Planks With a Past

Longleaf LumberThe team at Longleaf Lumber. Photo by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

Longleaf Lumber Gives Wood A Second Life

The pieces of Douglas fir started their journey in west coast forests. Then, during World War II, they came to the South Shore as timber to build a shipyard in Hingham. But their journey didn’t end there: The building was torn down, and they passed into the hands of Longleaf Lumber, a reclaimed wood company based in Cambridge. 

Longleaf Lumber prepared the wood for its second life as an outdoor set for Apollinaire Theatre’s run of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Chelsea. The set was knocked down in July, and the beams await their next adventure.

Used wood is not old or imperfect at Longleaf Lumber—it’s antique, it has “a resume.” Nail holes tell a story, knots provide personality.

“They’re beautiful, they’re like pieces of art,” Co-owner Alice DeGennaro says, looking at two towers of wood planks. “The old wood has so much more character, and so much more color.”

DeGennaro and her husband, Marc Poirier, started an urban mill on Somerville’s Webster Avenue in 1997. Tucked into the city, Longleaf Lumber was an anomaly.

“It was the beginning of the green movement,” DeGennaro says. “It was the beginning of when people were thinking about recycling, reclaiming, reuse.”

“It wasn’t really such a mainstream product,” Marketing Coordinator Kathy Woodward adds. 

Longleaf Lumber
Photo courtesy of Longleaf Lumber.

DeGennaro and Woodward become animated as they talk about wood, pulling out a parade of planks to put faces to the names. There’s white pine, chestnut, maple.

Then there’s Heart Pine, Longleaf Lumber’s biggest focus. Also known as the Longleaf tree, Heart Pine became wildly popular in Boston-area construction during the 1800s. It became a go-to flooring for mills because of its strength: “These factories were carrying lots of weight, big, heavy machinery,” DeGennaro explains. “It was a great tree for that application—super dense, super strong.”

The Heart Pine from that era is unmatched by modern lumber, according to Woodward and DeGennaro. Whereas the Heart Pine trees from two centuries ago had grown for 200 or 300 years, today many trees are cut down after 20. This means the wood is less dense, with wider grain and lighter color, DeGennaro says. Global warming also contributes to the loss in density, Woodward explains, because the trees are growing more quickly.

This means that if you own a 19th century home or building with Heart Pine wood and need to replace some of the planks, antique wood is your only chance at finding a match. Flooring and paneling are two of Longleaf Lumber’s biggest focuses, but they do plenty of other projects, including countertops, barn doors, and stair treads. 

Longleaf Lumber has supplied antique wood touches to many local businesses, from Crema Cafe to Oleana to Elmendorf Baking Supplies to The Red House Restaurant, according to Woodward and DeGennaro.

There are also the people who come into Longleaf Lumber looking for just the right piece of wood—the students who want to build their own desktops, the artists seeking inspiration. 

“People buy wood for a couple different reasons,” Woodward says. “Sometimes they buy it to match, so in that case the really good wood would be wood that came from the same time period, that has the same kind of character. But it could also be totally subjective, ‘I’m looking for something that’s a certain color, I’m looking for a certain character, I want knots.’”

Recycling wood has the obvious benefits of cutting down fewer trees and keeping wood out of landfills. But Longleaf Lumber incorporates its environmental mission into every part of its operations: its mill is heated by wood waste, the sawdust goes to people who will turn it into wood bricks and wood pellets, and the mill uses solar panels for its electricity.

“[It’s] just a super low carbon footprint,” DeGennaro says.

“You’ve got the product itself, and then you have the byproducts, that to whatever extent are then also recycled, burned for fuel, or put to some other use, as much of it as you can,” Woodward adds.

Longleaf Lumber’s customers seem to buy into the company’s recycling focus, both from an environmental standpoint and from an appreciation of the wood’s history.

“People definitely like the stories,” Woodward says. “When we take down a building, we try to look it up. It’s just the stories of the wood, and what was happening in the building—it was a mill building, it was a barn. It’s the stories: What’s the history of this wood?”

Longleaf Lumber is located at 115 Fawcett St. For more information, call (617) 871-6611 or visit longleaflumber.com.

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