Walking down India Street, past the numerous random industrial endeavors that keep an ever changing place like Brooklyn running, you find yourself at the calming door of furniture and lumber company Tri-Lox. Before you even knock you know you are at the right place. Your nose is greeted by the sweet smell of sawdust and your ears are welcomed by the sounds of hard work going on.
How does a company like this come into being and what are the gears that keep it going? Today I’m sitting down with Ellis Isenberg, Co-Founder and Partner of Tri-Lox, to get these questions answered.
Ethan Abramson- So Ellis, tell us a little about how Tri-Lox started and the people who run it?
Ellis Isenberg – Well, the four partners are originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota and have been friends for a long time. We all had made our way out to New York over the past 5 – 10 years and have been involved in the industry in different ways. When the idea for Tri-Lox Workshop originated, Tim was working as a scenic carpenter, Alexander was an apprentice for a master wood finisher, and I was managing a reuse center and doing design work on the side. Together, we began to explore the vast resources of reclaimed materials that New York City generates.
It was very organic, starting with small custom furniture projects for friends and some very trusting early clients, and we grew the business from there. A few years later our good friend Sam moved to Brooklyn. He was trained as a cabinetmaker in Minnesota and was a great fit to lead production operations in Tri-Lox Millworks, our recently-launched sister company to the Workshop. The two wings of the business compliment each other: Workshop operating as a design/build and Millworks providing sourcing, drying and milling services.
EA- And you are the wood guy out of the bunch. Besides joy riding the fork lift, what is your role?
EI- Deep down, we’re all “wood guys”, but outside of inventory management and sourcing, I oversee business development and sales for our Millworks department. Our vendors are very important to us, especially given the unique circumstances you encounter when dealing with salvaged lumber. Building and maintaining these relationships is a large part of what I do, along with client communication. I also do quite a bit of design work and conceptual drawings for the Workshop.
EA- From past lumber conversations we have had, I don’t doubt that you could identify all the species in here by smell alone. How did you learn so much about wood?
EI- If you’re in the business of selling and working wood, you’ve got to do your homework. We’ve been constantly studying the material we work with since we got started, and learning by experience is really the best way I know to describe it. NYC keeps you busy with a really amazing selection of salvaged woods, from structural timbers from centuries-old buildings, to the ornamental trees that line the boulevards. A lot of woods can be pretty similar looking when they are weathered. Smell is sometimes the only tell-tale sign for certain species. I learned what I know by asking questions, paying attention and really wanting to know more about it.
EA- With so many species and variations out there I won’t ask you to get into identifying specifics, but do you have any good advice or books you can recommend for someone trying to expand their wood identifying skills?
EI- www.wood-database.com one of the most accessible and thorough resources for identification. But if you’re like me, you’ll head to the used bookstore and hunt out these titles:
Wood: Identification and Use by Terry Porter
National Audobon Society Field Guide to North American Trees – We read the Eastern Edition over here, but there’s a Western Edition as well.
What Wood is That? by Herbert L. Edlin – We’ve got a first edition of this complete with all of the actual wood samples in the jacket.
EA- Being an ‘Urban’ lumber yard, do you look to stock different woods than your traditional lumber yard?
EI- Our sourcing process allows us to focus on species and dimensions that are difficult to find in the traditional marketplace. We love American Chestnut, which you can only get from reclaimed agricultural structures in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, and old growth California Redwood and Tidewater Cypress from NYC rooftop water towers. Besides that, we’re always on the lookout for salvaged urban trees such as Locust, Spalted Sycamore and, of course, Black Walnut.
EA- Tell the readers a little about your space about the machinery you are operating with.
EI- Our 6000-square foot facility is located in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. We run a 16” Grizzly Horizontal Resaw, Oliver Straight-Line Ripsaw, and SCMI Molder for most of the large-scale production work, but everyone’s favorite is our 12” Crescent Jointer from about 1922. We had to run in new Babbitt bearings and replace the leather drive belts, but it still has its original porkchop guard and runs like a champ.
EA- You built and run your own wood drying kiln, any good advice for someone working on or operating their own?
EI- We use a Nyle L200 dehumidification unit and usually run around 2500 board feet at a time. Since we’re drying mostly salvage lumber, it’s a little more forgiving than drying from green. That being said, you’ve got to be aware of what’s happening inside, and the easiest way to do that is to build a tightly sealed kiln, get yourself a high-quality moisture meter and monitor your progress twice a day with sample boards. Oh, and heed the advice of The Wood Doctor, Gene Wengert. He’s full of wisdom on the subject and approaches it from a purely scientific view.
EA- Along with the lumber and milling, Tri-Lox builds a lot of furniture and does some pretty big installations. Do you have any favorites that have come out of the shop?
EI- Our favorite projects are when we get to combine design and problem solving skills with our capabilities with wood. Some of the most fun projects are when we work with our friends over a Situ Studio, a design, research and fabrication company also based in Brooklyn. They’re always challenging us to come up with wood-based solutions for non-traditional designs.
Check out the TreeHouse at the New York Hall of Science and new Visitor Experience entrance at the Brooklyn Museum for this type of work.
As for the design/build stuff. We had a blast designing and fabricating the office fixtures for MauiNY, a creative digital design firm in Soho. They allowed us quite a bit of conceptual freedom in the designs and we got to make use of the unique materials that we love.
EA- Any big projects on the horizon or expansions to the company you can share?
EI- Sure! We’ve been doing a restaurant called Sons Of Thunder on 38th and 3rd over by the Empire State building. The furniture is made from sustainably harvested Black Cherry that we milled up about a year ago. They should open toward the end of the summer. We’re doing flat-pack furniture designs for WeWork and providing some very interesting surfaces for some more international Shake Shack projects.
We’re also gearing up to start producing raw veneers and house-veneered architectural panels from some of the more rare materials we source, as well as offering more texture and pre-finishing options to some of our regular flooring and paneling products.
EA- Last question, with all those personalities in the shop, who controls the music?
EI- That depends on the time of day. Tim controls the morning and likes to start mellow with a lot of modern jazz – we’ve been making our way through Phil Schaap’s “Bird Flight” radio show every day for like a year now. Sam and I take over towards the end when you’ve gotta keep the energy up if we get a big load of material in to sticker and we’ll usually listen to either 70’s hard rock or 80’s New York House music.
Check out www.tri-lox.com for more information on the projects and people of Tri-Lox