How many types of trees on earth? 60,000 is a good working number, according to Colin Trudge, an author on the subject.

Of this total, an NYC hardwood dealer carries about twenty-five varieties in the form of solid lumber. The reclaimed wood species that are harvested locally is about half this number (roughly twelve), and half of these, or a handful, make up the bulk of antique and vintage woods salvaged in the city.

The list includes Longleaf Pine, Red Spruce, Eastern Hemlock, Douglas Fir, Eastern White Pine and Shortleaf Pine. Of these, two predominate; Red Spruce (Picea rubens) and Longleaf Pine (Picea palustris) – the former comes from multi-family residential buildings (tenements etc.) and the latter from commercial structures (warehouses, etc).

In looking at the antique and vintage lumber that flows into the city’s c & d waste stream, just one, Red Spruce, remains at the top of the waste heap in its potential environmental value. It represents the largest volume of reclaimed lumber and is currently the most difficult to re-use.

The issue of recycling this and other “Large dimensional lumber”, is now being taken up by New York City government and an Urban Green Council task force. see “NYC Lumber Law”. What follows is a brief profile of twelve woods that are reclaimed from dismantled structures in NYC. Photos from istockphoto.com unless otherwise indicated.


Giant Redwood (Sequoiadendron giganteum)

Redwoods are the skyscrapers of treedom,  reaching the height of a twenty-five story building, with trunks that cover the footprint of a tenement house. As iconic on the American landscape today as the Empire State Building. Redwoods once grew all throughout the northern hemisphere. Now, the last giant sequoias live on land just four times the size of Manhattan. The trees grow large through centuries of quick growth, sustained with thousands of gallons of water each day from snows melting high in the Sierras. The dense bark holds a great volume of water, which also protects the trees from fires.

Redwoods are named for their reddish-brown bark and heartwood, Chemicals in the trees fortify it with a remarkable resistance to disease and insects.  They are in the family of conifers – along with the devalued Spruce and Hemlock – pre-historic trees that existed when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, when climate was warmer. Ice ages reduced remaining redwood species to just three small groups.

John Muir, the great naturalist said “There is something wonderfully attractive in this king tree, even when beheld from afar, that draws us to it with indescribable enthusiasm; its superior height and massive smoothly rounded outlines proclaiming its character in any company; and when one of the oldest attains full stature on some commanding ridge it seems the very god of the woods.” In New York City, Redwood is the choice of high budget coops for rooftop watertanks, as apt a use for the towering Sequoia as one can find.


Rainforest Hardwoods – Kumaru (Dipteryx odorata) & Greenheart (Chlorocardium)

Nothing if father off from the concrete jungle than the natural one, like the largest of them all, the Brazilian Rainforest. One place where ecological and human made diversity collides is in the city parks and boardwalks, where woods harvested from the deep forests of South America are used extensively. NYC, as it turns out, is the largest consumer of tropical hardwoods in the country. The issue has drew the sharp criticism of environmental groups and the city responded. The fabled Coney Island Boardwalk will be replaced with concrete, except for the one block in front of the amusement area. Global warming is afar scarier ride than the Cyclone, so the question of nature verses nostalgia was an easy one.

It’s not so easy to pass on the irreplaceable qualities that Rainforest woods offer – remarkable resistance to water, rot and insects; incredibly hard (3x stronger than Oak), and a distinct weathered grey patina. But the harvesting of these woods creates wholesale destruction. Ipe trees for instance grow over a hundred feet apart, so there’s a lot of collateral damage – to untold species of plants, insects, animals and ultimately humans.But the experience of these woods still has one sustainable, but very limited form – as reclaimed lumber. FSC Ipe, for instance, has now been available since 2007, but certificates have been known to be occasionally forged. All of the tropical hardwoods that are used on the boardwalk are remarkably durable and insect resistant, naturally – they don’t need to be coated or impregnated with harsh chemicals. And there are a range of hardwoods that are harvested, with some difficult to distinguish from the next, not unlike the ‘white woods’ of Spruce, Hemlock and White Pine in the Northeast.

These woods are valuable as timber trees, especially for furniture, decking, and other outdoor uses. In the Amazon, tribes use it for hunting bows. It’s also a beautiful ornamental tree for landscaping gardens and public areas, with colorful flowers. It’s also a useful  honey plants for bees, and popular with the hummingbirds. Certain products extracted from the tree have had a range of folk medicine uses.


Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus)

The Eastern White Pine towered over the forests of the East Coast, an impressive sight for both the Native Americans, who praised it as the “Tree of Peace” and the early European settlers, who prized it for yielding the finest ship masts. The King of England ordered the largest to be marked for the British Navy – a significant factor in the events leading to the American Revolution.
Old growth pine was a favorite wood of early 19th century America with huge, knot-free boards. Freshly cut white pine is creamy white, but antique Pine deepens to an almost translucent golden brown, possibly due to the rich soil conditions of a Virgin forest. It was common and easy to cut, and was used for paneling, floors and furniture. The pre-1850 commercial Classics of lower Manhattan, forming the city’s first world trade district, were built of White Pine. Attesting to the woods commercial value, Wall Street is one block from Pine Street.

It’s the tallest tree in eastern North America, with early reports of the trees rising up to 230 ft.  with diameters of up to 8 feet! The tree grows in a range of Eastern conditions from cool, humid climates to boggy areas and rocky highlands. It provides food and shelter for a collection of animal and insect species that would fill a floor of the Museum of Natural History. Certain types of Caterpillars have been found to feed only on Eastern White Pines. It originally covered much of northeastern America, though only one percent of the original trees remain untouched today.


Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris)

Moving 19th century lumber from the deep South to New York doesn’t appear to have been substantially different than the run from Maine to the city. The ship routes from the South were longer, but the economics may not have been decisive. And the Southern woods had qualities that were hard to match for certain building applications – primarily the large structural timbers of industrial buildings.
It was a Southern lumber mill that won the bid (to the chagrin of local mills) for supplying the Pine that was used to construct the Brooklyn Bridge, which used a volume of timber that must have dwarfed any other project on the scene. Just the underwater Caissons, which encased the concrete base of the towers, were eight feet thick and the size of a city block.
Southern Pine framed America’s industrial revolution – it’s mills, warehouses and factories. The woods heavy resinous fibers were ideally suited to this purpose, with great resistance to fire and insects, hardness ratings comparable with Red Oak, plentiful and economical – until those old growth forests, extending from the Carolina’s to Texas and South to the Gulf, were depleted by the 1920’s.
Longleaf pine is native to the southeastern United States, in the Coastal Plain from southeastern Virginia to central Florida and west to eastern Texas. It can grow to 100 feet, and 3 foot diameters. The species has a range of alias’ – no fewer than sixty: Fat Pine, Georgia Pine, tea Pine, sydstaternas gul-tall, longstraw pine sumpf kiefer, and hard pine – to name a few.

Southern Pine is very heavy and strong and stiff, with a straight grain. But it’s thick resin make it difficult to machine. It ranks high in nail holding capacity, so that salvaged Pine can be a dog to de-nail. The heartwood is rated as moderate to low in resistance to decay, and milled properly with a sealant, it performs well for exterior applications. The furniture of Brooklyn Bridge Park is made from salvaged antique Pine that came full circle from decommissioned cold storage buildings on the site.


Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)

Doug Fir arrived in New York City from the West in the early 20th c., framing low-rise light industrial structures across the city, especially in the developing outer boroughs – the auto parts suppliers and repair shops, candy and confection distributors, machinery and carpentry shops, the juke box and pool table distributors, all operating under woods from the massive Douglas Fir trees – the mid-Century modern of American structural woods. It took intercontinental freight networks and the depletion of Southern forests to make Doug Fir more economically viable in the East. And during WWII, larger volumes were being shipped east to conserve steel. 

Douglas-fir is one of the fastest growing conifers in North America and grows to remarkable sizes in older forests. It’s been available in large supply and it’s excellent wood characteristics make it the most utilized lumber species in the United States (close to 70% of NW lumber). The trees grow through varying climates in the Northwest and up into British Columbia. It can reach heights of 250’ or more with 3-6’ diameter trunks. It’s seeds are dispersed by the wind and lodge readily in most soils. The tree is named for the Scottish botanist David Douglas, who was sent to N. America to study this species in 1825.

It’s principal use is structural lumber and timber because of its strength and availability in large sizes. It also is used heavily for construction-grade plywood, veneer, paper products and various types of millwork, flooring, pallets, boxes, crates, ladders, and furniture. And sometimes, it’s just ornamental, planted throughout the world.

A) Early wood usually lighter than late wood. B) abrupt transition. C) Resin canals indistinct to visible eye. D) Frequently tangential groups in the latewood. E) Rays of two widths, those with traverse resin canals barely visible to naked eye.

Photo: Hoadley, Bruce R. Understanding Wood: A Craftsman’s Guide to Wood technology The Taunton Press, Newtown, CT. 2000.


Adirondack Red Spruce (Picea rubens)

Antique Spruce was used on early airplanes, for finely made musical instruments and for early walkway over the Brooklyn Bridge (but only after some debate and the intervention of the engineer, John Roebling). But in modern times, the species, with it’s relatively soft, pale and knotty figure, has often been degraded. Early Spruce loggers were ridiculed by ax men taking down the towering Eastern White Pines, and it wasn’t until those forests were depleted that Spruce became a significant commercial wood, primarily for everyday framing lumber. White Pine built early New York through the mid 19th cv. From there, the multi-family’s that sheltered our immigrant grandparents were served by Spruce.

Spruce is actually a broad family of trees with a number of sub-species (Norway, Sitka, Colorado, White, etc), and it can be impossible to identify one from the other as wood, without actually seeing the tree itself when it was logged – observing it’s cones, needles and bark. But in the Northeast, three types of Spruce were logged in the 19th century, and of those, just one – Red Spruce – was used for framing wood. The others (Black and Blue Spruce) were logged for pulp mills that produced paper.


Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis)

Hemlock’s are most people’s idea of what a pine tree looks like – tall, dark and thick needled. But in the city, it can seem a mystery. It’s rarely spotted among salvaged lumber, yet it was logged commercially in the East for many decades (In the 1860’s, 770 million bd. ft. were sent to sawmills). Chances are that it was milled into smaller dimensional lumber; not sizes common in New York (with the average tenement joist 20’+). When it does surface, it’s warm reddish-brown hues and dense figure make it an attractive wood for a range of applications.

It can be a challenge to mill Hemlock with tear outs in the wood or knots easily blowing out when worked with modern tools, but each wood has it’s peculiar qualities. Otherwise, it’s moderately light, moderately hard, and moderately textured. It’s traditionally used in construction for light framing, but also boxes, pallets, and often, as low quality paper pulp for newsprint. So it remains an important urban wood, but as the medium for “all the news that’s fit to print”.
The species extended from Nova Scotia through Maine and New England, and west to Wisconsin. It grows best in a cool humid climates, and through all seasons. 150-year-old trees can be three feet thick and 100 feet high. It’s one of the few softwoods that tolerate shade, which causes the lower branches to hold out longer, producing a knottier wood.


Cypress (Toxodium distichum)

The framing lumber for essentially any building in the city – pre-WWI residential of every size to commercial structures of all types (warehouses, factories, , is framed with softwood lumber, sourced from coniferous trees and distinguished from hardwood broad leaf trees (Oak, Beech, Chestnut, etc.) most readily, by needles and cones. The difference is reflected in it’s smallest component cell structures. A microscopic look at the cities lumber reveals a simpler and more archaic pattern of cell arrangement than any hardwood, resulting from the earlier evolution of conifers on the planet – by roughly five million years. Each of these broadest of soft and hardwood categories within Treedom have been critical to civilization.

In New York City, Softwoods have framed it’s built structures; hardwoods have outfitted it’s interiors. But the rule is sometimes broken, and in recent years, it’s practically being reversed – with aesthetics, economics and ecology all being reconsidered (or by post-modern estimators, deconstructed) for today’s built environments. Cypress is one of these anomalies, technically a softwood (though rated by lumber yards as a hardwood) that is rare on the city scene, though an occasional choice for rooftop water tanks. The exhibition utilizes material harvested from an old urban distillery tank.

Cypress or Bald Cypress (Toxodium distichum) originated in the dense swamps of the South, slow growing – among the slowest aging trees on earth – for up to seven hundred years. The tree is a haven for a range of species; migrating Canadian geese feed on the seeds, along with swamp rabbits and other birds. White-tailed deer make the Cypress forests a refuge during hunting season, where many other animals find shelter.

Cypress is versatile, rough-sawn or smooth; it takes nearly every surface treatment around. With it’s rot resistance and rich color, from off-white to deep red, it’s a warm and elegant wood for interior paneling as well as exterior decking.


White Oak (Quercus alba)

New York is also a tale of two woods – Oak and Pine. Hardwood and softwood, furnishings and structural applications, Higher and lower values. Pine and other softwoods for framing and Oak for floors. Though all this can seem turned around for good reason in these post-modern times. But the two woods can seem as close and distant in their vision of what a wood can and should be as a Blue State and a Red State, though they co-exist well.  

In ways that’s understandable, the two evolved as a species eras apart on the earths timeline, with Oak not arriving until after the dinosaurs, and developing a more complex cellular structure in relation to the more Classical model of Pine fibers. But the wide use of the two woods has been a material reality of New York since the earliest European settlers climbed out of holes they dug for winter shelter when first arriving.  

In Colonial times, Pine was as emblematic of statehood and the nation as the bald eagle and Apple pie. A pine tree is even featured on the earliest American flag. Their forests seemed so limitless, and carried the quiet dignity of most any tree, and found ubiquitous use in products of all description. It was a tree well suited to the growth of a young Democracy.

Oak was European, and though it was logged in massive quantities throughout all the New England states, it has deep cultural roots in European civilization, along with other hardwoods. It wasn’t a Pine cone that dropped on Newton’s head. It was most likely “The knights of the round Oak table”. And Oak vessels carried the guns that built an Empire. It’s the national symbol for at least six European countries.

Over time, Oak – Red and White – would make more inroads into the American imagination and home. Prosperity, cultivation of the species and advances in woodworking machinery all played a role. So that today, Oak can not only feel as “made in America” as any wood – it was declared by Congress in 2004 as the National Tree – even if the bulk of it comes out of Canada.

Oak is a dense wood, with great strength and hardness, and is very resistant to insect and fungus.  It has a very attractive grain to many people, including kings and queens of the Middle Ages, especially when quartersawn. But it can also be royal pain in woodworking, being prone to severe movement when not properly dried.

Of the 500 species of Oak in existence, over 75 now are threatened by extinction, and the numbers may be much greater, since limited information is available for many species. The U.S. is native soil for just one percent, or five, of the Oaks in existence.


Shortleaf Pine (Pinus echinata)

Shortleaf Pine can be an apt name when it comes to it’s role in the city’s early built environment, relative to the more celebrated Longleaf Pine, which was an important wood for framing commercial structures, due to it’s heavily resinous grain, providing great strength, and resistance to fire and bugs. By the time Southern lumber companies doubled back for the broader and less resinous Shortleaf Pine, NYC was starting to gain more access to Western Douglas Fir and could make-do with other conifers. Shortleaf entered the mix nonetheless, though it can be hard to distinguish from it’s counterpart, Loblolly (Pinus taeda), so that both exist in varying lumber volume, essentially from the beginning of the modern era in the 20th century.  

Shortleaf has an ability to grow on a wide range of soil and natural conditions. While an NYC resident today (in the most literal sense), it was formerly a home and food source for a range of wildlife –  quail, doves, meadowlark, rabbits, songbirds. white-tailed deer, and of course the red-cockaded woodpecker.
Basic Shortleaf and Loblolly uses include lumber, plywood, and pulpwood for paper. It’s easy to work and takes a stain and paint well.