Make us your home page
Instagram

Tampa Bay woodworkers use local trees to make furniture and art

ST. PETERSBURG — Zoe Bocik winds her way through her cluttered workshop. Piles of sawdust line her path.

Slabs of wood fill up shelves and are leaned against every wall and propped up on sawhorses. She stands at a 9-foot wedge of Indian Rosewood, often used to make guitars and considered the Cadillac of locally grown wood.

"We look at these trees like treasure chests," Bocik said as she ran her hand along the wood.

And for good reason. An Indian Rosewood tree can be worth thousands of dollars. They grow well in Florida, but when removed from a local yard or park, the trunks are most often mulched or buried in a landfill — often at a cost of hundreds of dollars for homeowners or tree removal businesses.

Meanwhile, furniture makers pay as much as $30 per foot to import of the same wood that is being thrown away.

Across the country, small-scale woodworkers like Bocik and her husband, Robert, have carved out hardscrabble second careers finding a second life for these trees.

"We can use these trees to make something beautiful," Zoe said.

• • •

Alan Mayberry has seen a lot of excellent wood go to waste in his 30 years as an arborist in Clearwater.

"I just think about the thousands of houses that could have been built out of those logs," he said. "We're running out of room in the landfills and logs take up a lot of room."

Today, if a 60-year-old neighborhood tree gets damaged in a storm or is dying, the property owner often hires a tree service to remove it. The companies mulch the small pieces and branches themselves. The large trunks don't fit in the wood chipper and the majority of the time those are taken to a landfill, where the company pays $37 per ton for them to be buried or burned for energy. A good-sized tree trunk can weigh eight or nine tons.

Mayberry estimates that less than 5 percent of the trees that these companies cut down are large and valuable enough to be turned into lumber, furniture or art. But it still adds up.

The wood that local woodworkers crave also includes camphor, eucalyptus, old citrus, black cherry, hickory, cedar and bald cypress (though the live oak that dominates the area isn't usable for woodworking).

Tree services know this, but it's not always worth their while to deliver the downed trees to a wood worker, and the mills that used to turn local tree trunks into usable material shuttered years ago. Yes, it can save the tree services dumping fees, but the woodworkers generally don't want to pay for the trees, and coordinating drop off times can make it too much of a time and money suck.

"It's a very competitive business and debris disposal is a big part of that business," Mayberry said. "They have to be efficient and it's not as feasible as you might think."

In fact, some woodworkers just head to the dump and sift through piles of debris to find materials.

Sam Sherrill, an economist and woodworker who lives in Arizona, said that urban lumber businesses have spread across the county, but the operations are small and can't keep up with the volume of wasted material.

"These little businesses are popping up all over the country but they're not connected to one another and that's what is missing," he said.

He hopes to form a national organization of woodworkers, tree removal services and local governments to prevent the hardwood trees from ever hitting a landfill or being turned into mulch.

"There is potential," Mayberry agreed. "It takes coordination and a willingness to see the more societal purpose."

• • •

In 2009, after beating cervical cancer, Zoe quit her job as a fire department administrator. She wanted to build something with her hands.

One day, Robert told her: "I have a chainsaw in storage, let's go get a log from the dump and see what we can build," she recalled. With essentially no carpentry experience, they started building furniture and making jewelry from the wood. They learned from YouTube videos and library books about carpentry and wood types. When Robert was laid off from his insurance job, neither could find work and they focused on the business. That was six years ago.

They have since sold their cars, her home and downsized to an apartment attached to the studio of their woodworking business, which is called Funktionhouse Urban Lumber and Furnishings in the Warehouse Arts District of St. Petersburg.

Despite the smaller life and the occasional perils of woodworking (Zoe, for instance, has broken three toes) the couple feel fulfilled in their work.

"I've never been happier," Zoe said.

Robert has developed relationships with a handful of local tree service companies who drop off the wood for free at their lot. In the corner of the yard, tree trunks sit waiting to be milled. Some are too "green" to be cut just yet.

To cut the wood into long, thick slabs, the Bociks use a 6-foot chainsaw blade or a band saw running smoothly on a homemade track. They move the slabs into their workshop and load them into an old wooden shipping container, which they converted into a kiln. The wood sits there until it is dry enough to be reformed into a piece of furniture or art. Then it's sanded and finished.

The Bociks have a three to four-month wait list for custom work. Their line includes conference tables, bars, countertops, headboards, cheese platters and jewelry.

"Our name is starting to get out," she said. "We've sacrificed our entire lives to be able to do this work."

Contact Alli Knothe at [email protected] Follow @KnotheA.

Ingenuity is an occasional series about people with interesting

or creative business ideas.

Know of anyone who fits the bill and could be featured in a story?

Drop reporter Alli Knothe a line at [email protected]

Tampa Bay woodworkers use local trees to make furniture and art 05/02/16 [Last modified: Monday, May 2, 2016 8:36am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Tampa Bay small businesses give Tampa B+ for regulatory climate

    Corporate

    In a recent survey about small business sentiments toward state and local government policies that affect them, Tampa Bay ranked at No. 25 out of 80 — a B+ overall.

    Tampa Bay ranked No. 25 out of 80 in a recent survey about how small business owners feel about state and local government policies that affect them. | [Times file photo]
  2. Seminole Heights restaurants face struggles amid killings, post-Irma

    Food & Dining

    TAMPA — The neighborhood's hip circle of popular, well-regarded restaurants is feeling the squeeze in the wake of a recent killing spree. And the timing is rough.

    Ella’s Americana Folk Art Cafe has been taking precautions in light of the Seminole Heights killings: keeping the lights on all night and having employees walk to their cars in groups.
  3. St. Pete-Clearwater holding food, supply drive for hurricane refugees

    Airlines

    CLEARWATER — St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport and Allegiant Air are holding a food and supply drive for the Hispanic Outreach Center in Pinellas County. The event, which will benefit refugees displaced by Hurricane Maria, will be held Tuesday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the airport at 14700 Terminal Blvd.

    St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport and Allegiant Air are hosting a food and supplies drive Tuesday for refugees displaced by Hurricane Maria. | [Times file photo]
  4. Tallest building in Pinellas County in search of a new name

    Real Estate

    ST. PETERSBURG — The name "Priatek" is gone from Pinellas County's tallest building, perhaps to be replaced by that of a much better-known company new to the Tampa Bay area.

    The Priatek name is off of downtown St. Petersburg's tallest building.
 [LARA CERRI  |   Times.  2015]
  5. Estuary wins pier design contest for the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway extension

    Real Estate

    TAMPA — And the winner is… Estuary.

    Voters overwhelmingly supported a pier design called Estuary for the $200-million extension of the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway in Tampa.
[Courtesy of AECOM]