Steve Ebner has seen the heart of Philadelphia — and it’s made out of wood. The carpenter and woodworker has owned and operated the city’s only urban sawmill for the past 30 years, and consequently, has been a pivotal player in a growing movement towards sustainable and reclaimed wood.
At Manayunk Timber, his two-acre lumber yard at 5100 Umbria Street in Roxborough, stacks of yellow and white pine and douglas fir beams torn from Philadelphia’s abandoned factories and breweries stand waiting to be milled down to size for flooring, paneling, shelving and other custom projects.
Inside the warehouse, freshly cut black locust and cherry wood logs are stacked — drying and seasoning for future use. It will take years before the wood is ready for crafting; a year for every inch, Ebner explains.
“I do it for the quality of the wood but also for the reusing and recycling of it,” he says.
A new trend
Ebner first fell in love with woodworking in the early ’80s. He was living in an old house where a contractor was replacing a kitchen and needed a hand. “I was never a carpenter,” he said. “I never thought about being a carpenter, but once I got my hands on it, the material just did it for me.”
Originally working smaller projects with wood that could be carried by hand, in 1995 Ebner bought the sawmill, allowing him to saw logs and beams up to 21 feet long and 3 feet in diameter. He could now process wood from the demolished 19th century buildings entrenched about the city.
While Ebner began his business working primarily with restoration professionals, he has been pleased to witness a more recent trend of homeowners and artisans seeking the aesthetic of reclaimed wood.
As a furniture-maker himself, he loves selling to those who share in his passion for quality and history.
Recent projects include providing reclaimed pine beams from a linen factory built in 1880 at Wayne Junction in Germantown for the entrance to a recently-opened park along the Delaware River.
Ebner also supplied the black locust used to build the recent living hops wall at the Yard’s Brewery.
The challenges of reclaiming
But selling and sawing wood for a living is by no means a glamorous profession.
“A lot of people think that my wood should be really cheap, as if because it’s coming from a demolished building that it’s throwaway wood. ‘Oh it comes out of a dumpster,’ they think. But it doesn’t.”
Up to 50 percent of the wood becomes unsalvageable during the demolition process, Ebner explains. Add to that, the labor of removing nails and cutting the beams down to size.
“For me to get good quality wood that you can use for a shelf is sometimes really frustrating and takes hard work, not to mention there is a great deal of history that goes with the wood that I use.”
Philadelphia’s history, in wood
According to Ebner, between the years of 1860 and 1890 was the age of factories in Philadelphia. It is the wood from these buildings that he seeks.
“The wood they were using back then was already 140 years old,” he said. “It’s dry, it’s well seasoned, it goes back to beginning of our country.” And it is that rich history that makes the work bittersweet for Ebner.
“These buildings represent industry in our city. These buildings are our history, and once they’re down and gone, they’re done….But at least the wood is finding a new home.” Ebner says.
“Someone is excited about purchasing it and reusing it and giving it a new life…When these buildings first started going down, all of it was thrown away. But now it’s tipped the other way — whatever can be used is never wasted, and to me, that is a really great change.”