Reclaiming Urban Timber in Pennsylvania
By Amanda Buttram, Wood-Mizer Contributing Author
Located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Manayunk Timber is a family-owned and operated urban sawmill that works to preserve the city’s rich history from 19th-century structures. Steve Ebner and his daughter Rebecca use their Wood-Mizer portable sawmill to reclaim valuable wood from older homes or businesses and provide sustainably sourced, local lumber for restoration, renovation, custom woodworking, and new construction projects throughout the area.
Woodworking Business Beginnings
In 1981, Steve Ebner returned to the Philadelphia area after living in New Orleans and started working with a contractor. While he hadn’t initially planned on making a career out of carpentry and woodworking, he developed a great interest in the craft through his new profession. Following his interest in woodworking, Steve eventually became a furniture maker but found he couldn’t process the wood he needed for his projects. In 1994, Steve purchased his first Wood-Mizer portable sawmill and entered the lumber business, processing and selling wood in addition to making furniture. According to Steve, creating a profitable lumber company requires knowledge of the species you’re working with. While getting wood may be simple, it’s important to take the time to saw material carefully. “The freer the wood, they’re usually less profitable. So pay for your logs, get good logs, and you won’t have any trouble,” explained Steve.
Philadelphia Reclaimed Wood & Local Timber
Since the inception of Manayunk Timber in 1984, Steve has focused on reclaiming high-quality wood from Philadelphia’s 19th-century buildings. “The buildings I take down or buy, they’re from 1880 and there’s still a lot of stuff from 1860 and 1840. So, the history’s here and the history to me is very important,” said Steve. In addition to reclaimed materials from the city’s historical buildings, Manayunk Timber also offers sustainable lumber harvested from local sources. “He’s all about maintaining that way of business where it’s really about what kind of project you’re working on and why you’re working on it. He has such a wealth of knowledge that is really amazing, especially Philadelphia-based knowledge. He has a lot of personal interest in the history of Philadelphia, the history of wood in Philadelphia, so he can impart that knowledge to his customers, and I think people are really into that,” shared Rebecca, Steve’s daughter.
A recent project at a local brewery showcased Steve’s combined passion for history and woodworking along with the influence it has on customers of Manayunk Timber. “Steve surprised us with an amazing find that he had been holding for several years,” shared Timothy Gill, President of Wissahickon Brewing Co. “He had reclaimed the wooden staves of the tank barrels at Schmidt’s Brewery – one of the oldest breweries in Philadelphia – many years ago. He offered to reconstitute them into a great bar top for us and that’s what we have today.” While the high quality of the reclaimed wood adds to its cost, so does the process. “It comes with a lot of steel, nails, bolts, all kinds of stuff. You have to extract all the metal – it’s a process that has to happen every day and it never ends,” explained Steve.
“What I like most about being a sawyer is, especially with the old wood, once we open up the beam for the first time. Since the wood is three, four, five hundred years old, seeing the color of the wood and seeing the quality of the wood – I never get tired of that. If I saw a really nice beam and it doesn’t have any defects, that’s a really good day. That’s a perfect day,” said Steve.
Welcoming the Next Generation
Once her former job ended, Rebecca approached her parents with a proposal to join the family business. “I’ve always been in love with wood. My father has always done this since before I was born, and where I’ve chosen to live, what things I buy, are steeped in what my father has taught me and the product that he chose to base his professional and personal life around,” shared Rebecca.
While she originally sought to improve the business’s social media presence, she found herself in a hands-on role, too. “I didn’t expect to be so involved with the sawing and woodworking aspect, but it’s been such an amazing, rewarding experience,” she said. She welcomes the challenge of continuously learning the sawmill and making the most out of the material she works with. As she works to develop new skills, Rebecca’s talents have been a great benefit to Manayunk Timber and their customers. “One of the strong points of my daughter being in the business is the business end, the people, talking to customers – and the customers really like her. The most important thing in the lumber business is not the wood, it’s getting the customers and keeping the customers,” said Steve.
With Rebecca joining Manayunk Timber, Steve now sees a future for the sawmill business he’s dedicated so much time and energy to build. While previously he assumed he would end up selling off his wood and machinery to retire, he’s hopeful that Rebecca will take over the business when the time comes. “I’ll be able to help the transition since I know so much, so that she’ll be able to run it and I’ll be able to step back. And then it will be her business,” said Steve.
Manayunk Timber’s reclaimed and sustainable materials are more than just products – these choices further the company’s mission. “I hope Manayunk Timber raises awareness for how important it is to recycle wood and raises awareness for folks in this city of what built our city to begin with and using those products is the natural way to move forward,” shared Rebecca.