Brian Presnell is a great listener. He must be in his job.
Every day he hears stories, maybe secrets, and dreams for the future.
Presnell, of course, talks about listening to trees.
“The logs speak to us,” said Presnell, a craftsman from Indianapolis. “I look at them and get an idea of them and it depends on what the tree is going to drop, that’s what I’ll do with it.”
Presnell is more than a carpenter, he owns Indy Urban Hardwood, which introduced urban milling to the city’s design scene. But more than that, it solves a problem: it saves trees from what Presnell calls crusher or landfill damnations.
On the contrary, he wants to give new life to the felled trees across the city.
This is exactly what is happening with the trees at the Museum Campus and Newfields Gardens. Many Indianapolis residents were annoyed several months ago when dozens of trees were removed from 100 acres. These residents wanted to know why the trees had been cut down — to make way for better access to parking — and what was happening to them.
The museum never wants to cut down trees, said Chad Franer, director of horticulture for Tom and Nora Hiatt at Newfields. But sometimes they are compromised by disease, or have been struck by lightning, or need to be removed because part of a larger project to enhance and enhance the space, Franer said.
“We hate to do it, but if we do it, we want the trees to keep giving back,” Franer said. He said they have trees that have taken decades to grow to their full size. “Out of respect for the trees, we cannot let them go. We want to create something and make them live a little more.
This includes benches, tables, cheese boards and plant stands.
The museum is actually where Presnell got his start. He first started recycling trees with Newfields in 2017 when he launched his business. But his history with the site extends far beyond that.
Many years ago, Presnell worked at the museum installing artwork in the galleries and affixing labels telling the story of the rooms. Yet he felt his calling years ago. He studied furniture design at the Herron School of Art and Design. And during a construction project at the museum more than 15 years ago, Franer recalls Presnell asking to take the wood from a few trees that had been felled.
Now, nearly two decades later, he is using what he learned during his time at the museum to tell the stories of the downed trees and create art giving them new life.
“We grew up handling the best products in the world and art history, and that made me understand aesthetics and things,” Presnell said. “We brought that here with us now, and we apply all of that to what we do here.”
Over the past five years, Presnell said he has milled more than 25,000 board feet — each board foot is 12 square inches and one inch thick.
“It’s a substantial amount of wood,” he said, “and we’ve done so much with it.”
How many things, he can’t really say, but he said it was easily thousands.
Once Indy Hardwood gets the wood, they start by milling it into manageable pieces. They use a sawmill Wood Mizeran international company based right here in Indianapolis that manufactures woodworking machinery.
After milling the wood, Presnell air-dries it for several months to help it retain its color. Then he puts it in the kiln to finish it – Wood-Mizer also makes the wood kiln and flattening machine that Pressnell works with.
“It’s a totally local operation,” he says. This also includes how the wood is used.
Once it’s finished drying, that’s when Presnell gets to work making it his own work of art.
Much of what Presnell has done with Newfields trees can be traced back to the museum and grounds. He made several benches for about 100 acres, he built tables that are in the museum offices, and he carved hundreds of cheeses and cutting boards that were available in the museum gift shop. What it does depends on the type and size of the tree and what it wants to be, he said.
Presnell has also created a very large office for the gardeners, who he says work so hard to maintain the campus. The office was his way of thanking them. His most recent project is a large bar for the new beer garden which will open in May.
The counter comes from a century-old tree on the property that was planted as part of the original landscaping to old fields by Frederick Law Olmsted and Percival Gallagher, who also designed New York’s Central Park.
This tree was struck by lightning a few years ago and must have fallen, Franer said. But now he’s back in the full circle of the museum, he added – he’ll only be a few hundred feet from where he was before.
Franer said they plan to educate guests who come to the new garden terrace about the history of the piece and its importance to the site.
“We hope it adds a bit to the experience,” he said, “but we also hope it gives them a better understanding of how seriously we take care of what we have and show our efforts to preserve that and use those assets.”
But not all the wood comes back to the museum. What doesn’t find its way to Newfields instead finds a home within the community, Presnell said.
Much of the material, whether small or large, has been Indy Hardwood Products. He tries to waste as little as possible, even turning leftovers into small supports for air plants. Everything else is turned into firewood, he said – only the sawdust is thrown away.
His work can be seen at Sun King Brewing and Taxman Brewing, Bluebeard and Garden Table restaurants and more.
“Everything comes back to our community, whether we’re making items for customers or selling the wood to local artists to make jewelry, knives and more,” Presnell said. “It’s endless with Newfields trees.”
Franer also has another idea.
The museum has a new artist coming to the park and he thinks it would be perfect if Presnell could machine the wood for her to use in her artwork. It’s these kinds of partnerships that excite him.
Presnell said the efforts are all part of a growing urban timber movement to reclaim trees removed from the city’s environment and, in some way, resurrect them. He said a lot of sawmills don’t normally want trees from the city because they can contain metal like screws. But that doesn’t mean these trees should be overlooked, Presnell said.
“Urban wood is a really big trend nationally, with companies all over the country doing what I do,” he said. “It’s so important because we’re not doing a good job of using and recycling these things – we need to be better across the country.”
Presnell is working on it here in Indianapolis. In addition to Newfields, he works with a number of properties in the town, including Crown Hill Cemetery, some libraries and country clubs and recently at 16 Tech.
Yet one of his favorite places and favorite things he has ever made is a bench in Newfields. It sits high and overlooks the woods.
“And I’m a woodsman, I recycle trees,” Presnell said. “So it’s a great place for me to sit and look at this area and think about where I come from.” Only now, instead of wearing the white gloves he once wore to install artwork and labels inside the museum, he wears work gloves.
Call IndyStar reporter Sarah Bowman at 317-444-6129 or email [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook: @IndyStarSarah. Connect with IndyStar environmental journalists: Join The Scrub on Facebook.
The IndyStar Environmental Reporting Project is made possible through the generous support of the non-profit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.