It all started for Justin Davies — whose TikTok account about trees and woodworking, @justindavies, has amassed 1.2 million followers — about 10 years ago, when he was into trail running.
“One day I was out on a trail run and the tree just kind of caught my eye,” Davies said. “I was coming around a corner on a switchback, and this tree I must have run past dozens of times, if not more, caught my eye and I just stopped and noticed it for the first time and, and just thought to myself, ‘What is this tree?’”
He couldn’t get the idea out of his head, so Davies went home and started researching.
“I had no idea what to look for,” he recalls, “I’m typing in ‘Wasatch mountain tree that looks like it belongs from the African savanna.’”
Eventually, he found the tree’s proper name: The curl leaf mountain mahogany. From there, he wanted to learn more.
“One of the things that really caught my attention was a description of the wood, that it had really heavy, dense [and] hard wood,” he said. “That got me thinking further that not only do I not know these trees very well, but I don’t know these native tree woods.”
Davies started collecting “deadfall,” tree trunks and branches that had fallen and died naturally, from different species around him, cutting into them to see what the wood looked like. This — combined with listening to the “Paddle Your Own Canoe” podcast by actor Nick Offerman and avoiding “frivolous consumerism” by making DIY gifts — led him to a Youtube video on how to carve a spoon.
He made a spoon from a piece of wood from a tree in his own backyard.
50 states, 50 trees
As he continued his education in trees, and started thinking about where different species grow, he had another idea: Making a map of the United States, using wood from the official state trees of each of the 50 states.
Davies, who lives in the Salt Lake City area, said he “kept pushing the thought aside” at first, because he needed a fancy machine to undertake such a project. But he couldn’t shake the idea.
When Davies first downloaded the TikTok app, it wasn’t long before he found himself on “TreeTok” — “which is different people who talk about trees and tree-related content” such as woodworkers, nature enthusiasts and foragers, he said. Thanks to that group, Davies had a bit of a following on TikTok even before his map idea took off.
“I had a really cool [quaking] aspen log in my garage,” Davies said, from which he had already made a couple of other pieces — including a vase that was featured in his first viral TikTok. “I knew the wood was gorgeous,” he said.
The quaking aspen is the official state tree of Utah, Davies’ home state, and he decided to cut a piece of the log into the shape of the state.
“When I published that video, I basically painted myself into a corner by saying, ‘All right, this is this new series I’m going to do, where I make every state out of its official state tree,’” he said.
So the project began, and when it came to creating the other 49 states, Davies didn’t travel to them — though he said he hopes he might do that for another map.
He ended up buying pieces of wood for the first five states at a local lumber yard. He found more pieces from small sawmills through Etsy and eBay. A quarter of the way through the project, he said, “it had grown enough in its popularity that I started just having people DM me almost daily to send me wood [from] their states.”
At some point, he said, he couldn’t keep up with the incoming requests, so he launched a website where he shared information on what states’ woods he needed. As a result, Davies said, more than half of the map was donated by followers of the project.
Creating each state-shaped piece of the map, and recording the TikTok video, takes about 12 hours — as he dives into the woodworking process, the history of the wood and the tree he’s using, followed by editing, recording, scripting, narrating and assembling the footage.
Davies said he can’t pick a favorite state from the map — but some memories of the process have stuck with him.
For example, he was surprised when he worked on the California piece, made from a hunk of redwood. “The moment when I first applied the oil, it did not do what I expected it do,” he recalled. “I get so used to looking at a finished piece before I apply the oil and knowing how that piece of wood is going to look. That piece of redwood just got so much darker than I expected it to be.”
He said he remembers when he worked on the Nevada part of the map, when another TikTok user found him a piece of wood from a bristlecone pine tree. For the Alabama piece, someone sent him a slab of longleaf pine that had come down in a hurricane in a national park in Florida. While making the piece for Oklahoma, he learned that the eastern redbud fluoresces under black light.
That’s the joy of woodworking, Davies said. “Cutting into a new piece of wood or finishing a piece of wood, just the constant surprise of what it is you’re going to find,” he said.
Davies said he occasionally, but not often, hears from people concerned that he’s using wood from species that are endangered or protected. For example, with his California piece, some commented that the redwood is “super protected.”
“Being able to educate them that, yes, redwoods are protected in the Redwood National [Park], but the redwood is one of the fastest growing conifers on Earth and thus is widely used as lumber,” he said. “You can grow lumber farms and grow these trees quickly and sustainably.”
Davies said one benefit of the map project is to teach people “using wood as a resource and as a renewable resource” is possible, and that wood can be harvested ethically and responsibly. “We use them for everything, we have used them for everything, and especially native trees in particular,” he said.
His TikTok platform, he joked, is a place where he can “trick people into loving trees and thinking about trees differently.”
As an example of the far-reaching effect of his TikTok posts, Davies said he recently heard from a girl in middle school, who said she was always curious about woodworking and wanted to learn how to do it, but was worried her friends would make fun of her. The girl said his videos helped her gain the courage to sign up for some classes. She recently shared her first project: A cutting board.
Davies’ map is now complete. In mid-June, he posted a video showing him cut a piece of dogwood in the shape of Missouri. As for what’s next, Davies said “more maps for sure” — including maps of different regions of the world, using trees unique or culturally significant to each country or area. He’s also working on other things
He also continues to make other things — in May, he cut pieces of three native Utah trees into a Utah Jazz logo — and he said he’s selling stickers and posters of the states from his map project.
Davies said he marvels at how much interest his woodworking has drawn. “I never in a million years,” he said, “would have thought that this whole project would impact people in any way, shape or form.”