Blink and you might miss it. The sign for Baltimore’s Camp Small is, well, small.
But what lies beyond the understated gates on Old Cold Spring Lane is a woodworker’s wonderland.
Hundreds upon hundreds of felled logs line a winding road that lands you at a nondescript workshop. Towering piles of tangled branches, brush and brambles fill another expanse of the yard in the shadow of Interstate 83. Massive piles of wood chips and firewood occupy another.
For decades, Camp Small has been a destination for Baltimore’s tree waste. In a city with roughly 4,000 acres of woodland and many miles of streets lined with trees, about 9,000 tons of waste are cleared annually. The bulk of that ends up at Camp Small.
It cost the city to dispose of that scrap wood and brush. Periodically, it hired a contractor to chip the wood and clear the lot for an average of $75,000 annually.
But for the past six years, Camp Small has begun making money and plans to soon operate on a cost-neutral basis. As part of a zero waste initiative, Baltimore is recycling its felled street and park trees to make usable wood products, including the lot’s premier output: lumber.
Street trees make up the majority of wood that comes to Camp Small and, in some ways, they are difficult to mill. Unlike trees in a forest that grow straight up, toward the light, street trees spread out.
“Funky, twisty,” is how Camp Small Yardmaster Shaun Preston describes them.
Also, “they deal with a lot of root strain,” which can affect a tree’s grain. And they’re more likely to have metal in them — nails, wires and the like — from years of coexisting with people. That makes them a nightmare for large sawmills with expensive blades.
But on a recent weekday morning, a portable sawmill operated by Camp Small’s tiny staff made quick work of a former Baltimore street tree. A robotic piece of the machine rolled a hefty log into position, and in a matter of minutes, almost a dozen lengthy boards emerged. Preston and others brushed sawdust from the lumber — in this case, ash — and loaded it into a room-sized kiln to dry.
Blades for the portable sawmill are cheap by comparison, and more easily replaced if metal lurks inside a city tree.
Street trees aren’t grown to be harvested, so Camp Small works with whatever size logs the operation can get its hands on.
“It limits us in some ways and makes us have to be more dynamic and diverse with the products that we’re making,” Preston said.
Smaller products are easier to create with the wood. The operation makes and sells things like custom benches and cutting boards.
Camp Small’s transformation from woodsy dump to economic driver began with a $99,000 award from the city’s Innovation Fund in 2016. The fund makes loans to city agencies with business plans that increase revenue or decrease costs. Its loan provided enough money to hire Preston and rent some equipment.
That loan wasn’t due to be repaid for five years, but in its first year, Camp Small made enough money to pay back the Innovation Fund.
Camp Small’s initial efforts were modest — mostly compost. But that was also when Preston stumbled upon the first of several key opportunities that would shape Camp Small’s expansion.
At the time, Baltimore Gas & Electric was installing a substation between Camp Small and the nearby Cylburn Arboretum. The project required the company to clear half an acre of trees — a third of which were valuable walnut. Camp Small struck a deal with the utility company to reuse the logs and contracted with a local sawmill to cut them into flooring, boards and paneling.
That salvaged wood eventually became part of the city’s first showpiece for Camp Small’s output: the Cahill Recreation Center. The 1970s-era facility, nestled on the edge of Baltimore’s Leakin Park, reopened in 2021 after a massive renovation. Lining the walls of the fitness center, gymnasium and aquatics center are 16,000 board feet of salvaged wood from the city’s trees.
In the gym, the reclaimed lumber walls meet floor-to-ceiling windows that offer a panoramic view of the heavily wooded park beyond the center. To stand in the space is to feel simultaneously indoors and out.
“The architects were really excited, the capital department. It’s a real win-win for everyone,” said Preston, who noted that the city would have had to pay $100,000 to buy wood otherwise. “It was so well received, and something like that can be such a bright, shining light.”
The results at Cahill were so lauded that Camp Small was tapped to provide wood for another Baltimore recreation center. Middle Branch Recreation Center, under construction in South Baltimore, will feature a ceiling clad with 10,000 board feet of lumber, all from city trees. The wood is due to be installed in spring 2022.
For every big project featuring Camp Small’s work, there are dozens of smaller spots where the site’s recycling efforts are on display. Camp Small’s mulch is used across the city — provided to public projects, schools and city agencies at a lower cost than the products that landscaping suppliers sell.
Some products are featured at the sites of where they were harvested. When trees were cleared to make way for a dog run at Burdick Park in Northeast Baltimore, some of the wood was used to build benches there.
Still more wood can be purchased by the public — a service many don’t realize is available, but local woodworkers and artisans take advantage of.
Sandtown Millworks, a Baltimore-based company that specializes in reclaimed wood furniture, is a regular customer. Will Phillips, a partner in the company, said Sandtown got its start 12 years ago making furniture from wood, primarily old pine, reclaimed from Baltimore buildings set for demolition. The company stumbled on Camp Small while in search of other varieties of wood.
“We didn’t want to just go to the lumber store. Our whole company is centered around salvaging old things and making them beautiful,” Phillips said. “I did a road trip in our van to Kentucky and Ohio, looking for wood all over the place.”
“Lo and behold, we find the holy grail we were looking for, and it’s 100 yards off 83,” Phillips added. “Every day on my way to work, I drive right past it.”
Sandtown Millworks buys primarily oak, ash and walnut from Camp Small, taking whole logs back to its facility and milling and drying them. The wood becomes dining room tables, residential furniture and conference room tables for corporate spaces. When it can, the company includes a metal emblem with the table saying where it came from.
“Customers feeling connected to this thing and where it came from — it goes a really long way,” Phillips said.
Liz Vayda, owner of B. Willow, a Remington plant shop with a focus on conservation, buys more finished products from Camp Small on a smaller scale. Wood slabs from the site are sold as wall mounts for plants.
Her shop’s customers have come to expect locally sourced goods, she said.
“I love the story of the wood being city trees that otherwise would not be made into anything,” she said. “It literally couldn’t be more local.”
Urban wood has a lot of character: streaks of color known as ambrosia; burl, which is essentially tree scar tissue; and birdseye, a distinctive pattern that looks like tiny, swirling eyes.
For that reason, Baltimore’s trees may not be right for cabinet makers or other mass producers who are looking for large quantities of one type of wood or for wood with less distinctive features.
But Baltimore’s trees have value. Ash, a prevalent tree in Baltimore that has died at an increasing rate due to the emerald ash borer, is a strong wood used for woodworking and furniture, Preston said. White oak trees, which have also been coming into Camp Small at an increasing rate, are rot-resistant and good for outdoor applications.
Trees that can’t be made into more finished products are available at Camp Small as firewood. The facility offers a membership program for customers to cut their own for $60 annually.
After several years of growth at Camp Small, Preston is again looking to expand — this time with a much larger investment from the Innovation Fund. Camp Small was recently awarded $900,000 to begin a workforce development program to provide job training to city residents.
The six-month program, which officials hope to start within months, will teach woodworking, milling and operating kilns, which have been purchased for the program. Participants, three at a time, will also train on heavy equipment, learning skills that have applications in various industries, Preston said.
In addition, the program presents opportunities for cost savings to the city and for other revenue streams for Camp Small. Baltimore currently pays about $100,000 a year for mulch and playground fiber. New equipment for the employment program will allow Camp Small to make the fiber. And the kilns purchased for the program allow Camp Small to make more desirable wood products for companies that do more mass marketing.
The next step, Preston said, is getting the word out. Camp Small has enormous potential. It’s a matter of people finding it.
“This place is so magical and so strange of a facility,” Preston said. “It blows people’s minds that there’s something like this right here in their backyard that they didn’t even know about.”