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Reclaimed Wood: What’s The Story?

Reclaimed Wood: What’s the Story?

reclaimed-wood-01Reclaimed Wood

Reclaimed wood is lumber that has been removed from a pre-existing structure. This wood is known as salvaged wood or antique lumber. Repurposed wood is not necessarily reclaimed wood, but, rather, wood not used for for its original intent. I bought some wood from a barn that was left over from its construction. It was stored in the rafters for well over 100 years and never used. Would this be reclaimed or repurposed wood? One could argue the former, and another might argue the latter. I would say I claimed it from those rafters and purposely built some furniture from it.

Not all reclaimed wood is good for building furniture. It is, after all, simply old construction material, not choice lumber. That is not to say it isn’t wonderful wood; it is! When the original buildings were constructed all those years ago, the choice lumber was selected for staircases, furniture, moldings, and items that would be seen, leaving the less than desirable wood available for construction material. Do you think 115 years from now they’ll be pulling down those tract homes in order to build furniture with the 2x4s? Probably not. This old growth wood is far different than the construction lumber of today.  There is a beauty that only time can create, and with the old growth lumber, that beauty is exquisite. There is an abundance of reclaimed wood on the market that can be used for almost any project.

Working with Reclaimed Wood

132 year old pine floor planks

Salvaged wood can sometimes be very frustrating to work with. It doesn’t cut, carve or saw like new wood. It also tends to be warped, cupped, curved and twisted. This can make joining the wood difficult to say the least. Moisture content is one of the biggest issues. All wood is hydroscopic, which is the ability of a substance to attract and hold water. So wood is continually expanding and contracting as it absorbs and off-gasses water. Construction lumber, which is flat sawn from the timber to get the highest yield, is especially prone to movement. However, flat sawn lumber maintains the maximum movement ratio in a given stick of lumber. Kiln drying is the best method to reduce moisture and in turn, movement. Remember however, the moment the wood comes out of the kiln it can start absorbing moisture. So, if your wood was kiln dried in June and sat in a humid warehouse until September before being built into a dining table, it will shrink once it sits in your home over the dry winter. This exposure to moisture will producing gaps, cracks and wood splitting. The only way to manage this never-ending movement is with joinery that allows the wood to move while holding the joints in tact. To read more about my joinery methods please visit the “Craftsmanship” page.

Another big problem with reclaimed wood is damage from rot, demolition, and insects, like the Powder Post Beetle, making the wood unusable. I sometimes need to collect twice the amount of wood necessary to complete a project. If you plan on using reclaimed wood for a project in your home, learn how to detect the extent of the damage and whether or not the beetle is still active. The University of Kentucky College of Agriculture has a great resource on this.

In spite of the difficulties for furniture making, there is nothing like reclaimed wood. It brings a beauty that only time can produce. It fits every design style from modern to cottage, shabby chic and, of course, good old American farmhouse. I always say, “Reclaimed wood tables are like an old pair of comfortable blue jeans, you can dress ’em up, dress ’em down and wear them anywhere.”

Acquiring the Wood

A tremendous amount of effort goes into reclaiming wood. It can be very dangerous and labor intensive work. Not only is collecting the wood difficult, resurfacing and de-nailing so it can be used as furniture is labor intensive as well. You can see from the pictures above what it would take to collect this wood. Most of it is unusable so much of the effort is spent on moving the junk wood in order to find that diamond in the rough.

There are many companies that go about collecting and dismantling these old structures. Lots of hands and heavy machinery is needed. Because of this hard work the cost of reclaimed wood can be many times the cost of new wood, especially when Heart Pine or American Chestnut is concerned. These trees are no longer harvested so the only supply available is what can be reclaimed, which, in turns, drives up the cost.

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