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Custom Cuts: Manayunk Woodworker Nails Sustainable Sawmill

Visitors to Steve Ebner's Manayunk lumber yard should be forewarned: Pick a nice weather day. Because once he gets to talking about wood, his enthusiasm kicks into high gear and he might just drag an unsuspecting inquisitor out to the woodpile in a steady rain to count the rings on the inside end of a beam in an effort to determine the age of the tree from which it was cut.

Wood specifically old wood is his passion. And sustainability is his partner.

Ebner's company, Manayunk Timber, is Philadelphia's only green sawmill that offers sustainable lumber for restoration, renovation, custom woodworking and construction.

"When buildings are being demolished, we contract to take the wood and bring it back to our yard," says Ebner. "From there we fill the orders as they come in taking the nails out, putting it through the sawmill and sawing it to the dimension that the customer is asking for.

"Most of the wood we have right now is from 1860 to about 1910. But since the trees that the beams come from are very old, the beams are of a very high quality. That's what we look for."

Originally from Northeast Philadelphia, Ebner is a carpenter and furniture-maker by trade. He and his brother Tim originally started Manayunk Timber in 1984, and although Tim is technically still co-owner of the business, it's Steve that is virtually a one-man show when it comes to the cutting of the wood.

He reuses the old beams to make things like tables, cabinets and other furniture pieces. Because of the historic nature of the wood and the artistic aspect of Ebner's wood work, some of those benches, for example, sell in the $1,000 to $1,200 range. But he doesn't just have old beams from demolished buildings in his inventory. He also has an almost endless supply of trees that come down naturally in blizzards or storms that he repurposes and reuses.

"The fact that I'm reusing the beams is great, but the supply of trees that I can cut on my sawmill, there is literally no end to them," he says. "They are the most sustainable product we have.

"Wood as a vegetable product has a million uses. If it's bad wood, you can use it for pallets. If it's good wood, you can use it for furniture. So this is a totally sustainable business because the supply is never ending."

But make no mistake, history plays an important part in Ebner's business. That and the fact that some people are curious by nature.

"Everybody touches wood. They sleep on wood, they eat on wood and they walk on wood. I can't think of another material maybe gold that people ask about, think about," he says.

"People have a huge amount of curiosity, no matter what subject you bring up about wood the species, its history, what it's used for, its good qualities, its bad qualities, what grain to cut, how to cut it it just never ends. So yeah, people are really interested in the history of wood."

For the past 26 years, Manayunk Timber has prided itself on its low carbon footprint. As a harvester of local wood, little energy is used in transporting the raw material to the company's wood yard and turning the trees into lumber with minimal waste. Most of the old beams are long-leaf pine, white pine, oak or cedar. According to Ebner, the white pine in 1860 would have likely come from northern Minnesota or Canada because by then, Pennsylvania wood had already been substantially harvested, he says.

"With the sawmill, we're able to saw into final thickness depending on what the customer wants," he says. "The wood can be reused and recycled many times in this form. We even sell it as is in beam form."

And because he knows a lot of contractors, Ebner usually knows ahead of time when a building is being demolished.

"It's nice to get into the building before it comes down," he says. "Now, I can generally look at the wood and I can determine almost immediately what species it is, the quality and other defects I can see in the wood."

Ebner has gotten wood from old buildings being demolished in places like Philadelphia, Camden and Reading and even as far away as Erie and Baltimore. Currently, he has approximately 90,000 feet of the old wood in stock. He saws both custom orders and also makes furniture and products for customers.

"If I make products out of wood, I can further the wood along, make it last longer for my business and value the wood tremendously so that it can be a supply for my line of furniture," he says.

One thing Ebner has learned recently is that sustainable products and the Internet are what he calls "a perfect match." Because there are few lumber yards left and transportation of trees is expensive, the Internet gives Ebner an opportunity to market his product directly to those who are looking for something specific.

And although he currently does not have any employees, he anticipates that increased exposure for the business will allow it to grow, which in turn will enable him to hire a few strong backs to "stack wood and pull nails." That would allow Ebner to spend most of his time in front of the saw making custom cuts.

"One of the things that keeps me in business is that I can custom-cut something. I can cut it in a way that can improve the quality of it, even though it's the same piece of wood," he says.

"It's like a diamond. If you first cut it and you don't do a good job, you maybe have one more chance before it gets too small."

As for his passion for wood what he calls his "substance abuse problem" Ebner says that he's had it for a long time and that he doesn't expect it to disappear anytime soon.

"The only way I'm going to be able to feed my substance-abuse problem is to be able to sell what I make," he says. "Because I have a sawmill, people who come to me already know wood, they already know what they want.

"Professional builders, professional furniture makers, artists, they all come to me. People who search for something different find me."

MIKE MORSCH is a veteran Greater Philadelphia journalist, die-hard Phillies fan and an all-around swell guy. Send feedback here.


Mature lumber at Manayunk Timber.

Steve Ebner.

Reclaimed wood from the Ortlieb's Jazz Haus water tower.

Detail of beam with many rings showing a very old, mature piece of lumber, which Ebner says makes for very straight and sturdy lumber stock.

Ebner removing nails from an old beam.

Cuts made from a recently cleaned piece of white cedar.

Ebner in his office.

Detail from the cut-down area.

Steve Ebner all dressed up.

All photographs by MICHAEL PERSICO

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