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Tuesday, September 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 59.0° F  Fair
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A Dane County craftsman helps residents use beloved trees
Wood that's part of the family
Paul Morrison turned Alyssa Henry's shagbark hickory into kitchen cabinets.
Credit:Alyssa Henry

"One of the things we loved most about our house when we bought it was the spectacular 250-year-old bur oak in the backyard," says Sarina Schrager, a family practice physician who moved with her husband and two sons into their Vilas neighborhood home in 1997. "When we did a major remodel, we even installed skylights in the master bedroom and bathroom so we could better appreciate its beauty from inside the house. We really loved that tree. So when it became clear a few years back that the tree was dying and would need to come down, I was heartbroken."

People do often develop relationships with the trees on their property. When it's time for the tree to be removed, it doesn't seem right to many homeowners to allow the elm, maple or oak that provided years of backyard shade or the perfect landing place for a hammock to end up in the wood chipper.

"I knew I wanted to find a way keep that tree as 'part of the family,'" says Schrager, who had visions of converting the trunk into a dining room table and chairs. "When I mentioned this to our arborist, Sean Gere, of Gere Tree Care, he recommended I call Paul Morrison."

Morrison is the proprietor of The Wood Cycle of Wisconsin, an Oregon-based company that crafts one-of-a-kind wood cabinetry and furniture using locally harvested, often urban trees. "We take a lot of city trees from stump to finish. If a tree comes down in someone's yard and it's usable, I love finding a way to put that tree back into [the owner's] home."

Morrison, who was raised on a family farm in Berlin, Wis., comes from a long line of Dutch craftsmen and cabinetmakers: "I grew up with that heritage. You use the resources around you to do whatever needs to get done, and then reuse them until they are all used up."

To Morrison, reduce, reuse, recycle isn't a new concept. "You hear about the Dutchmen being cheap. That's what I grew up under. All the old two-by-fours always went back into the house. Trees can be treated the same way."

An engineering grad of the UW-Madison, Morrison worked for years in groundwater protection for the state; furniture-making was more of a basement hobby. But when the opportunity to buy a sawmill presented itself, according to Morrison, "I began generating more wood than I could use as a hobby. The logs could always find me."

In 2001, Morrison decided to leave his desk job behind. He made woodworking his full-time trade when he moved his business to its current location, a formerly abandoned farm on South Fish Hatchery Road. The restored goat barn became the shop and the turkey shed the sawmill barn. His operations expanded again in 2008, when the largest of The Wood Cycle's current buildings, a "round rafter" barn, was moved on-site. This space now houses an expanded shop, the finishing room and the Hayloft Gallery, Morrison's showroom.

But it's not just The Wood Cycle's physical space that has expanded over the years. Morrison now has four fulltime employees, who help in all aspects of wood production, from dropping trees, to milling, to installing finished pieces. When hiring someone, Morrison looks for people who share his passion, especially for the hardwoods of Wisconsin, which he considers among the finest in the world.

The Wood Cycle team has worked with local oak, elm and hackberry as well as many other varieties, but Morrison is hesitant to play favorites. "My favorite," he says, "is the next one."

One he's enjoying working with immensely right now is black locust. "It's not a well-known tree and is actually an invasive in the Midwest, " he explains. "It's a pain to work with -- it's hard and splits easily. But if you get a log big enough, it's completely worth it. The grain is so beautiful."

The beauty of a front-yard shagbark hickory was a key selling point when Alyssa Henry, a nurse anesthetist, and her husband, Jordan, purchased their home in the Country Heights neighborhood of Fitchburg in 2003. "The tree was a part of the history of the property, the history of the house," she says.

But when the couple started noticing the tree needed attention, they called in arborists, who saw it was rotting down the middle. "I needed to figure out a way to honor the tree after it came down," says Henry.

Fortunately for Henry, who is active in Madison's Slow Food movement, the loss of her tree coincided with a decision to do a kitchen remodel: "My kitchen is like my oasis, and I knew when it came time, I needed to do it right."

She never thought she would be able to afford custom-built, artisanal kitchen cabinets. But Morrison was able to fashion just that from the wood from her tree.

Her finished kitchen incorporates wood from her yard along with additional hickory donated by a neighbor. And, as a self-professed lover of wood with lots of character, Henry is thrilled with the "wormy cherry" Morrison was able to supply for the trim.

"Working with Paul was a dream; he's such an expert. He really helped out with the design. He's an artist with a fantastic eye. And to find someone in the building industry with such an incredible work ethic was amazing. I trusted him implicitly."

Henry says one of the best parts of working with The Wood Cycle was the opportunity to witness her tree transform. "It's a long process from tree to kitchen, but I loved being able to visit my cabinets at Paul's shop as they were being built. The tree served a tremendous purpose while alive, and I feel really good it's able to continue to serve a valuable purpose now."

Homeowners aren't the only ones interested in preserving the memory of a special tree, though. When what is now American Girl Co. moved to its current Middleton corporate headquarters in 1988, the company's founder, Pleasant Rowland, thought the beautiful 150-year-old bur oak on the property would be the ideal symbol for her burgeoning historical doll business. In late 2010, when it became clear the tree would need to come down, Morrison and his team were called in to craft some of its wood into an impressive conference table. He's also built pieces, including a bookshelf in his gallery, from trees that were removed from the state Capitol lawn.

Morrison and his team also do work for clients who may not have known their trees. He has plenty of local wood that can be "adopted" for projects.

New on the horizon for The Wood Cycle is a partnership with the west-side location of the Habitat ReStore. There, along with select lumber from local urban trees, a new flooring product called "Dane County Blend" is being sold. The tongue-and-groove flooring is a mixture of between six and eight hardwoods.

As Morrison explains, "Each floor will be unique, depending on which woods we have at the moment."

A portion of every sale will support Habitat for Humanity Dane County.

Back in the Vilas neighborhood, Sarina Schrager is thrilled with the natural-edged seven-foot dining-room table fashioned from a vertical slab from her beloved tree's trunk. And she still dreams of finding some way to use the additional wood that Morrison continues to store for her family.

"I probably couldn't use up all that wood if I had three houses," muses Schrager. "It's no wonder the space in the backyard still feels empty. That really was some tree."

Wood wunderkind Paul Morrison with tools of his trade.

Paul Morrison turned Alyssa Henry's shagbark hickory into kitchen cabinets. The tree once stood in front of her house in Fitchburg (see gallery at top).

Morrison crafted Sarina Schrager's dining room table from a 250-year-old bur oak that graced the backyard of her Vilas neighborhood home. Photos courtesy of Morrison and the homeowners.

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