Durham News

Duke trees get second life


It took two excavators, one on each end, to lift what was left of the grand willow oak that once shaded part of Duke’s East Campus. The tree had been cut down to a massive, 35,000-pound log, with the stumps of former limbs jutting out like the Venus de Milo’s missing arms.

A trailer backed up beneath the log before it was lowered and taken to a Chatham County farm to take on a second life, possibly as a table top for a conference room or hotel lobby.

“We’ll end up with a massive slab of 6 feet across and 15 feet long, and probably about 4 inches thick,” said Scott Smith, 56, a former Sprint vice president chasing a niche market of transforming lumber ribboned with life rings.

The log was the largest of the dozen Smith picked up from East Campus. The trees were cut down over the past two months to make room for a softball field. Duke officials said they were reaching the end of their life.

The 17.5-ton log was taken to Smith’s 80-acre farm on the Chatham-Wake county line in New Hill. The beginning of the farm’s dirt driveway is lined with piled logs. There are about 75 logs of Southern yellow pine, maple and white oak harvested in the early spring in Cary to make room for a church expansion.

“We got some white oaks on the other side that we are custom milling, quarter sawing for a guy in Pittsboro,” Smith said.

And there was a massive, 20,000-pound Southern Red Oak log that was found outside of a Huntersville elementary school. The log, more than 8 feet in diameter, is shaped like a giant bear paw or a clover leaf.

But those are just a few of the many distinct logs at Smith’s Whispering Pines Farm, where massive trees find a second life.

While there are more than 100 sawmills in North Carolina, few have the capabilities of Smith’s operation, said Phil Mitchell, N.C. Cooperative Extension wood products specialist and an associate professor at N.C. State University’s Department of Forest Biomaterials.

“I am not aware of any other operation in the Triangle that has the ability to transport and saw such large logs, plus handle the thick slabs that are produced, and has dry kilns as well,” Mitchell said. The dry kilns enable Smith to produce a quality product for interior use.

Smith’s wood business began in 2003, when he built a kiln for drying for boards in a shipping container.

“Sawyers could mill the wood, but nobody could dry it,” Smith said.

Smith started the business in earnest around 2006, after Sprint merged with Nextel Communications, and he decided to go in a different direction.

“I was interested in something that would keep me on the farm,” he said.

He already had some of the equipment. He loved lumber and wood working.

“Adding a saw mill to the mix was very attractive to me,” he said. “The thing I didn’t want to do is compete with every farmer and their uncle that had a saw mill.”

In general, there are ultra-large mills that produce framing lumber for professional builders and businesses, like Lowe’s and Home Depot.

“These guys are out producing tens of thousands of board feet per day,” Smith said.

There are farmers with saw mills that produce lower-grade lumber for barns and fences.

And then there is Smith, who can process logs up to 6 feet wide and up to 58 feet long. Smith and two employees do the work on the farm that includes three sawmills, two kilns and three more kilns under construction. In addition, he has a 5,000-square-foot barn covering hay and drying wood.

Growth rings

Smith is married to Dr. Laureen Bartfield, a veterinarian and program director for Snap-NC, a nonprofit organization that provides discounted spay-neuter services across the state. The farm is also home to a range of rescued animals, including six dogs, about 20 cats, three horses, two mules and a swans, ducks, turkeys and hens.

Smith, standing at the foot of the widest tree taken from Duke’s East Campus, reads the former willow oak’s growth rings like a biography that tells about drought years, positioning and nearby clearings.

“We can tell the tree had excellent nutrition,” he said.

About six weeks before the tree was cut down, Smith visited East Campus and marked the good candidates for milling.

After they were moved to the farm, they were unloaded. He’ll eventually cover the ends with a sealer to prevent cracks and study the log to determine the best way to mill it.

“Do we want to mill it into a quartersawn board, or we also do a process called live edge slabbing,” he said. “Or sometimes we will do a process called flat sawing.”

Quartersawn boards are created by slicing through the length of a tree like a pie instead of stack.

“It takes about four times more work,” Smith said. The process creates ribbons of color that run across the face of the board in certain species, versus the cathedral pattern that results from the standard cut.

“They call it tiger oak,” Smith said.

Another option for the wood is live edge slabbing, where they take a log that is up to 6 feet in diameter and cut slabs that extend the entire length and width of the log.

“So you would end up with a big plank,” he said. “Three or four inches thick and 5 feet wide and 15 feet long.”

After the logs are cut, they are dried. Depending on the thickness and species, they can be dried up to four or five years under a barn. Then they are put in a kiln to finish the process and kill any pests or sap in pine that could bleed out.

The mantra

Some of the wood is returned to the area where the trees once stood.

“The mantra, if you will, is if we can save it, we save it,” said Steve Carrow, project manager for the Duke East Campus softball project. “If we can’t, we try to keep it at Duke.”

Trees that once shaded the area of the under-construction Health and Wellness Center have been transformed on Smith’s farm into veneer that will be used as paneling on wood walls in the atrium and the pharmacy, along with wood that will be used on a bench, desks and nurses stations.

Over the years, Smith has built relationships with officials at Duke and other universities. Others find him through word of mouth or on the internet. Some donate the logs, which can cost a lot to move. Some trees he finds through relationships with loggers and tree service companies.

If the wood isn’t returning to the site, Smith sells the wood to builders, architects, homeowners and contractors.

“We ship lumber all over the U.S,” he said.

Since Duke doesn’t have use for the wood from the logs on the softball field, Smith will have to find it a new home. He will color code them to note their provenance.

“Then in a few years when they are dry, we will offer them for sale,” Smith said.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges

Other uses

Duke University officials also used the cut down trees on East Campus for:

▪ 1,000 cubic yards of mulch that is being used all around Duke.

▪ Wood for playground structures at Carolina Friends School and Durham Early School campuses.