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Michigan Artistry Gives Old Materials New Life

by Lisa Diggs

Ann Arbor’s Paul M. Hickman is on a mission. He is determined to design products that increase the utilization of salvaged wood. Hickman’s company, Urban Ashes®, creates one-of-a-kind frames from fallen trees and discarded timber.

Why use salvaged wood instead of buying lumber?

Hickman says, “I think it is important because these materials contain the stories of lives past and should be honored and cherished. In the case of the Detroit De-Nailed™ VG Fir, it is a wood that has become rare due to our heavy use of it. Many of the trees that were cut down 100 years ago, and used in the homes we are salvaging, were 400 plus years old.”

According to Hickman wood available in forests has changed over time too. Finding wood that is lightweight, straight and strong is difficult.  Those characteristics were rare with an abundance of old growth forests, and now they are virtually non-existent, except in the salvaged woods.

Hickman explains, “The fallen urban trees are a highly wasted natural resource. They also contain a level of character that is generally not found in the traditionally forested tree lumber. Again, these trees also contain stories, such as my father grew up playing on the tire swing hanging in that tree, or that tree was in front of the old court house…. and on and on. Not that trees in a forest are not important or have stories, but there may be something to the saying if a tree falls in the woods does it make a sound? I guarantee that if a tree falls in your backyard it makes a sound.”

By using these types of woods, Urban Ashes is not only helping to preserve our planet, but creating frames that have as much character and personal history as the family photos they often surround.

Hickman isn’t the only entrepreneur who is attempting to reduce our waste by converting existing materials into something beautiful.

Under the brand RecordsRedone, James Pleyte’s Lansing-based company is rescuing discarded vinyl records (for the youngsters out there, those are the big, black versions of CDs…CDs are those small discs people used to insert into machines to hear music before there were MP3 players…ask your parents.)

While for some music enthusiasts, vinyl records are back in demand, most people find that they are just sitting in a box taking up space, and would prefer to get rid of them.

Fortunately to an artist like Pleyte, they provide an entirely unique form of inspiration, which extends far beyond the music. He says, “I have a great time recycling old Motown vinyl that is headed for a landfill and turning it into something to show off Michigan pride.”  

Pleyte hand cuts the vinyl records into unique shapes that make really cool wall art.  Examples include silhouettes of musicians, states, animals, presidents, and even a Spartan helmet.

Another item frequently found lying around the house is an old license plate.  I probably have a half dozen in my own garage right now, but have recently discovered a cool way to reuse them thanks to American Metal.

The company creates unique purses that are made from reclaimed license plates, automotive carpet lining, and a seatbelt strap. All of the purses are hand-made by “Head Plate Bender,” Tyler Wolfrom. He uses license plates from a variety of states and eras.

According to Wolfrom it takes two license plates to make one of his handbags, and he can make a custom bag if customers have special license plates they want used. In fact, if a customer only has one plate, the company looks for an additional plate to compliment it. The customer’s plate is then used for the front of the bag, and the supporting plate is used on the back.

Other countries have been doing it for years, often out of sheer necessity, and it’s exciting to finally see a strong trend toward repurposing here in the U.S. If you know of other Michigan-based companies finding unique ways to utilize existing materials, please let us know by commenting here or emailing 

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