Lisa Hassler, a Massachusetts realtor specializing in selling historic homes, wrote, “I was reading your blog and I couldn’t find any reference to wide plank floors, so I thought I’d ask. Many times, when visiting a house museum, the curator will say that the floor boards were “King’s wood” or “King’s lumber” because anything wider than X (I think 24”) was supposed to be sent back to England for the King’s use as ship’s masts. If that was true, then breaking the law was the norm rather than the exception. Would love to know, is King’s wood truth or fiction?”
Well . . . a little of both. Call it a stretch. Certain tall straight trees, especially Eastern white pine, could be marked with a Broad Arrow (three slashes) to reserve them for the monarch because they were so vital to making ship’s masts and booms. (Andrew Vietze, White Pine: American History and the Tree that Made a Nation) But this didn’t apply to all large trees or to all colonies. People using wide pieces of lumber for floorboards were not necessarily breaking the law or stealing the king’s lumber. Large, old-growth trees were plentiful in the early colonial years and widely used in furniture making and building.
Here’s where the 24″ part comes in. In Massachusetts, the Charter of 1691 states in part, “And lastly for the better provideing and furnishing of Masts for Our Royall Navy Wee doe hereby reserve to Vs Our Heires and Successors all Trees of the Diameter of Twenty Four Inches and upwards of Twelve Inches from the ground growing vpon any soyle or Tract of Land within Our said Province or Territory not heretofore granted to any private persons And Wee doe restrains and forbid all persons whatsoever from felling cutting or destroying any such Trees without the Royall Lycence of Vs Our Heires and Successors first had and obteyned vpon penalty of Forfeiting One Hundred Pounds sterling vnto Ous Our Heires and Successors for every such Tree soe felled cult or destroyed without such Lycence had and obteyned in that behalfe any thing in.” (Note the phrase: growing upon any soil or land . . . not heretofore granted to any private persons.)
In New Hampshire, an act passed in 1708 reserved all mast trees with a diameter greater than 24″ for the royal navy. Violators faced a fine of fifty pounds. In 1722 a new law reduced the diameter 12″. Surveyors of the King’s Woods were assigned to identify suitable mast pines with a broad arrow mark. (see http://www.NewEnglandHistoricalSociety.com, New Hampshire Pine Tree Riot of 1772, and https://websterhistoricalsociety.org/?p=309)
I wasn’t able to find similar laws in other American colonies.
However, it was definitely illegal to sell mast trees to anyone but the British navy, even though they paid less than the French or Spanish. That was a law colonists must have broken all too often, because Parliament kept passing laws protecting mast trees for the British navy.