San Diego Urban Timber

A feature from the archives: Custom furniture and household items made from San Diego's urban felled trees.

This is the second in a two-part series on America’s urban timber movement. Originally published in Edible San Diego in 2017, we focus on one of the urban timber companies in San Diego, California. The feature has been lightly edited for clarity for readers outside of San Diego.

There are logs. Lots of them. Grey from being out in the weather, they stretch from one end of the parking lot to the other. Some are as big around as oil drums. Dan Herbst stands by some recently cut planks, his feet planted in plenty of sawdust. “This would all be going to the landfill,” he says.

Also standing in sawdust is Jessica Van Arsdale, who together with Herbst helms San Diego Urban Timber, their company that creates high-quality furniture and other household items from locally sourced trees. Instead of the landfill, these large, weathered logs will be crafted into chairs, benches, tables, and other home furnishings.

The logs are from eucalyptus, sycamore, pepper trees, Torrey pines, and other trees that have been felled in and around San Diego. Herbst knows exactly where many of the logs came from. “This is a UCSD [University of California San Diego] tree right here,” he says.

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Other towns and cities such as Seattle, Detroit, and Eugene, Oregon, have seen the advantages of harvesting trees from their urban and suburban areas. San Diego Urban Timber is one of only two woodworking companies in San Diego County that use locally harvested trees. At first, Herbst found trees by getting to know local arborists and checking on Craigslist. Now, a lot of their contacts will let him and Van Arsdale know when a tree is coming down.

Like their loose-knit supply chain, all of Urban Timber’s customers find them informally by word of mouth. Many have seen their handcrafted items at the Design in Wood exhibition at the San Diego County Fair, where they won a blue ribbon in 2016. The entire store of Gracie James in La Jolla, a tony suburb of San Diego, was created and installed by Urban Timber.  And they also completed a public art installation for the Stuart Collection at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) in collaboration with composer John Luther Adams.

Torrey pines only grow in a small section of San Diego County. Here is a grove of mostly dead Torrey pines. Future landfill? Or future furniture? Photo: San Diego Free Press sandiegofreepress.org

“We mill the wood as soon as possible,” says Herbst. After that, patience is the rule. Before the wood can be used, it dries in the open air for a year. It is then kilned for an additional three weeks. This drying process is routine for all timber; it strengthens the wood and eliminates shrinkage once it is put to use.

Patience is also the rule before the trees are cut down, particularly for eucalyptus. The Australian trees were first brought to southern California to provide a local source of wood. The trees were harvested after twenty years, with paltry results, cracking and easily twisting. They thenceforward undeservedly gained the reputation as a “trash tree,” unusable except for firewood or mulching. “They’re not mature at 20 years,” Herbst says. “They need to grow for 50 or 60 years before they’re harvested. In Australia, where they let them grow, they’ll use them for railroad ties, then use them for something else after that. If you let the wood mature, it’ll last for eons.”

Herbst explains that almost any type of wood can be used for interior purposes: a coffee table can be made of eucalyptus, sycamore, or Torrey pine. Urban Timber uses about 85% of the wood that they harvest; the rest goes to to other local woodworkers and furniture makers.

Trained as a painter and sculptor, Herbst has a degree in fine arts from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and had been on a full scholarship at UCSD graduate school. “But I knew within a month that the program and I weren’t meant for each other,” he says. He left the program and worked for a year helping his uncle remodel his house. “While I was working for him, we focused on using reclaimed wood.”

Years later, Herbst was driving down the interstate. He saw Caltrans, the California Department of Transportation, clear- cutting everything along the roadway, with huge trees laying this way and that. When he stopped and asked about the fate of the logs, the workers told him that they were headed for the landfill. Something clicked that moment for him. “I’ve always been interested in using material that other people don’t value,” he says.

Everything is Custom Built

Prospective customers usually contact Urban Timber by email. After pricing, folks come by the shop to discuss design options. Herbst says, “Through this process we try to help form the concept. We guide people through relevant options. Sometimes too many choices can be overwhelming.” Van Arsdale emphasizes that the customer is king. “We are super open to dialogue,” she says. “We put on other people’s lives and build from that perspective. Not everybody is interested in the fact that our wood is local. Many of our customers just want quality.”

Some customers call about a tree that has been felled in their front yard or back lot and ask that it be made into a table or other piece of furniture. For others, having a table or chair made at Urban Timber is one of their first signs of success. “We have people come to us. They have gone to school, gotten the job, and now we make for them their first piece of adult furniture,” says Van Arsdale.

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Van Arsdale, who previously worked as a counselor and a holistic health practitioner, has been part of Urban Timber for four years and just became a full partner this year.  She describes her and Herbst’s relationship as being “art, heart, and business partners.” She says, “Our business model is based on honesty and integrity. An honest price, and we stand behind our product. We have good times with the people who come to us for their furniture. This business model brings success on many levels.”

Wood in various stages of development fills the Urban Timber’s shop. Van Arsdale leads me to something resembling a giant’s jigsaw puzzle, a table of avocado wood that was being made for Jason Mraz. The singer/songwriter has an avocado orchard, where Urban Timber salvages wood from stumped or drought-stricken trees. Mraz then sells these exclusive products to raise money for his foundation that supports local artisans and their businesses.

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With plenty of orders coming in, Herbst and Van Arsdale anticipate expanding their shop. As some municipalities cannot sell the trees felled on their land, the future may also see them working in some way with a nonprofit to expand the supply of wood available for local harvesting. The couple are also interested in educating others on the advantages of urban forestry.

Van Arsdale runs her hand over a table receiving its finishing touches. “We love our customers,” she says. “There is no downside to this business model.”

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