wood is fantastically beautiful,” he said — nut, maple, linden and ash trees.

Hessenthaler, who was featured in a 1993 ABC News report about the declining state of urban forests, joked he currently has enough wood to make a case or box a day until he is 200 years old. Hessenthaler stressed “the absolute sole source for my lumber is discarded trees.”

Unlike a lot of people who make a living manufacturing trees that have been jettisoned, Hessenthaler doesn’t make custom furniture anymore.

“It’s too hard to build, deliver and install,” said Hessenthaler, who grew up in Los Angeles. “Boxes are small and neat, and you can ship them; people can hold them in their hands and examine them, so I prefer boxes. But boxes (feature) an incredibly wide variety of classification of products. … You’ll never run out of variety when you’re doing boxes.”

Hessenthaler’s rather expansive warehouse is loaded with equipment and wood. He has a whopping 18 woodworking routers and multiple bandsaws and blades, sanders and buffing tools.

There are nearly two dozen steps in the production process, Hessenthaler said, ranging from cutting, drying, sanding, buffing, staining and elaborate interior work. The drying process is rather lengthy, inasmuch as Hessenthaler doesn’t have a functional kiln anymore. Most of Hessenthaler’s final products are comprised of multiple types of wood.

Hessenthaler, who uses a special resin and has patents on some of the hinges he uses, sells an estimated 90 percent of his wares over the phone or at Urban Forest Wood Works, which is located at 1065 W. 600 North. A small percentage of his items are sold at retail stores and gift shops.

Given his passion for unearthing the beauty of old trees, Hessenthaler is meticulous in his work and strives to use exactness when cutting the wood, so as to preserve the grain patterns and integrity of each species.

Hessenthaler’s mill is open for sales every weekday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., but he is generally hard at work from 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Hessenthaler used to employ seven or eight Utah State University students on a part-time basis, but does nearly everything by himself now.

“I work too much,” he said. “I literally work 60-hour weeks, but it keeps me trim.”

Hessenthaler’s products range from $35 to $3,000, with a high percentage of them being in the lower-price range.

The witty Hessenthaler is currently sawing a large, 94-year-old walnut tree from Davis County that will eventually be fashioned into furniture for a new administrative building. Hessenthaler, who constructs items for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, estimates the tree weighs 1,500 pounds.

In addition to saving trees and crafting aesthetically pleasing boxes, Hessenthaler is also a spokesman for his cause. In fact, he has been invited to address several city planning groups and arborist conventions over the past 20 years. In 2000 Hessenthaler was asked by the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) to be part of a panel discussion, where he addressed a crowd of 4,000 people for an hour.

“(I take great pride in) spreading the word about urban forest resources, and it’s catching on now,” said Hessenthaler, who does a fair amount of sawing for people who make their own furniture. “It’s taken 20 years, but I was one of the pioneers in the field. That doesn’t mean much. As a matter of fact, that usually means you’re the guy that gets to break the ground and pay the money, and other people come and follow behind you and reap the benefits. But I have been a pioneer in the field of urban forests, hardwood utilization, and that’s been satisfying.”

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Written by vaphc

May 3, 2013 at 4:05 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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