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July 30, 2015, 07:23 PM

Big reclaimed lumber business in New York City

By Thornton Kay

Robert de Niro's wabi Greenwich hotel penthouse by Axel Vervoordt and Tatsuro Miki [photo Trendland

Domino Sugar Factory prior to demolition [photo Paul Raphaelson
Probably longleaf from 443 Greenwich Street [photo Sawkill Lumber
Hurricane Sandy havoc

New York, USA - "Everybody in the wood business says the longleaf pine tree was the best wood the Lord ever made," said Pat Fontenot (in the New York Times), the owner of Olde Wood Accents in Washington, La., an antique pine dealer. "Without the longleaf pine tree, we wouldn't have had the Industrial Revolution."

Klaas Armster of Sawkill Lumber began his career in the reclaimed wood industry at a family Cedar mill in the Connecticut Valley. His father, Wilfred Armster, an award winning architect, believed in wood as an essential and natural building material that protects, enriches and inspires. Klaas' ancestors were among the early Dutch settlers on Manhattan Island in the 1600's, contributing to his respect for the woodworking heritage of the American Northeast. In 2004, he founded Armster Reclaimed Lumber Co. with the mission to salvage and re-manufacture these woods as a sustainable resource. He also established, with his wife Tammy, the online industry resource, Wood Planet. His partner in Sawkill Lumber was Alan Solomon.

Superstorm Sandy's swath of destruction shredded houses and boardwalks, depositing a thicket of old timber onto the city's wood recycling market. But making money from the newly available ancient timbers was proving to be a grind.

"We worked with the Parks Department initially on the boardwalk wood," said Alan Solomon (in Crains NY Business Week in 2013), partner at Sawkill Lumber, the Brooklyn-based reclaimed lumber firm. "We were able to save quite a bit of the tropical hardwood there. But most of it was trashed. Overall, the market has been slow."

Firms that reclaim hardwood from city buildings and what could be saved from Sandy were adapting to a market that had changed rapidly since recycling old beams and boards came into the fore a decade or so ago, when the wood was cheap to acquire and easy to sell to green-conscious designers. The wood salvaged from Sandy had yet to translate into big profits.

"There was a time, five or ten years ago, when trucks would pull up and just ask to give us fabulous material," said Joseph Pepe, sales manager at M. Fine Lumber, the Brooklyn-based lumber recycling and manufacturing firm which was also handling recycled Sandy material. "Now it's much more competitive," he said.

"We are bidding for every job against many other companies- -that never used to happen," said Larry Stopper in 2013, partner in Bigwood, the Naples, N.Y.-based recycling firm that generates about a $1 million per year in sales of reclaimed wood from deals done throughout Northeast, including pulling material from the Brooklyn waterfront. "And if you blow your estimates, you are up the creek. You can very easily do a very large job for nothing."

Mr. Solomon said reclaimed yellow pine, the once predominant log in the eastern U.S., sold for $5 per board foot. Oak and chestnut run $7. Tropical hardwoods- -found in the destroyed Rockaways boardwalk- -sold for $10 to $20. European hardwoods imported for the city's original buildings sit atop the market. "I have seen those go for $50 a foot," said Mr. Solomon.

Bigwood's Mr. Stopper said the tropical hardwoods like those found in the city's old boardwalks must compete with huge demand for oak. Wood from Sandy also suffered damage from the sea. Some flood waters contained fuel and other toxins.

"It used to be we would try to turn everybody who came to us into a sale," said Klaas Armster of Sawkill Lumber. "Eventually everything sells, but now I have to be much more creative about which jobs we take."

Pricing pressure for reclaimed lumber became so intense that in 2013 some local wood recyclers gave up sourcing material from the New York metropolitan area.
"The prices New York-sourced wood is asking are astronomical," said Vincent Kaufmann, operations manager at LV Wood, a Manhattan-based reclaimed wood retailer, whose eight employees handled 75,000 feet to 100,000 feet of wood products monthly. "I can get the exact same beams at a much more reasonable price from dealers down south," he said. "And the supply is much more consistent."

New York is a large repository of Industrial Revolution lumber - a five-borough safe deposit box for New England white pine and spruce, Pacific Northwest Douglas fir and, especially, Southern longleaf pine.

Longleaf pine endured the trampling of 150 years of Domino Sugar Factory workers in Williamsburg, buttressed the warehouses of Tribeca and bore the weight of Brooklyn's waterfront depots. Now, in 2015, the sugar factory is being converted into condominiums; Tribeca lofts are among the city's most expensive real estate; and the East River storehouses have been razed to make way for more condominiums. And longleaf pine has found new purchase.

The timber of the industrial age now graces Thomas Jefferson's Monticello and the stately Maryland chamber where the Continental Congress once met. You can walk on it at the new Whitney Museum and New York's Patagonia flagship store. Much of it is being reclaimed by the region it was hauled away from, when northern timber barons descended on the south's hectares of virgin pine after the Civil War.

"The south was an extraordinarily poor region then and was nothing but a resource base and most of this wood came to New York," said Larry Stopper of Bigwood (in the New York Times in July 2015). "Now the industrial cities of the north are transforming themselves and the south has plenty of money, and people want their old wood back."

By now, as most people know, reclaimed wood - salvaged from sources that include bourbon tanks and mushroom farms - has gone mainstream. In the case of New York City, salvaging wood also means salvaging the city's past. As the timber industry gobbled up north-eastern and western forests, it began turning to the longleaf pine, also known as yellow or heart pine, that covered as much as 36 million hectares from south-eastern Virginia to eastern Texas and northern Florida. Some of the trees were three centuries old.

Dense, durable and saturated with resin that made it unusually resistant to rot and insects, the timber proved rough work for builders to mill. But in the decades before steel began to dominate, longleaf pine was the strongest material around.

"Everybody in the wood business says the longleaf pine tree is the best wood the Lord ever made," said Mr Pat Fontenot, owner of Olde Wood Accents in Washington, Louisiana, an antique pine dealer. "If it hadn't been for the longleaf pine tree, we wouldn't have been able to do the Industrial Revolution."

By 1938, the Great Southern Lumber Co, based in Pennsylvania, had sold its last longleaf pine log. Only about 3 per cent of the original old-growth forest survives, according to the US Forest Service. Pine harvested today comes from farmed trees. The only way to find original-strength longleaf pine these days is to mine it from buildings such as the Domino Sugar Factory or 443 Greenwich Street in Tribeca.

"It's a southern tree that has been part of New York City for 150 years," said Alan Solomon of Sawkill Lumber. "The city's always reinventing itself. Stuff's always getting knocked down." It took his team a year and a half to strip the brick-and-stone Romanesque Revival plant in Tribeca, finished in 1883, of all its pine. The building's tenants have included the Novelty Toy Co, which is said to have produced the first teddy bear; the American Steel Wool factory; a printing house; and, as manufacturing jobs drained out of the city, studios for architects, film-makers and artists. Its newest incarnation is 53 large, lavish condominiums financed partly by a Russian billionaire. The asking price for one of the most expensive units was $53 million.

The building's lumber was stripped of nails, dried, milled and sometimes stained again. Some of the wood was originally logged not far away in Bogalusa, Louisiana. In 2015 it could go for as up to $14 a board-foot.

Wood from the Domino factory lends the Patagonia and Filson stores in Manhattan authentic-looking backdrops to ultralight down jackets and rugged-look briefcases. At the Roosevelt Island duplex of Ms Nina Tandon and Mr Noah Keating, both born-and-bred New Yorkers, the wood pays homage to their native city. In Brooklyn itself, the pace of recycling has quickened, with warehouses and factories along the borough's north waterfront being razed or converted.

A few years ago, a complex of cold-storage warehouses by the Brooklyn Bridge that once stored perishables shipped to the city was torn down to make way for Brooklyn Bridge Park. The pine that once buttressed floors and roofs became benches, picnic tables and playground equipment. What preserved the lumber's strength for 170 years now protects it, not too far away, from the snow, the rain and the sun.

Sawkill Lumber Co

Bigwood LLC

Salvo USA: New York dealer directory

Story Type:  Feature

ID: 90748

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