Remembering An Artist Who Made the Most of Discarded Trees

A man who was a new kind of urban forester died after an accident May 13. John Metzler took city trees damaged by disease or storms and turned the wood into furniture, art, and flooring. But while working outside his studio recently, he was struck and killed by a trailer that unhitched and rolled into him. The Allegheny Front's Leah Kauffman interviewed Metzler at the Urban Tree Forge in Pittsburgh a year before the accident.

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A man who was a new kind of urban forester died after an accident May 13. John Metzler took city trees damaged by disease or storms and turned the wood into furniture, art, and flooring. But while working outside his studio recently, he was struck and killed by a trailer that unhitched and rolled into him. The Allegheny Front's Leah Kauffman interviewed Metzler at the Urban Tree Forge in Pittsburgh a year before the accident. KAUFFMAN: John Metzler has always been a city boy, but he was raised to make the most of the land.

METZLER: I have seven sisters and three brothers so out of necessity we gardened on a pretty large scale.

KAUFFMAN: Now Metzler applies that same ethic to obtain raw material for his woodworking business and artists' collective, and the whole Pittsburgh metro area is his tree farm. When local cemeteries or municipal tree crews have to cut down a tree, they'll sometimes give the choice logs to Metzler. Outside his shop, Metzler points to a couple of tree trunks about three feet in diameter lying just a few yards from busy Washington Boulevard.

METZLER: This one here is from Squirrel Hill and this one came from Riverview Park over on North Side. The city was having the trees that were close to the road that had root rot that were a risk to people coming through the park. This one we're going to try to slab up. And we're hoping to get some slabs suitable for some tabletops for the Carnegie library on the North Side from this one so it stays within the neighborhood. This came out of Homewood Cemetery. They're both oak, they're just different types of oak. I'd say this tree is at least a hundred years old.

KAUFFMAN: Could you even purchase pieces of wood this large given that today's modern tree farms, their trees are only of a certain age?

METZLER: You'd have to go to a specialty supplier who works with materials like that. But the grain and the character is so interesting because of the city life the trees lived. Living in an area where there's increased air pollution and the social impact these trees have experienced, we find a really amazing amount of interesting grain character and fluctuation that just presents wonderfully in the trees. Pull that up, we're going to have to gas up and everything.

Nat. Sound: Saw starting.

METZLER: All right, this is going to take us about 15 to 20 minutes to cut.

KAUFFMAN: Metzler slowly eases a chainsaw with a five-foot blade down the length of one of the logs. Sawdust arcs into the air as the blade advances. Every few minutes, Metzler stops to place a wedge in the cut he's just made so the slab doesn't pinch the saw blade. Once the logs are cut into slabs, the wood has to be dried before it can be worked into its final form. Metzler heads to his shop to show some works in progress. He rents out some of the 10,000 square feet of workbenches, wood working tools, and even an area for metal fabrication to other craftspeople. Of course, it's a wood-burning stove that provides some warmth.

METZLER: We have oak, we have maple, we have some sycamore over there, and this is elm over here. And then we'll mill it for flooring or doorjambs or picture frames or you name it. All these round timbers here will be used for posts for a bed frame. So it will be a four-poster bed and then there's a headboard we actually did out of the crotch of the tree. You can see down there where the two branches meet in the tree actually forms the shape of a fountain like the fountain down at the Point so essentially this would be your Monongahela river, this is your Allegheny, your Ohio, And then this will all be carved into the hillsides from the city and so it still needs a lot of work. Good art does take time.

KAUFFMAN: Besides making good art, Metzler says his reuse of otherwise wasted wood is good for the environment:

METZLER: The material's not getting ground up. It's not releasing all that carbon back into the atmosphere. It's keeping everything local. It's supporting the local economy, the community, it's a sustainable product.

KAUFFMAN: Metzler says he's always getting calls with offers of logs, and that his biggest problem is finding projects for all that wood. For the Allegheny Front, I'm Leah Kauffman.