In an urban setting, the forest is where you find it. The partners at Tri-Lox, a millwork and design operation in Brooklyn, found their forest in the shape of the water towers that are a defining feature of the New York City skyline.
“We had a small workshop, and we were doing a lot of custom fabrication of furniture and interior work using reclaimed materials,” says co-founder Ellis Isenberg. Commissions include a chair for Lady Gaga, museum installations, and paneling for the Shake Shack, a popular burger joint that uses organic materials in both its food and its design.
“We started using wood from water towers about five years ago in our search for high-quality yet under-utilized wood materials to make into furniture products,” says Isenberg. “In beginning to work and design with the redwood and cedar [from the water towers], we began to realize the potential of the material for wall coverings and other architectural elements on a larger scale. So we developed a process and method to mill, cull, and stabilize the raw material to create our own standard products.”
A Sustainable Niche
Isenberg, along with co-founder and managing partner Alexander Bender and millworks production manager Sam Welch, opened Tri-Lox in 201l as a design/build operation in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn’s grittier northern end, where Polish bakeries rub shoulders with small industrial businesses, and where the hipsters have yet to invade en masse. Operations manager Tim Knight joined them later.
“We all ended up in New York in different ways,” says Isenberg, who came for school, then worked as a manager at BIG Reuse, a retail outlet for salvaged and surplus building materials in Queens. There, he and Bender, who apprenticed under a master wood finisher for two years in New York, spent weekends fiddling about with wood.
“Tim had been doing scenic [carpentry] work out here, and Sam, who grew up in a woodworking shop in Minneapolis, moved here a few years after the rest of us,” Isenberg says.
Five years later, the city’s water towers have become a mainstay of Tri-Lox’s millwork operation, which repurposes the redwood and the Alaskan yellow cedar that the newer tanks are built from. Across New York City, there are anywhere from 10,000 to 17,000 of the tanks that supply drinking and bathing water for its residents. The 10,000-gallon wood tanks, which are cheaper and offer better insulation than steel tanks, last roughly 30 to 35 years before needing to be replaced.
The realization of how powerful and unique the water tower lumber was, coupled with the difficulty in getting those materials properly dried for recutting, led the company to expand its design/build business with a millwork, supplying both its own wood needs for custom projects as well as selling reclaimed lumber to other local businesses.
“There are so many small companies here in New York doing a lot of furniture, so we saw an opening for making our materials viable for them,” Isenberg says. “We are interested in developing a sustainable, scalable product.”
To meet those goals, the company knew it needed to invest in larger machinery to develop its manufactured wood products, a move that required more space. Eighteen months ago Tri-Lox more than tripled its space to 6,500 square feet, giving them room for the big resaw, ripsaw, and molder required for large-scale production work. They had already built a kiln, and the drying shed can handle about 4,000 board feet, roughly the amount of wood in two water towers, Isenberg says.
Redwood and cedar boards from the Skyline series, the company’s signature product and a mainstay of the millworks, come from the water towers and are offered in standard dimensions and fresh cut or patina surfaces. Skyline cedar is also available in a brushed or blackened surface using a Japanese technique to achieve those textures.
“Both the redwood and cedar are extremely dense woods,” says Isenberg, “but in the redwood we have never seen a knot, while the yellow cedar is knotty. There are a lot of restrictions on using it. You have to cut out the rot, dry it, and remanufacture it.”
In addition to the water tower boards, Tri-Lox offers a slew of other milled and remanufactured lumber. The company’s chestnut and hemlock boards come from old agricultural buildings. Chestnut, a rare wood thanks to the 1912 chestnut blight, is like ash with more color variation and grain figuring and distinctive wormholes, Isenberg says.
The company also sells southern yellow pine and hard maple from salvaged bowling lanes, and natural edge slabs from sustainably sourced, locally salvaged trees. Species include sycamore, tulip poplar, mulberry, American black walnut, black cherry, and spalted maple, which is any species of maple that has been allowed to begin initial stages of decay and subsequently dried.
“We are really interested in black locust as a sustainable wood for the future, and it’s starting to become plantation grown,” Isenberg says. “It matures in 25 years, it’s a really hard wood, and it is being shopped as an alternative to ipe. We are going to stock it in the spring.”
Isenberg says he is developing a range of vendors for every product Tri-Lox carries. He is also looking to supply reclaimed wood to customers outside his company’s local bailiwick. Currently, Tri-Lox sources its wood from within a 400-mile range, but Isenberg envisions a time in the near future where the company works on national projects, sourcing the wood in the project’s location and overseeing its remanufacture on-site.
Business is booming for this urban millwork.
“We’ve had some big office projects, and we’ll be working with other companies who will make doors out of our materials, since you need to have very specific lengths and dimensions for doors,” Isenberg says. “I think we’re going to have to get another yard pretty soon.”