T hrough a fallen tree’s outer bark and phloem and heartwood, a rich story of soil composition, insect life and environmental impact is told. Like a natural lithograph, a cross-section of the timber might reveal where an ambrosia beetle once nestled in to foster larvae, or where a nail was once driven deep into the grain to hold a tag sale flyer or city notice. The grain itself identifies the species, its resources and health, and, in the rings of the cambium (the once-living inner layer), the age of the tree.
It was with abiding appreciation for these stories and decades of combined carpentry experience that brothers Ted and Zeb Esselstyn founded City Bench in 2008. The mission? To repurpose felled trees from the city of New Haven into finely crafted furniture, and, in the doing, to reduce demand for lumber harvested from working ecosystems. The idea is also to create enduring meeting places—benches, tables, chairs—for people. Originally from Cleveland, the brothers are inspired by the iconic Ohio mural Life is Sharing the Same Park Bench by John F. Morrell. Depicting four diverse individuals sitting close to each other, the work represents “community coming together,” says Zeb.
With that idea of shared city living in mind, the brothers set forth to salvage New Haven’s literal roots. You may remember “all that hubbub on the Green,” as Zeb characterizes it, with skeletons unearthed from the collapse of the Lincoln Oak tree in October 2012. As it turns out, Zeb says, “We have that tree.” The plan is to put it on permanent display in City Hall as a “really wonderful, long bench,” says Ted, meaning the Lincoln Oak will continue on, reimagined not only as something interesting to see, but something to gather around; to sit on, instead of under.
City Bench aims to enhance, not cover up, the natural grain of the trees it rescues from the wood chipper. It’s the difference between being “into staining,” as Zeb puts it, and preserving the beauty and form of the original wood with a merely protective coating. The varnishes the brothers use are as natural as possible—either oil- or water-based (“If I have to wear a respirator, I’m not doing it,” asserts Ted)—in order to affect the natural aesthetic qualities of the tree as little as possible.
Similarly, where an arborist or lumberman might see traces of insects or human intervention as defects—the demarcations of an urban arboreal life to be sure—“we see them as the character” of that particular slab, says Zeb. Many times, attest Ted and Zeb, City Bench has rescued beautiful hardwood that had been discarded into landfills.
“I’ve always been into making things,” says Ted, which must be helpful consolation during the year and a half or so that it takes them to turn a tree into furniture. The slabs spend approximately one year air-drying on East Rock. After that, they’re transported to the dehumidification chamber at their workshop/showroom up in Higganum, where they sit for three weeks. “Much like you or I,” says Zeb, trees are mostly water, and between these two steps, the moisture content of the wood is reduced from 70% to around 8%, making it ready for fabrication.
With each specimen registering a different size, shape and species, City Bench plans different designs accordingly. Coffee and kitchen tables (ranging from $500 to $3,500, sometimes more depending on the work required), chairs, stools, bed frames, lecterns and more are all in the wheelhouse. With just four employees, there is plenty of work for everyone to do.
Special to City Bench, they say, is the wide variety of woods its pieces are made from. Common hardwoods are offered alongside more unusual choices like cottonwood, sycamore and, of course, Elm City elm. The company’s “Urban Canopy” line in particular “celebrates all that wood from the urban forest,” Ted says, by splicing different kinds together to form multi-grain pieces—a testament to the diversity of trees, native and non-, living around New Haven, and just another way City Bench reflects the city’s character, and its stories.
73 Maple Avenue, Higganum (map)
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Written and photographed by Jared Emerling.