by Anne Valentino,
photos by Christopher Cornett
Timberkrete, you could say, began as one man’s obsession … with trees. Jesse Phelps sees a work of art in what to the untrained eye might appear to be just a rotting log or discarded piece of timber. And that is at the crux of Timberkrete’s philosophy: transforming what Phelps calls “rescued trees” into wood-slab tables, benches, countertops, and other furnishings that many would say are gallery worthy. Dying trees are given new life in Phelps’ expert hands as he allows them their final signature in this world.
The endeavor began, in many ways, by happenstance. An acquaintance who worked for a local tree company asked Jesse if he was interested in taking a look at some unique logs recently taken down. Always fascinated with the “story” that raw timber has to tell, Phelps jumped at the offer. From there, Jesse became known in regional circles as the “tree guy.” When local tree services had specimens that were just too interesting and too inherently sculptural for the mulch yard, they gave Phelps first right of refusal — and he rarely refused. There wasn’t a tree he came across in which he could not find that golden kernel of potential.
Soon, the burden of renting and/or borrowing equipment to pick up downed trees became too much, so Jesse purchased his own log truck. “That truck really represented the start of Timberkrete,” Phelps recalls, as it enabled him to accumulate more than a million board feet of raw inventory over the course of six years — from black walnut, to regional cottonwood, to red oak and his most popular seller, spalted maple. Spalted maple refers to that fact that the maple has entered the initial stages of decay, resulting in dark lines and streaks in the wood, which invariably add depth and contrast. For Phelps, that the maple started to decay in this way while he was otherwise focused on refining his process proved something of a fluke, and a pretty fortunate one at that.
nce the piles of raw timber began to grow past the point of no return courtesy of a trusty log truck and strong ties to local tree companies, Phelps realized that this was indeed a no-turning-back venture. He knew it was all or nothing at this point. Piece by piece, Phelps purchased the equipment which would enable him to create slab items that deftly balance artisanship with solid wood durability: a commercial mill, a vacuum kiln (essential for drastically shortening a drying process that could otherwise take years), a surfacing machine, and the tools and equipment required for perfect finishing.
Faced with having to take down hundreds of their trees, the historic Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester didn’t want to see those specimens rot away in a timber yard. Partnering with Timberkrete, the club not only had wood slab tables installed in their restaurant, but was able to offer members the opportunity to own a piece of Oak Hill history by having Timberkrete produce for them a unique, handcrafted item from the wood.
The Customer’s Vision Combined with Phelps’ Eagle Eye
There is indeed an art to not only eliciting beautiful wood slab furnishings, but also when it comes to understanding how to balance those slabs with the right components to craft a table, for instance, capable of stealing the show in any room. Beginning with the right way to “slice” the log in order to optimize the look of grain and movement, to knowing what thickness it should be, to selecting a base that will not overpower the wood but rather complement it in the best way possible, Phelps has the process down to both a science, and, yes, an art.
Because he has so many rescued trees and species at his disposal, many of his clients are able to select the raw piece from which their dining table or bar top will be crafted — much like going to a granite yard to pick out that ideal slab for a countertop. The client then sits down with Phelps and describes how they envision their wood slab piece. This is where Phelps’ insights and years of experience come into play, as he guides the customer by suggesting the best and most effective ways to bring out the inherent beauty of the slab. “That is where the art lies,” Phelps says. “The top should be the focus — it should be the star. The base cannot outweigh that top, or else the piece comes off as clunky and amateurish. Design always has to meet balance.”
Notable One-of-a-Kind Projects
Having installed his pieces in residences and offices throughout the Finger Lakes Region and the greater Rochester area, Phelps is especially proud of the fact that unlike with mass-produced furnishings, his are all distinctly one-of-a-kind. “They couldn’t be anything else, as each slab is totally distinct. There will never be a duplicate slab, even from the same tree, so there can never be a duplicate table or desk.”
Because of this convergence of artistry and uniqueness, Phelps has been tapped by some of the biggest corporations and venues in the Finger Lakes to develop stunning pieces — both for display purposes and functionality. Locust Hill Country Club in Pittsford, for example, has enlisted Timberkrete’s help to turn recently felled timber into legacy pieces to be installed throughout the venue. Phelps was also asked to transform the great white oaks from the Genesee Valley. Over 200 years old, with some measuring more than 6 feet in diameter, a number of these trees were taken down from the historic Wadsworth tract, as their age made them a risk. Now Timberkrete is in the process of turning them into works-of-art-come-furniture that will only add to the trees’ storied lives.
Phelps also had a hand in preserving the legacy of the oldest sugar maple in New York; the Heritage Museum enlisted him to transform the remnants of the maple into benches and other wood slab pieces that were then auctioned off, with the proceeds donated to the museum. And, at the request of the town, Phelps transformed the iconic Copper Beech tree that stood at the corner of State and Main in Pittsford for 200 years into a benefit table, to be auctioned off once COVID-19 associated regulations allow.
There are more historic tree moments, more majestic pieces, each and every one a labor of love for Phelps, who is ever thankful that he can secure the legacy of so many trees by turning them into gorgeous wood-slab pieces to be enjoyed for years to come.
Timberkrete is located in Rochester, New York. For more information call 585-905-9971 or visit timberkrete.com