For 15 years Brian Post made his living bringing high technology into homes, installing the likes of touch-screen thermostats and universal remote controls.
Then, less than a year ago, he stepped back from the cutting edge and into the old-fashioned business of cutting wood. His company, NeighborWood, creates sustainable wood products using urban growth timber. The “edge” he deals with now is apt to be a “live edge,” the rustic border on a finished piece of wood that still bears traces of tree bark and has become one of his trademarks. Each finished piece comes branded with the company name and tagged with the zip code in which the tree once grew.
With low-tech carpentry tools, Mr. Post crafts handsome cutting boards and grill scrapers from the diseased or storm-damaged trees municipalities like Evanston must fell. He says he does not miss racing to “keep up with consumer electronics,” adding, “I enjoy going back to ‘no technology.’” At work in his North Evanston garage, his Portuguese water dog at his side, Mr. Post can set his own pace and seems to take even the recent glut of orders in stride.
Instead of purchasing new hardwood for his projects, Mr. Post reclaims trees that would otherwise be turned into chips or firewood. The seed of the idea for NeighborWood was planted when he watched City crews removing trees on his parkway after they were damaged by a wind storm. Having no idea what he would do with them, he asked whether he could have some of the logs.
His own kitchen was the inspiration for cutting boards. An avid cook with post-college experience in a restaurant, Mr. Post says he aspired to create the kind of substantial, long-lasting boards that have made John Boos the industry standard.
He was no stranger to the building trades, having tackled renovations to his home and built a showroom for his electronics business. “I was always handy,” he says. The surprise was that 11 of his first 12 cutting boards – all but the one he intentionally held back – sold within a week. “Maybe we have something,” he remembers thinking.
At eight pounds and 20×15 inches, however, those original boards were too big to fit in most cabinets. By the time he took his wares to the Haven Middle School holiday show, Mr. Post had trimmed them to a sleeker, cookie-sheet size of 20×12 inches.
In one night he sold 22 of the 30 boards he had brought to the show.
He says he found “a good fit” with the former chef of Heaven on Seven and current owner of the Ravenswood deli City Provisions, whose interest in organic foods, local sourcing and recycling meshed with his own. They created six designs for cutting boards now carried by the deli shop or used for serving.
He did well at the Evanston Farmers’ Market and is looking ahead to the Evanston Woman’s Club Cornucopia, a gift show at the Merchandise Mart and a trunk show at Chicago’s Chopping Block. The family living room has become a mail room.
As his business burgeoned, Mr. Post began to look for steady and reliable sources of wood. Early on he had found a mill close by in North Chicago; he hoped to procure his raw material locally, as well. The wood he prefers is considered “bad” by most mills. He holds up a cutting board made of silver maple to indicate the dramatic patterns and colorations called “spalting” that can result, he says, from “organisms [that] get in and make walls” in dead or dying trees. “That’s what’s neat about urban wood,” he says. “It has lots of character.”
His hometown was the first the Evanston native approached with the idea of a contract. The City was receptive. Evanston has a surplus of wood chips and firewood from trees that succumbed to the emerald ash borer and the Dutch elm beetle, says Paul D’Agostino Superintendent of Parks, Forestry and Facilities Management. He estimates that his crews have cut down a whopping 300 trees this year, with 400 more still awaiting the saw.
“We’re trying to better utilize our excess logs,” says Mr. D’Agostino, applauding NeighborWood’s “higher use.” Giving logs to Mr. Post “doesn’t cost us anything,” he says. “I hope he’s successful in reusing the urban wood.” Of their compliance agreement, he chuckles, “I wanted to help [Mr. Post] get started. If he starts making millions of dollars, I’ll start charging him.”
Mr. Post has forged agreements with other communities from Chicago to Lake Zurich, he says, allowing him a wide selection of felled trees. He chooses, then notifies the mill to pick up the logs, cut them into lumber and kiln-dry them.
The unique features of the “slice of tree” he gets from the mill are hidden until Mr. Post planes and sands it. Finally, his cutting boards are finished to silky smoothness with a secret mineral oil/beeswax concoction.
Some of his hardwood comes with a story. Among the boards drying in an Indiana barn he discovered some cut from the “greeting trees” – often maples – farmers customarily planted by their front door. Mr. Post hopes to make tables of these special pieces and is looking for a suitable base – preferably recycled. He is also filling an order for a wooden countertop and carrying on discussions with a skateboard company looking to “green” a business that to date has relied on non-sustainable materials.
Mr. Post plans to make at least one foray into the world of technology: With his high-school-age son, who hopes to be an engineer, he wants to build a computerized router. The son, like his father, will perhaps heed the words of black minister, philosopher and educator Howard Thurman: “Follow the grain in your own wood.”