The environmental impact of what we buy, make, and consume is becoming increasingly important to us all. This change in mindset has led to some incredible innovations, with some using materials that were previously thought of as ‘waste’ to create highly desirable commodities. Saunders Seasonings is doing just that. Taking urban trees that would have previously been discarded, and turning them into high quality urban timber.
What started as a personal side project, has developed into a leading provider of native London Hardwood. We sat down with Bruce Saunders and Patrick Welsh to discuss their quality focussed seasoning operation, the bureaucratic challenges of sourcing urban timber, and how they are aiming high up the political chain to reduce waste.
Welcome back to Cabinet Sessions, where we sit down and chat with designers, artists, and craftspeople we admire to discuss what they do and why they do it.
Why don’t you start by telling us about Saunders Seasonings, Who are you? What do you do?
Bruce: For most of my adult life I've worked in event production putting on rock and roll gigs and building stage sets for various bands. After many years of running a production company, the waste involved in set building started to get to me. It’s tough putting your heart and soul into building something that inevitably ends up in a skip two weeks later.
I started seasoning hardwood as a bit of a side project about six or seven years ago. I was planning a personal woodworking project, a piece of furniture made from Cherry. I wanted to use English Cherry but the only way I could get any was to drive 80 miles outside of London, which I did. I realised it wasn’t possible to buy British hardwoods in London, nobody sold them, all the hardwood in London was being imported which seemed ridiculous to me. I started researching what happens to felled trees in London and learnt that nearly all of them are chipped and burnt or sold for biomass. Surely there had to be a better way to use them.
I managed to get hold of a London Plane that was being taken down near Camden Road. I hired a mobile sawmill, milled it and left the timber to air dry. When I came back to test the timber quality, the results were great. I acquired another four large London Planes and got to work. Whilst milling those first few we were hitting big lumps of shrapnel from World War Two. That’s just one of the joys of urban timber, I’ve still got those pieces of bomb casing.
I realised how important it was to me to leave some form of legacy and I wanted to make things that last longer than I do; I couldn’t do that set building. I was still working in the event industry but spending more and more time on hardwood seasoning. I had spent the past six years as head of production at Koko in Camden but when the venue shut for a massive refurb, I knew it was the right time to throw in the event towel. I then set up Saunders Seasonings as a proper company.
Since then we’ve done many, many, many trees, and after years of trying, I finally persuaded Pat to come on board a year ago. Pat and I have known each other since we were 11; we formed a rock and roll band at school in fact. This was a good way of putting the band back together, but the gig is slightly different.
Bruce (middle) and Patrick (left) in their band
So what’s the timber production industry like? Is there anyone else trying to make use of urban timber?
Bruce: We're pretty much the only company doing this is London. Tree surgeons often plank up trees with a chainsaw and make a bench or something, but that’s as good as it gets.
Pat: A big part of why saving these trees is so important is the carbon. As soon as a tree is burnt, the carbon that it’s been soaking up for 50 -100 years is released straight back into the atmosphere. It's hard to justify that as a ‘sustainable practice’. It’s called carbon payback and unless you’re going to plant 100 new trees each time you burn one, it’s better to keep that carbon locked in the wood.
Bruce: We approach hardwood production from the perspective of a high quality maker. I've always wanted the materials we offer to be of exceptional quality, well conditioned and perfectly dry. One of the ways we differ from anybody else in London, is that we kiln dry our timber to get the moisture content down to 10%. In hardwoods moisture content is paramount.
The character of the timber is obviously important too. The urban environment these trees have grown in, gives them some really interesting colour and grain characteristics. Each tree has its own history and provenance which we want to celebrate. We’re going to be updating our website, with an interactive map, showing the exact location each tree has come from.
So will people be able to have furniture made using timber from a specific location? Timber’s origin rarely gets so much respect. Now that you’ve proved that using urban trees as timber is viable, have you seen any noticeable change in the industry?
Bruce: There’s definitely interest there but we’re swimming against the tide, no doubt about that. There’s sufficient demand for urban timber, it’s supply that’s the issue.
When sourcing a tree, we have to convince all kinds of companies and local authorities before we can even start planning the logistics. Some are locked into contracts with tree surgeons and biomass buyers; they might get £12/tonne for biomass. London is effectively 37 different towns that operate independently which makes things tricky.
A lot of work goes into getting people on board but sometimes we aren’t successful. It can be heartbreaking to see a big tree end up as wood chips. Some are particularly painful. ‘Happy Man Tree’ near Manor House, which was named ‘tree of the year’ in 2020, was taken down after a long dispute between Berkeley Homes and the local community. It was a huge London Plane just outside their development; they cut the tree down along with many others. We tried for ages to engage the Berkeley Homes but were just stonewalled.
Pat: There are countless people who really do care and don’t want trees to be chipped, but they aren’t always the decision makers. We’re trying to enable local authorities to make much better use of a ‘waste product’. If these trees can be used for a better purpose, everybody wins. It creates jobs, reduces waste and supplies local makers, bringing provenance and locality to what they make.
Our job is to open their eyes to this opportunity. These trees have had 50 to 100 years to grow, seen world wars, all manner of things that have happened in history. Why not give these trees a second life
At the risk of sounding overly emotional, a long lasting piece of furniture often becomes a part of the family. A dining table for example, It’s there at every dinner party, birthday and family meal. Maybe it even gets passed down through the generations and continues it’s story.
I’m surprised the biggest obstacle is bureaucracy. I thought the main challenges would be the logistics of retrieving trees from a busy city environment.
Bruce: Extracting an urban tree on a busy main road is… challenging. With the variety of sizes and locations we deal with, there’s no magic vehicle that works for every situation. We’re reliant on a few different contractors, as we need vehicles of varying sizes. On top of that, we might have just an hour to go in, get the tree and be gone. If we can't pick it up at exactly that time, it’s game over and the tree gets chipped. You can’t stop traffic for too long in a fast paced city like London. We’ve worked hard to build trust with contractors and local authorities so they know we’re going to be out when we say we will. This tree by tree approach is quite costly; even though the tree may be free, the transport costs and subcontracting lead to urban timber often being more expensive. Plantation timber is grown and harvested with cost reduction in mind from the very beginning.
We don’t mind the logistic challenges but the political side is very frustrating. When dealing with a tree of a certain prominence, there’re a lot of stakeholders in the community. Nobody wants to see it chipped but some people don’t like the idea that money is being made out of it. The fear of negative publicity often stops organisations working with us. Royal parks like ‘City of London’, refuse to have their trees leave the grounds and would rather chip them on-site.
I can understand that hesitancy, but it seems like a shame that it’s leading to trees being chipped unnecessarily. Saunders Seasonings seems more like a ‘tree rescue service’ to me.
Pat: I think I take a slightly different view from Bruce. There is definitely a fear of negative press but also people are just so busy. They've got a whole bunch of other priorities and this one’s not coming to the top of the heap. Organising a tree collection is a whole load of work, which is why we’re so appreciative of the people that go the extra mile to work with us. It’s going to be a slow process but we’re proving that we can reliably collect these trees and turn them into a desirable product that wasn’t previously available.
Increasing awareness and new policies like the ‘London Urban Forest Plan’ leave me feeling very optimistic. It shows that there’s attention being paid to how trees can be better managed in London. Currently the top priority is to plant more and it's a good priority, particularly in the city centre. There's a lot of tree pits open waiting for something to be planted and nobody's managed to get their act together to do it. Hopefully we can play a part in enabling more money to go back into tree planting.
So what does the future hold for Saunders Seasoning?
Bruce: Whilst planning our new website, we’ve been asking ourselves that exact question. Who are we? And what direction do we want to take the company? We can’t think of ourselves as just a company that produces and sells timber. We need to be a solution to the problem of unnecessary urban tree waste. We’re not really worried about competition as there is no competition currently. There isn't anybody stupid enough to be doing what we're doing; it's amazingly hard work and to be honest, there's not really much money in it.
Pat: We’ve realised that we need to be aiming to change things higher up the political chain. We want to work with councils and organisations to create an urban tree grading system, so when trees are being felled, they can be dealt with more appropriately. If we can create the processes for council and businesses to use without creating more work for them, we think everything else will fall into place.
MC Bruce you briefly mentioned furniture making earlier, I’m curious do you ever save pieces of timber that you can’t bear to say goodbye to?
Bruce: A few planks might get reserved for certain projects; my wife has a keen eye for timber and will occasionally put her name on some pieces. Everything else ends up in the hands of craftspeople. I get a bit sad seeing some pieces go because we’ve been part of the whole process. We collect the trees, mill them, every plank passes through our hands as we stack them, kiln them and eventually say goodbye to them. Each tree has such a story and so much character to them. Each sale is bittersweet.
I just love milling, there’s a real anticipation and excitement in not knowing what wood character you’ll get. When a tree is opened up and you see rich colour for the first time, it can take your breath away. Every single board is different, it's an absolute joy.
It’s always great to speak to people who are passionate about their craft. Do you have a favorite tool or process that you love doing more than anything else?
Bruce: That’s a tough one. I’m tempted to say our spiral thicknesser; it’s the real workhorse of our workshop. The spiral blades don't rip out as much as a knife plane. I’m obviously a big fan of milling or I would have quit seasoning a long time ago. To be honest, the most useful tool in the whole workshop is often a great pair of scissors. It’s not the most exciting, but a sharp pair of well made, bull-nosed scissors is a great thing to have.
Bruce's spiral thicknesser
It’s been a pleasure speaking with you both. Anything you’d like to say before we part ways?
Bruce: Just that if anyone reading has a big tree or knows of one coming down near them, get in touch with us, we’re always looking for trees to rescue.