Rural Renewal: Live Edge Milling Revives Lumber Trade

Story and photos by Sarah Vance

When you get to thinking about it, that old saying about “not being able to see the forest for the trees,” could actually be a blessing if you were to take a chainsaw and fell them like it's nobody’s business. Considering that the forestry sector’s annual revenue from sales is calculated at $12.9 billion, it might also come with some financial incentives.

For live edgers like Justin Hennessey, it's the tree, and not the forest that is piquing consumer interest.

Live-edging is a way of milling trees so that the curves and bark of the trunk are preserved and then made into a focal point of the final timber slab.

Live edge featuring the natural cracks and crevasse of the tree, showing the cambium of the trunk.

Live edge featuring the natural cracks and crevasse of the tree, showing the cambium of the trunk.

Unlike the traditional, uniform 2x4’s and 8x10’s that dominate the market, live edging involves slicing slabs sagittally, which draws attention to both the cross section and the perimeter of the tree. Using a kiln, or natural drying, the moisture is then removed from the wood. Initially, when a tree is felled it has an 80 percent moisture content and kilning reduces this content to about 30 percent, which prevents the wood from cracking later in its use.

During live edge milling the bark is left intact and the natural lines of the tree are preserved. Then the wood is sanded and hand polished, so as to highlight every knot and ligament in the cut. Each live edge slab is a unique and artisanal ‘slice in a tree’s life’ - which is then manufactured into functional art and furniture.

"I can build several tables from the same tree, but no two tables will be the same," says Hennessey.

Justin Hennessey hand sanding a mahogany walnut slab, for use in a table.

Justin Hennessey hand sanding a mahogany walnut slab, for use in a table.

Benches, counters and bar surfaces, along with fencing and decking, have provided Hennessey with a foot in the door of an industry that has traditionally been dominated by large scale mills. Although arguably, Hennessey was born with a foot in the door, as a result of his upbringing on his family farm near Bancroft.

Harvesting hay bales, raising livestock and building with tools are just some of his early memories. And at the age of 20 he built his first square-timber home, near Cardiff. But he didn’t stick around long enough to live in it. Instead, with $2,000 in his pocket and a backpack on his shoulders, he boarded a plane out to Calgary, then a bus up to Fort McMurray, where he chased fibre optic jobs that were cropping up around the pipelines.

Hennessey’s Cherry Bench at Country Camera Studio and Image Gallery, on Hastings Street, in Bancroft.

Hennessey’s Cherry Bench at Country Camera Studio and Image Gallery, on Hastings Street, in Bancroft.

This was a transient lifestyle, which kept him living in trailers and mobile tents that crews would set up wherever the work happened to be that day. Within a few years he had his own crew of guys and a small fleet of trucks, along with a niche he built for himself assembling fences and decks at residential homes near the oil fields.

Despite once having booming logging and mining industries, Bancroft struggles to retain tradespeople like Hennessey, many of whom have instead come to occupy a presence in the Fort Mac labour force. If you get to talking to residents in North Hastings, it is not usual to find that someone in their home “works away” for at least six months of the year in Canada’s Far North.

Blue epoxy is used by Hennessey to create a contrast in a walnut slab. The epoxy will be stained and finished, using natural tones, by hand

Blue epoxy is used by Hennessey to create a contrast in a walnut slab. The epoxy will be stained and finished, using natural tones, by hand

But there is mounting evidence of a revitalization occurring in Ontario’s forestry industry, with a growing number of the labour force transitioning right out of high school into logging and lumber manufacturing trades. In 2014, the Globe and Mail reported that “forestry students have a 100 percent employment rate, higher than that of computer science, math and physical science specialists.” And in 2015, the Ontario Forestry Association reported a 12 percent growth in lumber exports across the border for an industry boasting 50,900 employed tradespeople and approximately 152,700 direct and indirect jobs.

When Hennessey graduated from North Hastings High School in 2005, he was part of a cohort of students who followed an outdoor education stream that involves experiential learning outcomes. To a Northern Outdoor Studies (NOS) graduate working in a fish hatchery; trapping beaver; canoeing in Algonquin and building with lumber are all just part of the daily curriculum. But it was living in ‘Fort Mac’ that helped Justin appreciate Ontario trees, both in their plenitude and also for their diversity.

Logging in Bancroft brings the advantage of choosing trees grown in rich soil compositions. Known as the Mineral Capital of Canada, Bancroft's forests grow in deposits of granite, sodalite and quartz, which influence the composition of the cambium layer, where each year of a tree’s lifespan is etched.

“You will see variations in the veins and cambium of these trees because of minerals in the soil where they grow - deep mahoganies and reds are prevalent,” says Hennessey.

Trees in North Hastings grow in rocky, granite and sodalite permeated mineral soils, which influences the composition of the cambium layers in the tree.

Trees in North Hastings grow in rocky, granite and sodalite permeated mineral soils, which influences the composition of the cambium layers in the tree.

It is also the types and kinds of trees selected by live edgers that is helping the field gain momentum.

“Because of their twists and knots, many of the trees I am interested in would never see production and would not be selected by larger logging crews,” adds Hennessey, who also sometimes travels by boat to forage lumber from the shoreline.

For a live edger, timing can be everything.

“If you are able to fell a tree when it is it is dying, but still standing, there are chemicals and hormones that would not otherwise be present after it falls.”

These create colouration in the veins at the time of felling.

Live edgers study the trees they harvest, observing their growth or their decomposition while considering how they will offset the different species of maple, cherry and walnut in future furniture designs.

Hennessey might salvage from a shoreline, seeking gnarled specimens that can be used a base for tables and bars.

Hennessey might salvage from a shoreline, seeking gnarled specimens that can be used a base for tables and bars.

Sometimes, instead of felling, live edgers salvage undesirable cuts that have been left behind after logging crews have gone through a property.

“Some of my pieces have been discarded cuts,” says Hennessey. “They could never be used for a traditional pressure treated product but they are what my clients are looking for.”

Other times, Hennessey’s clients have already selected the tree they want him to use and they contact him to fall and manufacture it.

“People have memories and feelings for the trees in their yard,” Justin points out. “They call me when they want to manufacture them into something that they can include in their home in a new way.”

His customers are as unique as the furniture he creates, coming from varied lifestyles and who are seeking to incorporate the sophisticated ambience of live edge in their homes.

“I have customers in Toronto who live in modern condominiums and want live edge to channel a connection with nature,” says Hennessey, “and rural customers, who want an edgy contrast in a square timber log home.”

While Hennessey refers to himself as a logger, he could just as easily be described as an artist. His art is functional, practical and, in many ways, his work is a natural extension of Bancroft’s logging trade and an indicator of how its labor force is evolving to remain competitive.

Coffee tables crafted with slabs of Cherry, Walnut and Maple are specimens that Hennessey works with.

Coffee tables crafted with slabs of Cherry, Walnut and Maple are specimens that Hennessey works with.

In the early 1900’s, during the time of John Egan, J.R. Booth, Grenville Martin and John McCrae, there were mills every 20 miles around Bancroft and along the York River, where hundreds of logs were driven out the wilderness daily by men who wrestled them through the water. At that time, work was in abundance if you were daring enough to set up shop with a lumber camp.

While the camps are few and far between today, people like Hennessey are contributing to the evolution of logging in North Hastings and are keeping the trade pulsing by focusing their eye on quality over quantity.

“I could never compete with the larger mills, or their rate of production, so I focus on individual trees and I might work for a whole season refining and finishing the same few slabs,” he says.

To see Hennessey’s one-of-a-kind, live edge furniture, you can visit Country Camera Studio and Image Gallery on Hastings Street in Bancroft, where his furniture is displayed in a gallery setting alongside photographs and visual installations. Proprietor Lesley McCormack notes the popularity of his furniture, which she classifies as works of art,

“His benches and furniture are all one of a kind and show loving care and dedication to his trade,” says McCormack. “We are very satisfied working with him. He has repeat customers and we recommend his furniture.”

While the philosophers ponder whether a tree makes a sound when it falls in the forest, contractors like Hennessey just get busy turning out wood furniture and cupboards for the home and kitchen -- an industry worth $1.8 billion annually in Canada.

Notwithstanding the sounds a tree may or may not make in the forest; live edge milling sure has got them listening.