On a rain-drenched day in early 2008, a large elm tree on 27th street tumbled over, destroying a midtown Sacramento house.
Before long, Clark Kayler was soon on the scene, eager to give the majestic tree a second act - as highly sought-after tables, benches, desks and countertops.
These days, Kayler has a large inventory of felled trees and roughly cut slabs of wood awaiting new life in homes, restaurants, bars and offices. Kayler has become a force in a movement that has swept across the United States, repurposing trees that have fallen or been cut down for various reasons.
Diseased trees, old trees, trees that are in the way. Kayler and others turn large slabs, with natural rough edges and eye-catching grains, into heirloom-caliber furniture. Standard dining tables can sell for $8,000 to $10,000 in major markets including New York and Los Angeles. A 15-foot walnut slab table at Urban Hardwoods in San Francisco is selling for $46,500.
It wasn't the vision Kayler had in 2005, when the housing market was still booming and lumber prices soared. He simply sought to take one fallen urban tree and not waste the wood. He would cut it up and use it for lumber.
Or so he thought.
Kayler remembers lining up his oversized chainsaw and beginning to cut - not across the trunk but vertically, following the lines of the grain to produce thick slabs around 8 feet long. It was practically a spiritual awakening.
"We originally thought we would just make lumber, but after we cut the first slab, we realized this isn't lumber - this is art," said Kayler, who has since formed a company called New Helvetia Hardwoods.
"When you cut the tree sideways, you don't see the rings that show how old it is. You see the life it lived. You see the storms, the stress. When you cut a tree open, what you see is its memoir. People who see it this way feel like they're seeing wood for the first time."
An illustration of Kayler's artful repurposing can be found in a loft on L Street in midtown, where Pamela Meyer recently took possession of a 400-pound dining table that uses hefty steel girders for legs. The slab came from that elm on 27th Street.
Meyer had stopped in at Temple Coffee on Ninth Street downtown and spotted two large tables Kayler had fashioned from a black walnut tree. She tracked down Kayler and inquired about a large slab table for the loft she shares with her husband, Warren.
"Clark just happened to have a piece, and we knew instantly it would be perfect. He dreamed up this crazy idea to have these girders as legs. We wanted that warm but industrial look," Meyer said.
By the time Kayler delivered the table to L Street, the wood had traveled no more than a mile from where it had fallen.
Another of his slabs became an unusually shaped desk, part of an exhibit called "Need and Desire: Work From blankblank," at the UC Davis Design Museum & Design Collection. Rob Zinn, owner of the Northern California design firm blankblank, said he constantly is on the lookout for new materials to inspire designs.
At some point, he crossed paths with Kayler. The two began talking, and blankblank bought several rough slabs from Kayler, each with its own distinct personality.
"The wood itself was so powerful and spectacular," Zinn said. "I wanted to find ways of displaying it that was mostly about the wood."
The first efforts were long tables with bronze legs. Zinn, too, sensed the soulful qualities the wood exuded.
"There's a sense or a realization of life when you look at a longitudinal cross- section of a tree. You're seeing its beginning all the way to the end. You can recognize and feel the power of life," said Zinn, who lives and works in Courtland, on the Sacramento River south of Sacramento. "There is definitely a timeline that's very graphic."
While the trees fall or are cut down in minutes, the path to furniture is lengthy.
When Kayler gets a call about a tree, he has to act quickly. If the trunk is large enough and is the right kind of wood for furniture - often it's sycamore, elm, redwood or walnut - he will arrange to have the lower 16 feet or so cut in two long pieces. He often has to hire a crane to maneuver the trees, he said. At $500 an hour, crane work on a recent tree cost him $800.
"There's excitement. There's adrenaline. I become a little boy for a minute," Kayler said with a smile as he recalled working with a recent sycamore. "I harvest the tree - then the real work begins. I have to see it through for the next 10 years."
The slabs he cuts from trees take years to dry before they can be turned into furniture. Many of them he sells to other furniture designers and cabinetmakers.
Since New Helvetia Hardwoods doesn't yet have a central base of operations, Kayler works out deals and trades. He's storing and drying dozens of valuable slabs of wood in a barn in West Sacramento and several other locations.
Kayler is not a typical businessman. His prices, for instance, are part of a long conversation that might include factors such as how devoted the customer is to caring for the furniture for decades.
Furniture maker Paul Jacobs, of the Studios of Paul W. Jacobs in North Sacramento, said he appreciates Kayler's devotion to the wood.
Jacobs made his first slab table for blankblank - using wood from Kayler - about four years ago. The irregular edge that distinguishes each piece is called the "live edge," Jacobs explained.
"It has become the standard wood that I work with," he said. "Most lumber you get from a mill or wholesale house is going to be harvested, planed, optimized, graded and have the defects ground out of the wood. That's a product of industry. But defects are the story of the tree. You can see where the branch was, where it was hanging and how it compressed the fibers. You can see where a bug lived, or how one species was grafted onto another species sometimes. You think about how long ago that was done. There's really a story there."
Plenty goes into selecting and caring for the slabs before making the tables or desks. A slab that comes into the studio will change as it dries, and Jacobs manages the changes to avoid warping or twisting.
"It's a very dynamic medium because of the moisture," Jacobs said, noting that after the slab is cut, it requires a year of drying for every inch of thickness. A typical 3-inch-thick tabletop, for instance, must sit for three years.
Jacobs will then do an initial planing by hand to get a somewhat smooth surface. He'll stop for two days or as long as two weeks "while it moves around."
The slabs can change dramatically with each planing; sometimes the appearance gets worse before it gets better.
"I worked on one slab for two years to finally get it to a level where it was stable and useful," Jacobs said.
That explains in part why his tables can cost $10,000 or more. To get the right finish requires up to 40 hours of planing, sanding and detailing over several months.
"At that point, you get the table, but you're not really the owner of it - you're the caretaker," Jacobs said. "Anything that I build should always last at least as long as the tree lived. If you have that respect for the tree and for nature, it's the least you can do. There's no reason these slabs shouldn't last a thousand years."