UT carpentry shop gives second life to campus trees

Grace Speas

Before 2014, trees removed from campus ended up as mulch. Now, trees are getting a second life as diploma frames, campus benches and even drink coasters thanks to UT’s carpentry shop.

Reclaiming wood from campus trees began three years ago as a side project for the shop when the Nursing School requested outdoor furniture for its central courtyard, Landscape Services Manager Jim Carse said. Ten members work in the shop under Project Management & Construction Services, the University department responsible for renovation projects under $10 million.

“It wasn’t a formal program,” Carse said. “It’s not even really a formal program now, but we’re trying to make it that way.”

Reclaimed wood now lives on as picnic tables in the nursing courtyard, benches in the Union and desks in Garrison Hall. The shop will place furniture and frames into more campus facilities to encourage departments to put in a service request for pieces in their own buildings.

Carpenters at the shop use the wood to make furniture for campus buildings and custom frames for diplomas and retirement certificates, Carse said. In 2015, Carse had 20 to 30 frames made and raffled them off to graduating students because Earth Day fell so close to commencement.

UT alumna Justyn Huckleberry received a frame and said a number of people asked her where she got it.

“I would love to have another one because I have a Master’s degree now,” Huckleberry said. “But it’s such a unique thing that I don’t know how I would match it.”

When wood from live oak, pecan and cedar elm trees is milled down by facility services on campus, trunks and large limb sections are cut into different lengths and thicknesses. From there, the pieces are not exactly even and require machines called surface planers to make straight lines in wood for benches and shelves.

But the shop is not searching for perfection when it comes to more organic pieces, said Armando Blanco, the shop’s supervisor.

“The wood will tell you what to do,” Blanco said. “Every piece is individual.”

A final touch includes a clear finish which prevents stains and scratches. The shop also tries to laser engrave the location where the tree lived on campus, Blanco said.

“We’re trying to make this a program, of course, but it’s only until supplies last,” Carse said. “We’re not going to go cut trees just to make furniture.”