Archive for September, 2012

What most people see in their garbage cans is just the tip of a a material iceberg: the product itself contains on average only 5% of the raw materials involved in the process of making and delivering it.” William McDonough

Garbage Land by Elizabeth Royte follows the other backstory, the “sordid afterlife” in our material lives – where waste goes, from packaging and PC’s to everyday sewage. Like a movie where we know how it ends, but not know how it will get there, the report from Garbage Land is still eye opening (Who knew that NYC sewage can be turned into fertilizer for Florida oranges – and grow fruit of uncertain wholesomeness). The gumshoe reporting ends in an appeal at the source – consume less. Zero waste may still be a dream, but Garbage Land shows the nightmare that unfolds in simply following our trash.

Garbage Land follows selected waste – the most offensive and personal (sewage, plastics etc.). Garbage Land II would likely turn to industrial waste, even more of a heavy hitter.  The study would include lumber, which goes down the same roads as municipal solid waste (often through Pennsylvania interstates). But C & D (construction and demolition) wood waste is also converted to garden mulch, horse bedding and fuel pellets, or it’s used in it’s ‘as-is’ condition for sewer lagging (walling off earth during open sewer line work), construction sheeting (similar function to lagging though within excavated sites) or concrete form work. These re-uses prevent the harvesting of new lumber – but only temporarily, as they’re largely short-term and then disposable applications. They’re also strictly utilitarian, under-employing woods rich history, quality and it’s unique aesthetic. Reclaimed and old growth, antique wood is also non-renewable (in the U.S.). It’s in demand for heavy construction applications for one reason – price. That helps on the sale side, but provides low incentive for demolition companies to salvage the material for re-sale. Realizing it’s highest and best value (though hopefully still affordable) through residential and commercial applications can ensure a growing demand, and prevent burying the woods in landfills, sewer lines, horse sty’s or going up in flames. The old woods deserve better.  


WOOD SPECIES: The hardwoods Oak, Chestnut, Hickory, Beech, Elm, and the softwoods Hemlock, White Pine and Spruce.  

COMMON SIZES: 2-3” x 8-12” x 15’+ lumber up to 12 x 14” timbers.

DEFINING CHARACTERISTICS: Weathered face, Hand-hewn, circular and band sawn textures. Faded paint and greyish brown colors. Bolt holes and irregular construction cuts.

GEOGRAPHY: Barns are common in many parts of the country, but our woods are sourced in the East,  primarily from Ohio, Pennsylvania and parts of New York and New England.  Traveling further south one begins to see more red oak than white oak and further north into Canada and northern New England one finds more softwoods, as well as beech and maple.  Although one occasionally finds oak in industrial structures, the majority of reclaimed white oak and most other hardwoods for that matter, come from barns.


As building type, Barns have been such an important part of America and agricultural history. Early on, they were essentially just architecture for animals, with one side for cattle and the other for horses. Eventually pigs, sheep, and goats moved in. Most barns were traditional timber frame, though the beams were often sawed in later years rather than hewn with an ax. Then barns were covered with vertical board siding. The construction was sturdy and large doors rolled on factory-made tracks. The later barns had more ornaments added, such as cupolas and mill work designs, and when freshly painted, were a striking sight, and endlessly photographed. Learn more

Barns take a real beating and the time tested construction is basically a framework of solid timbers with exterior barn siding which can be removed and replaced over time. The frames are often beautifully proportioned with simple lines that give the designs a charm and integrity that seems lost in much of todays pre-fab pole and metal constructions.
In the old days, it was traditional to have a barn raising party, with relatives and friends helping to build a barn, often in a few days. The Amish still do it today.


“Here, in this small and magic box, 
The farmer crowds his fields and flocks; 
Arithmetic can never tell 
How one barn holds the farm so well.”
         – Ralph Seager, Penn Yan, NY poet

Barns come in all sizes and shapes, as the various styles serve different functions. The first great barns built in this country were those of the Dutch settlers of the Hudson and Mohawk valleys in New York State. Relatively few Dutch barns survive in good condition or unaltered.

Some of the more common designs over time include Bank Barns, that were built into the side of a hill. Crib barns, popular in the South, and including multiple cribs or pens for cattle or pigs, with a hayloft above. Round Barns (George Washington owned one) in the Midwest, which had a greater volume-to-surface ratio than the rectangular, and required fewer materials. And the iconic Prairie Barn, with it’s peak roof above a hayloft, which was usually much larger than the other barns.

Barns can sometimes reflect ethnic traditions and local customs; along with changing farming practices, building techniques and technology. The Finnish log barns in Idaho, Czech and German-Russian barns in the Dakotas, and English barns in the northeast. Some are characterized by their use – dairy, tobacco, hop-drying, rice, etc. Others were just sold by Sears, Roebuck and Company or other mail-order firms. And some don’t fit into any category, but all are part of the country’s heritage.

And why are nine out of ten barns painted Red? One explanation is because most barns are very large, and red was the cheapest paint available. But the color sure matches the charm and romance that barns reflect.


In the nineteenth century came a new era of farm construction, which accelerated after the Civil War, and brought on changes in barns with complex farm machinery, traditionally horse-drawn, and then steam-powered. Hay, for example, the single most bulky item stored in barns. The horse-drawn mower made greater amounts of hay than ever before, which could now be mechanically unloaded, and filled as high as the barn and hoisting apparatus could place it. This one new practice would make barns ever larger, allowing crops and animals to be housed under one roof.

The barns developed more efficient methods for everyday tasks like removing manure or piping water into the stalls, which saved work and improved the animals’ health and production. Lightning rods, too, helped reduce one fire hazard, and eventually farmers could buy fire insurance, either individually or as part of a cooperative. Electricity, plumbing and a hundred fold changes were absorbed by barns over time —all without making the barn look much different to passers by. Even the simple addition of owl holes allowed for access by barn owls to help control mice.

In time, eighty-foot barn and the hundred-foot barn were becoming less rare. But even those were small when compared to the entire farm. But no matter the changes in size and design, farms and barns still evoke a sense of tradition and connection to the land and our community.

WOOD SPECIES: Spruce (Red and Black), Hemlock.

COMMON SIZES: 3-4” x 8-12” x 20’+

DEFINING CHARACTERISTICS: Weathered brown rough-sawn face in raw salvaged form. Light brown and even grain with frequent knots.

BACKGROUND: As a symbol of the 19th and early 20th c. immigrant experience, nothing may represent it more than a tenement house, the multi-family brick walk-up buildings that are found in New York City. They were cheap quick housing for the masses arriving into the city. And their inner bones are old growth lumber.

Tenements conjure the experience of our grandparents, if not their actual experience, then at least their sacrifices. Millions were jammed into the, dark, crowded tenements, without light, air, and indoor plumbing. The apartments on the top floors were the cheapest, but were also the hottest and the coldest on account of being directly under the exposed black tar roof in the era before wall and attic insulation.

Reform laws through the late 1800’s and the Tenement House Act of 1901 brought many improvements to benefit their health and safety for occupants. Public concern about New York tenements was raised by the Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives (1890), a time when New York was the most densely populated city in the world. Today, most tenements have been given a modern makeover and are occupied by a fraction of the residents (at a hundred times the rent). And they’ve even seen the return of many great-grandchildren of the early occupants.

There was a huge lumber yard on 14th St. near the East River that provided material for many tenements. Most NYC are framed with 3-4” x 8-12” x 20-22’ wood joists, conforming to the scale of a standard NY city lot and block. Typically, Spruce or occasionally Hemlock lumber was used as framing material. It came from back wood logging operations in New England and Canada, where felled and de-limbed trees were pulled by ox or horse to a river and sent to a mill in Bangor, ME or New Brunswick in preparation for embarking to the city, a place paradoxically reflecting the rich diversity of a fertile old growth forest.

Spruce is light, strong and plentiful in the Northeast, and therefore ideal for tenements. The tree was originally passed over by early 19th c. loggers fixed on the prize of towering Eastern White Pine. But lumber companies happily doubled back a half century later to harvest the growing demand for everyday Spruce, a smaller tree (80-100’), but well proportioned for the joist spans needed. And it’s knotty figure and pale even-grain reflected the less refined honesty of the immigrant experience. The economy of Spruce was such that its use across the city was nearly exclusive for walk-up buildings. And by it’s connection with the “…wretched refuse, yearning to breath free”, captures the ideal of transformation and the magic of the democratic city.

The joists contained a “Fire-cut” on each end, allowing an individual member to fall out of the masonry wall during a fire without pulling the wall down. The 3-4” edges of the lumber have often experienced a few generations of nails, resulting from the replacement or re-securing of floors. Removal of the heavy nail pattern then results in a labor intensive process, like undoing a series of complex knots. Rust from the nail often bleeds into the surrounding wood fibers, leaving small dark holes and brushstroke like marks on the edges of a cleanly milled board.




Seaside boardwalks are usually built with wood, though increasingly made of concrete or pressure treated softwoods in response to concerns about the destructive harvesting and use of Rainforest woods. Reclaimed boardwalk woods are a limited but sustainable source of Ipe, Cumaru, Angelique and other S. American hardwoods. Boardwalks are found around the world, but are especially common in the New York and New Jersey area. The boardwalk woods reclaimed at Sawkill Lumber Co. have been recovered from three seaside walkways, Coney Island, Far Rockaway and Atlantic City.

Nineteenth century warehouses, mills and factories can almost appear over-built, utilizing massive dimensional timbers as upright columns and cross beams between rows of smaller joists, designed to handle bulk goods and heavy machinery. As in residential, White Pine was the early standard for commercial buildings in the Northeast – though builders took a decisive turn towards Longleaf Pine by the late 1800’s, as the the towering Southern evergreen yielded large and straight dimensional lumber, while being rich with resin, a natural repellant of rot, and more importantly fire.

The vast reserves of Southern Pine were as eagerly harvested during the industrial revolution as the iron ore deposits of Pennsylvania. You can see this transition to Longleaf Pine built into the geography of Manhattan, where White Pine may be found in the older parts of the island (especially in the South Street Seaport area), with Longleaf Pine the standard of cast iron buildings in todays Tribeca and Soho, when steam power made it possible to navigate the strong currents on the West Side.

Industrializing areas all along the Northeast appeared to follow a similar pattern; making Southern Pine (largely financed and operated by northern timber companies), the signature wood of the industrial revolution. Generally the heavy framework is layered with a thick Pine decking of 2-3” and topped with hard maple, both of which are commonly salvaged today.

Other woods turn up, though in different regions or eras. For instance, a range of other Southern and Western Pine species, related but not as hard as Longleaf. Loblolly, Shortleaf and Red Pine can be found in the mid-Atlantic and other areas. And by the beginning of the 20th c., the roads opening to the massive Doug Fir forest of the Northwest.   

Wood Species: Longleaf Pine, Shortleaf Pine, Eastern White Pine, Douglas Fir.
Sizes: 3-16” thickness’ x 10-16” widths x 15-30’ lengths
Defining Characteristics: Huge dimensional sizes: Rough sawn or circular sawn surfaces, Dense old growth figure.

Miriam is a graduate of Columbia University (B.S. Modern American History, 2011). Her research for Sawkill Lumber Co. focused on a section of buildings (617-631 W. 129th St.) deconstructed by Columbia U. as part of the Manhattanville redevelopment project.

Amy is a graduate of Columbia University (2009 B.A. Anthropology). She recently completed a Fulbright Scholarship in Nepal. Her original research of early logging on Manhattan island in the early Dutch period was conducted as part of an internship at Sawkill Lumber Co.

Emily is a Masters degree candidate in the Columbia U. Graduate School of Architecture, Preservation and Planning. She is involved in researching selected historical buildings and structures for the 12 x 12 collection.

Mitchell graduated from Columbia U. with a BA in early American history. He has previously worked as a forest technician with the National Forestry Service and as a firefighter with the Oregon Department of Forestry. His historical work as a research intern at Sawkill Lumber Co. centered around the area currently under redevelopment by Columbia U. in West Harlem.

Luke is a Masters degree candidate in the Columbia U. Graduate School of Architecture, Preservation and Planning. He is the co-founder of an urban farming company called eko, Ridgefield Park, NJ. and has previously worked with the ARC Alternative Transit Project Studio to analyze alternative proposals for a rail tunnel under the Hudson River. Luke is involved in researching selected historical buildings and structures for the 12 x 12 collection.

Pre-WWI buildings in the city were framed with old growth timber from the country’s vast virgin forests. The fact can come as a surprise to modern urban dwellers, with wooden joists hidden behind floors and ceilings. These old bones of New York City were once trees of course, with roots upstate, or in New England, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Louisiana, Virginia, Nova Scotia – just about any place that forests were logged, and water or rail transport was available.
There would be no New York without lumber. So at least in part, the city begins in these backwoods, and with the people that logged them. Their methods, tools and culture can seem as remote as that of imported goods today. But where things come from and how they’re made is now knowledge of critical value, but the same awareness of the past speaks to qualities that don’t meet the eye. The following selection of photos provides a glimpse of the forgotten forest.

New York Magazine profiles generation twenty something in a recent issue – crediting a can do response to the economic downturn. As the story goes, well nurtured kids can beat a bleak economy. The furniture maker here, Devi Rawls, may have it as tough as many –  expanded overhead, squeezed profits and no benefits. But despite it all, American woodworking, about the most long standing trades across the land, is growing.

“We work to become, not to acquire.” – Elbert Bubbard (1856-1915) American Philosopher and Writer

nyplscan_22 logging_110 logging_103 003b_logging“The great lumber raft sent by sea from Nova Scotia to New York” – Launched at Two Rivers on November 15th, and pulled to New York by the steam-ship Miranda. It contained 25,000 sticks of Spruce and Pine timber, from 35-95 feet in length, along with a lesser quantity of Beech, Birch and Maple timber, for a total of 4,500,000 feet. It costs the owner James D. Leary $32,000 to have it towed to Newtown Creek in Brooklyn. The method of raft construction was new, requiring six months of work and close to fifty men. The ‘raft’ was 585 feet long (about a football field), 62′ in width and 37′ deep. The object was to bring longer timbers to New York City than was possible by ship, and at a cost less than timbers shipped by rail from Michigan and Ohio.

Harper’s Weekly, December 17, 1887.

Left: Three men on a log. Right: Log jam, to say the least.

Pike, Robert E. Tall Trees, Tough Men W.W. Norton & Co. New York, 1967.

These photos show how busy the port of Bangor was back in the day. There’s lumber stacked on the deck of the ship in the foreground. In 1860, ships anchored at the port were so tightly packed that a person could walk across the river on their decks by jumping from ship to ship. The ships came to Bangor from all over the world in the mid-1800’s.

Wilson, Donald A. Logging and Lumbering in Maine Arcadia Publishing, Charlston, SC. 2001

Old growth trees regularly produced a remarkable grade of lumber in widths and lengths that are difficult to come by today.

NY Public Library collection.

Clockwise from top: 1) Shed Scott of the Great Northern Paper Co., described by some experts as the world’s greatest scaler (estimating the volume of lumber). 2) John H. Hinman, a New England logger. Made International Paper the biggest paper company in the world. 3) John Ross, the most famous river man in the world. 4) Albert Lewis (jigger) Johnson, one of the most famous camp bosses in New England. 5) Winfield Schoppe, one of the great names in logging on the Upper Connecticut in northern New Hampshire. 6) Dan Bosse, greatest river man in the North Country.  6) The lumber camp cook. 7) John Peavey in 1857 invented the tool that bears his name and that revolutionized the logging industry – “The Peavey Hook”.

This depicts logging operations on the upper reaches of the Maine Rivers. Trees were dragged over the snow to banks of the stream, and shot down in the spring on ‘swollen waters’ to such cities as Bangor, where two hundred sawmills cut logs into boards and planks before being sent to ports, most often along the East Coast, but also around the world. Ox were much stronger than horses, and used more regularly early on before teams of horses became more common.

NY Public Library collection

logging_110The Hastings Company camp on Metalluk Stream in Maine. The mix of buildings includes a blacksmith shop, a shed to store hay and grain, sleeping quarters, cooking and dining area and a utility building. Around the camp, a substantial area has already been harvested.

Wilson, Donald A. Logging and Lumbering in Maine Arcadia Publishing, Charlston, SC. 2001

Two rivermen “tending out” (keeping the logs flowing) at a bad place on the South Valley Branch of the Swift Diamond Stream in Maine. c. 1939.

Pike, Robert E. Tall Trees, Tough Men W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1967.

003b_loggingLeft: A typical logging crew pose. One person is generally holding a rifle, often the crew boss, who kept the camp supplied with fresh meat. Right: The rough-hewn elegance of a logging family in fancy dress in an open-air “studio.”

(left)Wilson, Donald A. Logging and Lumbering in Maine Arcadia Publishing, Charlston, SC. 2001 (right) Smithsonian Museum Collection.

1 2