The city of Edgerton lined its downtown streets with ash trees in the 1980s. The trees provided shade and beauty for many years.
Then the emerald ash borer invaded, slowly killing the ashes.
The city had to remove and store the big trees, a cost many cities face, City Administrator Ramona Flanigan noted. But Edgerton city government, Edgerton High School staff and students, and local businesses have turned the project into a win-win-win.
The city and school district stand to save money, and there’s even an added benefit to the environment. More on that later.
The city paid $25,375 last year to grind its brush pile, which accumulated over several years, into chips, Flanigan said. Now, some of the tree parts are being recycled.
Todd Babcock, tech teacher at Edgerton High School, had heard of other schools building kilns and transforming milled tree trunks into lumber for student projects.
The city of Edgerton supplied the trees and wrote a Department of Natural Resources grant for $5,000 to pay some of the costs.
The city moved and cut the tree trunks, a vital part of the process, Babcock said.
Local company Edgerton Gear, which gives its employees paid leave for community service, paid for some of the work of its employee Brent Schroeder, who owns a portable lumber mill, to cut the wood into rough planks. The grant also paid for some of Schroeder’s time, Babcock said.
Babcock and his students, meanwhile, built a solar-powered kiln to dry the wood. They are putting finishing touches on the kiln this week.
Drying wood is crucial, Babcock said, because wood that is too moist will shrink, bend or twist. The kiln will get the planks down to 8% moisture so they can be used in student projects such as cabinetry, furniture and benches for the school.
All this has an immediate impact on woodworking classes, which, like builders and cabinet makers everywhere, are dealing with the shock of lumber prices that have soared by 230% over the past 12 months.
“With wood prices the way they are, I could see woodworking classes ending in some schools,” Babcock said. “This way, we’re self-sustaining.”
The kiln itself has a sloping roof that will be fitted with clear plastic panels. The kiln will absorb sunlight to heat the interior to as high as 180 degrees. Solar panels will power fans to circulate air through the wood.
The kiln, the base of which is 14 feet long and 8 feet wide, was built on a trailer donated by local business i90 Enterprises. Babcock figures it’ll take up to eight weeks to dry the wood. Students will monitor the wood’s progress.
Babcock hopes that eventually, the kiln will dry as much as 90% of the wood the school district is now buying for woodworking classes.
Matthew Luchsinger, a junior, was painting the kiln Tuesday. He likes working with his hands. and he likes the idea of his school producing its own wood.
“You don’t have to spend more money on other people to dry the wood. You can just do it yourself,” he said.
Junior Jeremiah Reed said the kiln project is fun: “It’s pretty interesting. I’ve never done anything like this before.”
Using urban tree wood is something of a trend, said the DNR’s Andy Stoltman said. The cities of Milwaukee, Stoughton and Eau Claire have programs to funnel their trees to manufacturers.
There’s even a nonprofit, Wisconsin Urban Wood, which connects wood-product makers to sources of city-grown trees.
Much of the interest is about how using the wood helps the environment.
When wood is chipped or just left in a pile, it slowly decomposes and releases carbon dioxide, explained Andy Stoltman of the state DNR’s Forest Economics and Ecology Section.
Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. It traps heat in the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. But if the wood is made into a chair or bench, that carbon is locked up for the life of the object, which could be many decades, Stoltman said.
“To use ash trees in a way that carbon is not being emitted as quickly does a lot of good,” Stoltman said.