Jay Norris and Nick Bianco witnessed an unexpected sight when dropping off debris from the remodel of their KCK warehouse — a discovery that would add new rings of life to their budding custom hardwoods business.
“We see a bulldozer pushing trees into the dump, and we were like, ‘What the heck is going on over there?’” said Bianco, co-founder of KC Custom Hardwoods. “We started doing more research.”
While the business had, to date, focused on farms for sourcing lumber to create its premium furniture pieces — leaning on easy-to-mill lumber from large trees cut to make room for livestock and crops — the duo discovered another growth opportunity: urban trees.
Typically discarded because of the high levels of human contact — including nails, screws, bullets, musket balls and even plastic bags that end up in the wood — the lumber is considered by most in the industry to be full of defects.
To Norris and Bianco, that’s just character.
After learning how many urban or city trees were being thrown away, they decided to salvage as many as they could — pulling over when they saw trees being taken down to ask if they could have the wood; and ultimately working out deals with tree trimming and land clearing companies that were often willing to let them save whatever they could collect.
“If we could get a trailer over there, they would give it to us,” Bianco said.
Click here to see how KC Custom Hardwoods has turned would-be discarded lumber into a portfolio of one-of-a-kind works.
As salvaging trees became a larger part of their sourcing, it also became a big part of the company’s story. Many clients embrace the wood’s backstory, like that the tree grew around a spoon or a fence post, Bianco said. And as that has become part of each custom piece, more homeowners would reach out KC Custom Hardwoods to ask if they would take the lumber from their trees that needed to come down.
Using salvaged trees comes with a trade-off, Bianco acknowledged. Though they might not pay for the lumber, metal defects within the lumber can damage the sawmill’s blade and cause downtime. Overall, it takes longer to mill a city tree, he said, but it’s worth it.
“Our goal is to make sure these trees that have really cool stories to them live on for generations,” Bianco said. “Sometimes you get trees that just have such a cool story behind it that it feels good to be able to pass those along. And even if it doesn’t have a cool story, at least we’re saving our natural resources.”
Click here to explore KC Custom Hardwood’s selection of live edge slabs.
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Cut from the family tree
The seed for KC Custom Hardwoods was planted long before the co-founders’ trip to the dump; and well before the company’s founding in 2017 — ironically, by timber poachers attempting to steal from Norris’ family farm.
Wood you like this tree?
KC Custom Hardwoods cofounder Nick Bianco said that as the company has grown, it has learned a lot about customer wood preferences. Though the goal is to salvage as many city trees as possible, Bianco said they use sales data to help decide whether to pick up a tree that someone may have coming down from their yard.
They’ve found these to be the most popular wood types for custom tables:
- Black walnut
- White oak
- Elm: “Most people throw it away, but it’s really beautiful wood,” Bianco said.
Pin oak has a special color profile that isn’t very popular, Bianco said, but they still accept it. Cottonwood isn’t ideal for furniture-making, he said.
In 2009, when Norris was attending the University of Central Missouri, his parents asked him to check in on the farm in Garden City, Missouri, while they were away. When he arrived, he found people logging the property.
After checking in with his parents, Norris’ father instructed him to run the poachers off. He did, and they left what had been cut down.
Norris was faced with an abundance of potential firewood, but thought there must be a better use for the timber. On a whim, he bought a sawmill and processed the lumber, selling it and returning the proceeds to his family.
Norris also tried his hand at woodworking. His early attempt to build a bar top taught him an important lesson: Lumber needs to be dried before it can be made into furniture. He bought a kiln and planer; the more he learned, the more he invested in time and tools. Norris spent a lot of his spare time making tables and other small projects for friends and family.
After working on many custom orders, he built a table without a recipient in mind. When it was finished, he talked to Bianco, a friend from college.
“Jay was like, ‘Hey Nick, you sell things for a living, right?’” Bianco recounted. “‘Do you think you could help me sell this table that I made?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll help you, but you have to teach me how to build them.’ We didn’t know it, but it was in that moment our business was made.”
Bianco posted the table for sale online in February 2017. He got a call the first day and was confident he’d quickly sell the table. Instead, the caller asked if they could make a custom piece. Every day, more people called about the listing — and they each wanted something other than the table. By the end of the week, Bianco said, they had sold several small, custom projects.
“I was like, ‘Jay, I think you have a business here if you want to give it a go,’” Bianco said. “Jay was like, ‘I hate my job, let’s go for it!’”
In March of that year, they incorporated the business, and by July, they both quit their corporate jobs to focus on KC Custom Hardwoods full-time. By the end of 2017, they moved from a storage unit to a 4,000-square-foot warehouse in Kansas City, Kansas, and hired their first employee.
“Once we moved into that warehouse in Kansas City, Kansas, that’s really when the business started to take off,” Bianco said.
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Norris and Bianco began by bootstrapping, using their retirement savings and the inventory of tools Norris had cobbled together over the years to grow the business. Once it was time to upgrade to more professional-level equipment, they used SBA loans.
“We had people asking us all the time if they could invest in our business, and I’m just being honest with you — we didn’t know what the hell we were doing,” Bianco said. “We didn’t know what we would use an investment for or what valuation to bring to the table or anything in the beginning.”
KC Custom Hardwoods recently brought on a new partner, Jeff Perry, whose investment allowed them to purchase a new kiln and saw. Perry also brought knowledge and infrastructure from his previous businesses that the company has been able to implement.
The company now leases a 27,000-square-foot warehouse in the West Bottoms that includes plenty of yard space and a showroom that’s being built out. It has eight employees.
Most of KC Custom Hardwood’s clients are homeowners, but the company also has worked on many large, custom conference tables, as well as reception desks or other custom pieces for office entryways. They’d love to work with restaurants and breweries as well, Bianco said.
Though their business has been built on custom pieces, he said, it’s come to a turning point where they are aiming to make more tables for the showroom that shoppers can take home, no waiting.
“In the beginning, Jay and I were like, ‘We’ll just make some tables and we’ll sell the tables we make’ … but it ended up being, ‘No, I don’t want that table that you made, can you make me a custom table?’” Bianco said. “Now, people are seeing everything that we put out and all of our customers’ tables, and people are coming to us saying, ‘Hey, I want to buy a table from you guys, but I just want one that’s ready to go.’ … So it’s almost come full circle.”
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