The European Elm tree that grew in a corner of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park was one of the city’s most impressive trees. Planted in the park’s early years, not long after the Civil War, by the time it died in 2015 the elm had grown limbs as wide as some tree trunks. A tree like that, the Parks Department thought, deserved a better fate than most of New York’s dead trees, which go straight into a chipper.
Months after it was cut down, this elm is now on its way to a more dignified afterlife. Cut into giant logs, hauled to a lumber yard about two hours north of the city, it’s being slowly milled into one-of-a-kind lumber, destined to become hand-crafted furniture. Much of the tree’s wood will probably end up right back in Brooklyn. At least one slab certainly will—the company that took the tree away, RE-CO BKLYN, is planning to make a table that will live in a 19th century mansion on the edge of the same park where the tree lived its life.
It takes time to transform a tree into furniture, though. Months after the tree came down, two of the logs RE-CO BKLYN hauled to its upstate yard are still intact, waiting to be milled. The other two, divided into slabs weighing as much as 600 pounds, are drying in the back corner of the yard. Most of those slabs will wait for two years before graduating to the next stage, kiln drying. Even the first slabs to go into the kiln won’t be ready until February or March of 2017. It’s a slow process, more careful than the treatment most trees get after they’re cut down.
This tree is by far the largest that RE-CO BKLYN, founded in 2009 by a group of furniture makers, has handled. The company salvages New York City trees that are being cut down, in order to turn them into lumber or craft them into furniture, and usually the trees they work on are less than four feet in diameter. In other parts of the country, at other times in history, it might have been routine to deal with larger logs. But in New York City, no one’s really equipped to keep large trees intact and turn them into something beautiful after they’re dead.
Often, says Richfield, there’s no choice but to chop them into smaller pieces—they might be trapped in the backyard of a brownstone and need to be carried out through the front door. Or there’s just not the heavy machinery at hand to deal with this much weight. The Prospect Park elm, though, got special treatment.
After tree came down, RE-CO BKLYN hauled it away in four logs. These logs were giant, and sawing them into boards was a major undertaking. Each one weighed at least six tons, and the thickest was 7.4 feet wide and 8 feet long. This was as large as they could make this log and still carry it on the truck they would use to haul it to the yard. It had to be lifted by a 50,000 pound excavator. The remaining three logs had a less graceful journey from the truck back to the earth; they were nudged, by machine, off the flatbed truck so that they rolled onto the ground.
These logs were so big that RE-CO BKLYN’s mill, which can handle trees up to five feet wide, was not able to just slice through them. The crew started by cutting off narrower slabs from one of the log’s long sides, like you might peel a carrot into strips. After they had sliced off enough from that one side, the log measured just five feet from its now-flat top to the ground, and they rolled the log on its side.
Now, it would fit into the mill. But before they could start cutting again, they had to rebuild the entire machine around the log in its new location. This was a complicated enough process that, after the first two logs were milled, they put the other two logs aside. “These are not easy,” says Richfield. They wanted to think before they decided how to handle the remaining two—including the largest log.
If you went to RE-CO BKLYN’s yard to visit the two logs that have already been milled, they would still look something like logs. After the company cuts logs into slabs, they reassemble them into a cylindrical shape, layer by layer, leaving only three-quarter inch gaps in between each slab. The moisture of the wood wicks out through the cut surfaces, like perspiration, and is sucked away by air currents passing through.
RE-CO BKLYN has been rethinking what it might do with the two remaining intact logs. The largest log is very straight, which means it could have a different destiny than the other three. The other log can be given the usual treatment, and turned into slabs. ”Generally the kind of logs we get are not very straight,” says Richfield. “We mill them into slabs, and they have crazy grain and amazing character. They wouldn’t be good as any other kind of lumber, besides slabs.”
This last log, though, is so straight it could become dimensional lumber, the more common 2x4s, 4x4s and other regular-sized boards. Only recently has the company figured out a way to make dimensional lumber worth the effort for them, and that’s what could happen to the thickest part of one of Prospect Park’s largest trees—it’ll be broken down into smaller chunks and milled into boards.
One slab of the tree is already spoken for: RE-CO BKLYN is planning to make a conference table for the Parks Department. That table will live inside Litchfield Villa, at the edge of Prospect Park, which serves as the department’s headquarters in the borough. The rest will be available to anyone who wants to buy a piece of the tree that spent more than a century growing in a quiet corner of Brooklyn.