Story #63City BenchHigganum, CT

There is an immense amount of wood that is overlooked in the US, and that was part of our mission. But the other part is storytelling, and tying people back to where they are with the furniture that they have.

Nearly every time a tree falls down in a storm or is removed to clear space for a building, it goes to the dump. These “urban forests” have the potential to replace a third of the wood used in the United States, a concept that Zeb and Ted Esselstyn are bringing to the forefront with their Higganum, Conn. based small business, City Bench. Together the two take a portion of the trees removed from the nearby city of New Haven, mill them, and turn them into furniture. Each piece that City Bench creates is one of a kind and tells a story, honoring the tree it came from and connecting the owner to the place it originated. In a sense, it’s furniture with roots.

The Esselstyns were fortunate in that Connecticut is a place where towns strongly value their trees and their history – each town even has a tree warden. They were able to make a deal with the city of New Haven so that every time trees are removed, a portion of them goes to City Bench. The city even provided them with a space to mill, because they believe so strongly in what the brothers are doing.

For their part, the Esselstyns have done a great deal to give back to their community, providing their handmade benches, tables, and more to local businesses and larger clients like Yale University and Connecticut-based Newman’s Own. They are also working on developing a curriculum so that students can come in and learn about urban forests, re-use, and building practices.

The Esselstyns are not the first or only ones to use urban forests this way, but the challenging aspects of the process have kept commercial mills from adapting so far. Urban wood tends to have metal in it from people putting up signs or cables, and the metal ruins saw blades. For City Bench, who uses a portable, less expensive mill for their one-off projects, this isn’t as big of an issue.

In the future, though, they hope that the use of urban wood will become mainstream, and are considering the possibility of expanding their business to other cities. “What we want to do is project the use of urban lumber out to a larger audience. We like to think the whole idea of local food will become local wood.”

 

Photos by Shaul Schwarz

  • May 7th, Higganum, Connecticut: Ben Komola carries a large piece of wood whcih will become part of a table. There are over 70 billion trees in U.S. metropolitan areas. New Haven removes more than 600 trees each year. Most of these grand, historic trees are relegated to the landfill, ground into mulch, or chopped into firewood. At City Bench, brothers Ted and Zeb Esselstyn understood there is a business to be made while saving these trees, "We extend the life left in those trees by building uniquely hand-crafted furniture that tells their stories." Working out of barns built in the back yard of Ted's house they build one-of-a-kind custom furniture. Photo by Shaul Schwarz for Small Business Revolution.

  • The owners of City Bench are considering the possibility of expanding to more cities, and hope that the use of urban wood becomes more mainstream. “We like to think the whole idea of local food will become local wood,” says Zeb Esselstyn.

  • As kids, City Bench owners Zeb and Ted Esselstyn had their own firewood business - they would hand saw trees from their property, split them, and deliver them as firewood around their neighborhood. "Being in the woods, and unloading trees, that is a touchstone point for us," says Zeb. "It's a lot of labor to work with wood, and part of that is the joy of labor as well. We really enjoy it."

  • Ben Komola, the newest addition to the City Bench team, welds the frame for a table.

  • Ted Esselstyn of City Bench pauses for a moment at their headquarters, located in his backyard in Higganum, Conn.

  • Tools covered in sawdust at the City Bench workshop in Higganum, near New Haven, Conn.

  • Zeb Esselstyn cuts wood in the barn located in his brother Ted’s backyard, where City Bench builds their one-of-a-kind custom furniture.

  • Co-owners Zeb and Ted Esselstyn of City Bench are involved in all aspects of their small business - from gathering a portion of the trees removed from nearby New Haven, milling them, and hand-crafting them into furniture, to marketing and presenting their work to larger clients like Yale University and Newman’s Own.

  • The challenging aspect of using urban lumber is that it tends to have metal in it from people putting up signs or cables, and the metal ruins saw blades. This has kept commercial mills from using urban lumber, but for City Bench, who uses a portable mill for their one-off projects, this isn’t an issue.

  • The owners of City Bench were fortunate in that Connecticut strongly values their trees and their history - each town even has a tree warden. They were able to track down New Haven’s tree warden, who believed so strongly in what they were doing she gave them a space in the area where they can mill the wood.

  • Almost every time a tree falls down in a city or is removed to make space for a building, it gets taken to the dump. Founders of City Bench, Zeb and Ted Esselstyn, made a deal with the city of New Haven to get a portion of the city’s urban wood, which they use to make one-of-a-kind furniture.

  • Connecticut based small business City Bench creates soulful furniture out of re-used urban wood, highlighting an overlooked urban resource in the process.

  • “Storytelling is a fundamental part of what we do, and that is tying people back to where they are with the furniture that they have,” says City Bench co-owner Zeb Esselstyn. Each piece they create comes with a story of origin, and sometimes even a street address where the tree was located.

Business Details

Proprietor: Ted Esselstyn, Zeb Esselstyn
73 Maple Ave Higganum, CT 06441
PH: 860-716-8111 / Website
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