Blue Chip Sept 2017 - Breathing New Life Into Old Wood
SPRINGFIELD — Urban Lumber Co. makes wood furniture, but that’s where the similarities with most other custom furniture manufacturers end.
Instead of making furniture from conventional lumber, the eight-employee firm in Springfield makes a variety of wood furniture and decor from salvaged trees and razed buildings.
Urban Lumber takes fallen tree trunks and other wood destined for fireplaces, chip piles or landfills and turns them into custom tables, chairs, bar tops, mantles, bed frames, natural-edge wood slabs and other items.
In little more than a decade, owner Seth San Filippo has established Urban Lumber Co. as one of the leading custom furniture makers of its type in the nation.
Some firms or individuals may make custom furniture from downed trees or discarded lumber, but “few are as large as what we do,” San Filippo said.
“Last year, we built over 700 pieces of furniture, all custom from locally salvaged trees,” he said. “We are planning on increasing that number to between 800 and 900 this year.”
The firm sells many of its products to customers outside of Eugene-Springfield, including California and other states.
San Filippo expects 2017 annual sales at Urban Lumber to reach $1.2 million, which would be the first time the firm exceeded $1 million in yearly revenue.
The company is located in the historic Booth-Kelly Mill, next to downtown Springfield. It had a showroom in Healdsburg, Calif., north of San Francisco, for three years until July, when it was unable to renew a lease.
Urban Lumber also has a presence in Los Angeles through a wholesale, appointment-only showroom that caters to retailers and commercial buyers.
Urban Lumber, a manufacturer of high quality products, brings dollars to Springfield from outside the area, “which is a huge boost to our economic engine,” said Courtney Griesel, Springfield’s economic development manager.
The firm’s attractive furniture burnishes the city’s image elsewhere in Oregon and beyond the state, she said.
“Having Springfield-made furniture out in the national and international markets helps build the community’s reputation,” she said. “These beautiful products that are handcrafted with attention to detail and made of high quality and sustainably sourced wood, end up in peoples’ homes and workplaces both inside and outside the region. This is really important to Springfield, Lane County and the Willamette Valley.”
Urban Lumber thrives from its location in the fertile Willamette Valley, where urban forests provide plentiful supplies of maple, oak, black walnut, Douglas fir and other woods at minimal cost.
“Not every part of the world has this type of resource to pull from,” San Filippo said.
The company grew with consumer interest in sustainability and products made locally from already existing materials, he said.
“We take something that is rough and forgotten about and make it new again,” San Filippo said. “It’s going to live on, probably longer than it did in its original form.”
Urban Lumber Co. makes items as small as kitchen cutting boards and as large as 25-foot-long conference tables, or even larger. Most of the company’s products sell for between $3,000 to $5,000, including various-sized tables, bed frames, and bar tops.
“Now, it’s very on trend to have things that are handmade in America again, that are built to last,” San Filippo said.
The company’s custom made furniture and decor can be found locally in such places as Hop Valley Brewing Co., Oakshire Brewing Co., Sweet Life Patisserie and Inn at the 5th. Outside of Lane County Urban Lumber has made furniture for Crater Lake Lodge and tech firms in Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area.
Skateboards were his first products
The company began from the imagination of San Filippo, 37, who disliked seeing wood go to waste.
He had a long interest in wood and woodworking dating to when he helped his father in Yreka, Calif., remodel old houses.
San Filippo started his first business at age 19 in Eugene, with a $1,000 loan from his parents, making longboard skateboards from odd bits of wood, logs and stumps that otherwise would have been used for firewood or made into wood chips.
Eventually, he began to think about making furniture from cut tree trunks.
“While looking for unique wood for my skateboards, and seeing an untapped resource in fallen urban trees, I realized that there was a business opportunity in salvaging city trees for usable lumber,” San Filippo said.
He started Urban Lumber Co. in 2006 in a small shop near 24th and Main streets in Springfield, near the Rosboro wood products plant. Two years ago, needing more room, San Filippo moved the business to a 32,000-square-foot space in the Booth-Kelly Mill complex, which is owned by the city of Springfield.
That year, Urban Lumber also closed a showroom on East Broadway in downtown Eugene.
San Filippo said moving to larger quarters allowed him to put all operations including showrooms, offices, milling, steel work, furniture building and finishing in one location. “It has helped us be increasingly efficient and productive,” he said. “On top of that, the retail climate in downtown Eugene is tricky, and we’re happy to be part of downtown Springfield’s revitalization.”
Urban Lumber’s sales have grown each year, but San Filippo said the firm has yet to reach its potential.
“We are doing well,” he said. “I don’t think it’s at its maximum capacity. The move over here really helped us grow. I would like to maximize the space we have, add a few more people and focus on what we do best. And I think we could do more.”
A unique wood collection system
The company specializes in making custom pieces out of old, massive tree trunks and limbs.
Urban Lumber Co. gets much of its wood from old trees felled by public or private arborists or trees toppled by windstorms.
“You just don’t go down to your local lumberyard and pick up a 4-foot-wide slab of redwood or oak,” San Filippo said.
“We get these big Willamette Valley city trees that have been watered and cared for with plenty of sun for years,” he said. “And the trees get huge.”
To collect wood, the firm uses a crane truck capable of lifting 10,000 pounds.
The truck is “small enough to get into backyards and small spaces, but it has a big enough crane that can lift these big logs,” San Filippo said.
“Not every arborist is equipped to do that,” he said. “Many arborists have to cut trees into manageable-sized chunks, not necessarily take a 12-foot log that weighs 10,000 pounds.”
Sometimes Urban Lumber gets large trunks and limbs for free because property owners are happy to have it haul the wood away. Other times, Urban Lumber pays the property owner a minimal amount or gives the owner a piece of furniture in trade.
Sixty-five percent of Urban Lumber’s sales are made to commercial customers, such as breweries, wineries, restaurants, hotels and tech and other firms.
Much of the work is part of a new building or remodeling project, so San Filippo and his staff work closely with architects, interior designers and contractors.
Homeowners account for the rest of the firm’s business. “Those could be people who found us online or hear about us, or maybe went to a hotel and saw something that we built,” San Filippo said.
“We do a lot of custom work,” he said. “Someone might come in and see something here in our showroom and say, ‘I want it out of a different wood or a foot longer.’ We have the ability to do a little bit of everything. Tables are our main thing, but we do all kinds of furniture.”
Urban Lumber Co. made the tables, chairs, bench seats and decor from reclaimed wood for Blu Mist, the Asian-fusion restaurant that opened in May near Valley River Center in Eugene.
Much of the Douglas fir used in Blu Mist had been submerged as logs for more than 100 years in the mill pond near the Booth-Kelly Mill. Muted hues of blue, green and gray are evident in the wood because the logs had been under water for so many years before San Filippo and his crew salvaged them and cut and milled them into boards. Dining room tables were made from Douglas fir roof beams salvaged by the company from the former covered tennis courts at the University of Oregon.
“Blu Mist was one of the biggest projects of the year,” San Filippo said. “We are really proud of that.”
Urban Lumber Co. also made the benches and other wood elements for the outdoor deck at the recently opened Hyatt Place hotel in Oakway Center in Eugene. Some of the wood came from a 125-year-old oak tree at the shopping center that had blown over in a windstorm three winters ago.
“This tree grew in Eugene and this (Springfield) is as far as it’s traveled,” San Filippo said. “Now it’s gone back to Eugene as a finished piece.”
A mix of modern and vintage machinery
Urban Lumber Co.’s milling and drying facility takes up 30,000 square feet in the Booth-Kelly complex, leaving 2,000 square feet for the company’s showroom and office.
On a recent tour of the expansive shop, San Filippo shows modern and vintage machinery that he and his woodworkers use to cut, dry and shape boards made from massive tree trunks and limbs.
“We have this state-of-the-art table saw that has skin-sensing technology that’s super safe. Over here, we have a 1942 rip saw that’s a man eater.”
San Filippo last year built an oversized saw that moves on tracks by combining various pieces of machinery, including a large old band saw, iron wheels and an auto lift.
The saw is “probably one of the largest” in the country, he said, and capable of cutting wood up to eight feet wide and 35 feet long. “This is one of the specialized tools that sets us apart,” San Filippo said.
He calls the saw “Black Slabbath,” a reference to the heavy metal band that included Ozzie Osbourne.
Earlier in the year, San Filippo sent Osbourne an invitation on social media to attend a christening of the saw, but he did not receive a reply. “I was hoping to break a bottle of Jack Daniels on it for its first cut,” San Filippo said.
Wood must be dried before it can be made into furniture, so the large warehouse in the Booth-Kelly Mill was an attraction for San Filippo. Much of the warehouse is filled with drying lumber stacked on racks.
Two large kilns dry wood at temperatures at more than 100 degrees.
Urban Lumber also has a metal fabrication shop that makes metal pieces for furniture, as well as to keep the company’s machinery running.
A member of the community, too
San Filippo and his wife, Christina, live in Springfield with their two elementary-school-age children.
The couple volunteer with civic and charitable groups, including the Springfield Library Foundation and the Springfield Education Foundation.
Griesel, Springfield’s economic development manager, said the San Filippos “made substantial improvements to the space” in the Booth-Kelly Mill, which “inspired tenants around them to make similar improvements.”
And the San Filippos are involved with downtown businesses, helping the area’s revitalization, she said.
“They are incredible community leaders and we are pretty honored to have them,” Griesel said.
After 11 years in business, Seth San Filippo said he’s learned the value of being a flexible manager.
“I just kind of go by the seat of my pants a little bit,” he said. “You can make plans, but you never know what will happen. A machine can break down or something will change that you cannot foresee.
“You have to roll with it everyday,” he said.
Urban Lumber is looking for employees. San Filippo said he’s struggled to find qualified job candidates in a low unemployment economy.
“I hear from (other employers) that it’s hard to find quality people with a work ethic and good attitude,” he said. “We’re a small crew. I tell my employees that I spend more time with them than I do with my family throughout the day, so it’s important for everybody to get along and have common goals and interests. So job experience definitely helps, but I’m also looking for the core values, too.”
Urban Lumber’s employees include showroom manager Becky Rothweiler and sales director Sheri Wayt. A cousin, Paul San Filippo, is one of the woodworkers.
“I enjoy running a business as much as I enjoy creating wood products,” San Filippo said. “I enjoy the challenges and rewards of growing a business and getting a nice group of people working together. I’m really proud of all of them.”