It's just before 6 p.m. on Labor Day and Dan Herbst and Alex Devereaux have been stationed on a steep bank since before 11 a.m, milling a nearly 60-foot sugar gum eucalyptus tree. Never mind that it's a strangely muggy day and rain keeps trickling in spotty intervals, or that the massive slabs of wood they're lifting probably weigh around 200 pounds.
Once Herbst and Devereaux haul the wood from the tree, it'll go directly to their workshop, where the slabs will become one-of-a-kind custom furniture created by the two under the moniker San Diego Urban Timber.
“The awesome thing about us being in San Diego and, really, one of the main reasons we started this business, was just the fact that nobody else is using this wood here,” Herbst says, standing inside the wood-filled workshop in an industrial park in Chula Vista. “We saw an opportunity to carve out this niche.”
That niche is urban forestry, which isn't a new concept.
Bearded craftsmen in woodsy areas around the country have long been doing this. In San Diego, however, urban forestry isn't common.
“San Diego is a desert, so people just don't think of it as a forest,” Herbst says. “It was a total light bulb one day. I mean, nobody really thinks there's even trees you can use around here.”
Not only are there usable trees in San Diego; there's one type of tree in particular—eucalyptus—that fits their two requirements. No. 1: It's easy to work with. No. 2: It's plentiful.
The duo are tree rescuers of sorts, traveling to sometimes strange locales to haul out a tree. They love saving trees with odd shapes and using their natural form to create something striking. Their pieces have an organic feel to them that's somewhere between rustic and modern.
“We know exactly what's going to happen to that wood,” Herbst says about the trees they end up using. “It's going to be mulch or cut into firewood. It's thought of as a nuisance.”
They've used local trees to build custom pieces for restaurant clients like El Take It Easy in North Park and Firehouse in Pacific Beach, plus plenty of tables and other furniture for non-commercial clients, too. Mixture in Little Italy carries their furniture, as well. Their stuff can be pricey, but in the future, they're hoping to produce small runs of pieces to keep costs down.
“Our goal is to move more into doing our own retail line,” Devereaux says. “People are used to Ikea prices, but then they're also becoming more conscious and want sustainable or reclaimed or locally made stuff. But they don't think of the fact that it costs us, more or less, 400 to 500 bucks a day to keep this shop operating.”
Get on board
Josh Oldenburg works three jobs, but only one really matters. He does some bookkeeping, helps surfboard craftsman Jeff McCallum with his boards and, most importantly, builds his own namesake surfboards.
His boards aren't like those you'd see if you walked into some big-box surf shop; rather, they're thoughtfully designed, interestingly shaped and one-of-a-kind.
“I think people really want quality, and they want a value for their product,” Oldenburg says, noting that when people buy something made by locals, they have the added value of getting in-depth information that goes along with it.
“That in itself should help to sell products,” he adds.
Oldenburg didn't plan to make surfboards as a career, but while he was a student at San Diego State University studying modern American history, he spent summers working in surfboard shops. A surfer himself, he'd become interested in learning more about how his equipment worked. He did grunt work like sweeping floors and taking out the trash, but he managed to learn the proper way to build a board. His summer job turned into a hobby, and it wasn't long before he was making his own boards.
“I started to build surfboards wherever I was living at the time,” the blond, blue-eyed 25-year-old says, sitting in the loft space of the second-story Bay Park workshop he shares with McCallum. “If I had a garage in the house I was living at, I would literally build a miniature factory in the garage.”
As his hobby has grown into a career, Oldenburg's had to adjust his workspace accordingly. He now works out of McCallum's workshop, an industrial yet homey space that feels more like an artist's studio than a surfboard factory.
A couple years ago, he founded Josh Oldenburg Surfboards and got serious about being a surfboard builder, though he works multiple jobs to help pay the bills. He created a website, started a blog and threw himself into managing his own brand. With its large surfing community and long coastlines, San Diego ended up being the right fit for his business.
“As far as manufacturing surfboards as a whole, San Diego is the place to be,” he says. “We are pretty much trendsetters as far as new ideas and innovations go. There are boards that were born in San Diego that are mimicked around the world.”
With all the orders that have been placed recently (summer's obviously his busiest season), Oldenburg's working overtime to keep up. He does every step of the process himself, from designing to shaping to sanding. Design-wise, his boards are artistic and easy to recognize with their classic yet punchy colors, lines and shapes. They're sold at Aloha Sunday Supply Co. in North Park, Surfindian in Pacific Beach and Captain's Helm in Oceanside.
His latest project is collaborating with other local craftspeople to make products as part of a group called Union Collective. So far, he's worked with local graphic designer Bill Sager on several one-of-a-kind boards that incorporate Sager's bold designs, and he hopes to do a lot more with the group in the future.
“Union is a collective of creatives and craftsmen who all share the common goal of creating objects that have purpose,” he says.