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Tampa Bay woodworkers use local trees to make furniture and art

Robert and Zoe Bocik are partners in Funktionhouse Urban Lumber and Furnishings, 562 25th St. S, in the Warehouse Arts District.
Published May 2, 2016

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 aknothe@tampabay.com. Follow @KnotheA.

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