Brian Presnell is a great listener. He has to be in his line of work.
Every day, he hears histories, maybe some secrets, and dreams for the future.
Presnell, of course, is talking about listening to trees.
“The logs speak to us,” said Presnell, a craftsman and Indianapolis native. “I take a look at them and get a feel for them and it just depends on what the tree will give up is what I will make out of it.”
Presnell is more than just a woodworker, he owns Indy Urban Hardwood, which brings urban milling to the city’s design scene. But even more, it solves a problem: It saves trees from what Presnell calls the damnations of the muncher or the landfill.
Rather, he wants to give trees that are cut down across the city a new life.
That is exactly what is happening with trees from the Newfields museum and gardens campus. Many Indianapolis residents were riled up several months ago when dozens of trees were removed from 100 Acres. Those residents wanted to know why the trees were removed — to make way for increased parking access — and what was happening to them.
The museum never wants to take trees down, said Chad Franer, the Tom and Nora Hiatt Director of Horticulture at Newfields. But sometimes they are compromised by disease, or have been struck by lightning or need to be removed as part of a larger project to improve and enhance the space, Franer said.
“We hate doing it, but if we’re going to, we want to keep the trees giving back,” Franer said. He said they have some trees that have taken decades to get to their large size. “Out of respect for the trees, we can’t just let them go. We want to create something and have them live on a bit more.”
That happens through benches, tables, cheese boards and plant holders.
The museum actually is where Presnell got his start. He first began recycling trees with Newfields in 2017 when he launched his company. But his history with the site extends much further beyond that.
Many years ago, Presnell used to work at the museum installing art in the galleries and putting up the labels telling the stories of the pieces. Still, 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 were removed.
Now, nearly two decades later, he is taking what he learned during his time at the museum to tell the stories of the trees taken down and create art by giving them new life.
“We grew up handling the world’s finest goods and art history, and it 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.”
In the last five years, Presnell said that he has milled more than 25,000 board feet — each board foot is 12 square inches and one inch thick.
“That’s a substantial amount of wood,” he said, “and we’ve done so many things with it.”
Just how many things, he can’t quite say, but he said it’s easily in the thousands.
Scrub Hub: Why were dozens of trees cut down at Newfields’ 100 Acres Park?
Once Indy Hardwood gets the lumber, they start by milling it into manageable pieces. They use a sawmill from Wood-Mizer, an international company based right here in Indianapolis that makes wood-working machinery.
After milling the wood, Presnell air dries it for several months to help it keep its color. Then he puts it in the kiln to finish it up — Wood-Mizer also makes the wood kiln and the flattening machine that Pressnell works with.
“It’s a totally local operation,” he said. That includes how the wood is used, too.
Once it’s finished drying, that’s when Presnell gets to work turning it into his own piece of artwork.
A lot of what Presnell has made with the trees from Newfields goes back to the museum and grounds. He has made several benches that are around 100 Acres, he’s built some tables that are in museum offices and he’s carved hundreds of cheese and cutting boards that have been available in the museum gift shop. What he makes depends on the type and size of the tree and what it wants to be, he said.
Presnell has also made a really grand desk for the groundskeepers, who he said work so hard to maintain the campus. The desk was his way to thank them. His most recent project is a large bar top for the new beer garden set to open in May.
The counter came from a 100-year old tree on the property that was planted as part of the original landscaping for Oldfields by Frederick Law Olmsted and Percival Gallagher, who also designed Central Park in New York City.
That tree was struck by lightning a couple years ago and had to come down, Franer said. But now it is coming back to the museum full circle, he added — it will be just a couple hundred feet from where it was previously standing.
Franer said they plan to educate guests that come to the new Garden Terrace on 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 more of an understanding about how seriously we take care of what we have and shows our efforts to preserve this and utilize these assets.”
But not all of the wood makes its way back to the museum. What doesn’t find its way to Newfields instead finds a home within the community, Presnell said.
A lot of the material, be it small or large, has gone into Indy Hardwood’s products. He tries to waste as little as possible, even turning the scraps into small holders for air plants. Anything else gets turned into firewood, he said — only the saw dust is discarded.
His work can be seen at Sun King Brewing and Taxman Brewing companies, Bluebeard and Garden Table restaurants and more.
“It’s all going back into our community whether we make items for clients or sell the wood to local artists to make jewelry, knives and more,” Presnell said. “It’s endless with the Newfields trees.”
Franer has another idea, too.
The museum has a new artist coming in at the park and he thinks it would be perfect if Presnell could mill the wood for her to use in her artwork. It’s these kinds of partnerships that get him excited.
Presnell said the efforts are all part of a growing urban lumber movement to reclaim trees removed from the city environment and, in a way, resurrect them. He said a lot of sawmills normally don’t want city trees because they may have metal such as screws in them. But that doesn’t mean those trees should be overlooked, Presnell said.
“Urban lumber is a really big trend nationally, with companies all around the country doing what I do,” he said. “This is so important because we aren’t doing a good job of using and recycling this stuff — we need to be better all across the country.”
Presnell is working on that right here in Indianapolis. In addition to Newfields, he is working with a number of properties around the city including Crown Hill Cemetery, some libraries and country clubs and recently at 16 Tech.
Still, one of his favorite spots and favorite items he’s ever made is a bench at Newfields. It sits up high and overlooks the woods.
“And I’m a woods guy, I recycle trees,” Presnell said. “So it’s a great spot for me to sit and look at that area and reflect on where I’ve come from.” Only now, instead of wearing the white gloves he once donned to install art and labels inside in the museum, he’s wearing work gloves.
Call IndyStar reporter Sarah Bowman at 317-444-6129 or email at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook: @IndyStarSarah. Connect with IndyStar’s environmental reporters: Join The Scrub on Facebook.
IndyStar’s environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.