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Fallen but not foresaken
London’s fallen trees that were once chipped and burned are now being put to good use as high-grade timber for joinery.
“It’s almost impossible to buy British-grown hardwood in London, which is crazy!” exclaims Bruce Saunders, a man who has built a reputation in the capital for carting away fallen trees from building sites, as well as those that are diseased, dead or have fallen over in storms.
“It’s how we used to do it – trees that were in the way of development would be felled, and the wood used in buildings. Now felled trees are just chipped and burnt, which is such a huge waste of resources.
“Timber is imported from places like the US, because it’s cheap. So many of the timber merchants have gone and you just can’t buy London plane wood around here, despite the trees being so prevalent in the city. It’s a terrible shame because it’s beautiful hardwood and really good quality for use in building and joinery,” he says.
Saunders was raised in Africa where crafting and building with timber were commonplace, and his father, a skilled woodworker, hand-built two boats.
Having spent many years in production management, building sets at live music venues and corporate events, Saunders grew increasingly uncomfortable with the level of wastage. “Working for events and gigs means using loads of MDF, which has a very short lifespan. I am interested in creating a legacy – producing something that will outlast me. And wood is the absolute best way to do that. It’s beautiful, it’s high quality, and it lives and breathes. It’s with you forever,” he says.
Around 40 per cent of Saunders’ business now comes from making and selling handmade furniture using the wood he collects, with the remaining 60 per cent coming from the sale of planed timber used for furniture making, joinery and building work. “This is wood that should be on display. It’s fantastic, the grain, the strength, the texture. It’s the wood in your home that is visible. We don’t make carcassing – this is the stuff with a visual appeal,” he enthuses.
Working with owners of local mobile sawmills or chainsaw mills, he is now contacted by councils and housebuilders to remove trees from site. No money changes hands for this, but transport costs are high, he explains. “I don’t call anyone anymore – councils know me now. The trees are free, but large trunks need huge lorries to take them away and when you consider hire of a lorry and driver, the mobile sawmill, congestion charge, and the low emission zone, it can cost a fair bit!”
Business has grown at a swift pace for Saunders, who started with a single London plane tree at a housing development in Camden, going on to win a London wood network award. He used his speech at the ceremony to reach out to a number of council representatives, and expand his network.
“The Camden development was really the genesis – I knew a tree was coming down so I turned up n site and blagged it I borrowed a flatbed truck and cut tohe tree into three pieces, stored it for a year and sold the lot,” he says.
But it was HS2 developments that really spiked demand. “Trees in St James’s Park were being felled to make way for the new Euston station, and I was commissioned to remove 30 big London planes and 10 lime trees. It was a huge undertaking, and needed 12 articulated lorries to move them all,” Saunders recalls.
In the early days, he stored the wood in the greenhouses of, a disused garden centre in London. Now Saunders Seasonings rents a yard and covered bay in Walthamstow, and a kiln in Thurrock which is used to dry the wood, a process which takes one to five weeks. Before going into the kiln, the timber is stored for a year to season it, before being stacked with ratchet straps holding the upper boards in place to prevent warping.
Twelve cubic metres of wood can be milled every four days, which is sold to local DlYers who want timber planed on all sides, as well as to other workshops, joinery businesses, cabinetmakers and high-end manufacturers.
In 2020 Saunders’ work came to the attention of the designers of the Dezeen Awards trophies. Saunders Seasonings was commissioned to craft the hand-sawn and finished trophies when the previous suppliers were closed due to the Covid-19 lockdown. (saunders-seasonings.co.uk)
Page. 72 FEBRUARY 2021 / Selfbuildanddesign.com