In recent years the desire for use of reclaimed wood has grown dramatically in interior design and sustainable remodeling.  Manufactures, craftsman, and other industry professionals may be able to distinguish quality materials from trash but the eye of the consumer is most often not as well trained. Because we specialize in using reclaimed wood for the creation of our cabinets, furniture, and other projects we here at Van Jester Wood Works would like to provide you with a brief primer on where reclaimed wood comes from, the value in using reclaimed wood, and how to judge whether or not the end product can be distinguished as a sustainable resource.

Reclaimed wood stack

Stack of reclaimed lumber

What is reclaimed wood? 

For wood to be considered “reclaimed” it must have already served a purpose before it is collected and put to new use. Reclaiming materials has always been common practice for boot strapping individuals, communities, and companies. However, popular use of reclaimed wood did not take hold until the later part of the 20th century, and as stated above it just recently became a leading trend in design.

If you have decided that reclaimed wood may be a materials option for your next remodel, renovation, or home furnishing it is of the utmost importance that you understand where it comes from. While it may seem as simple as finding old wood and fashioning it for its new use the reality of the process is far more complex. Because the process of reclaiming wood is complicated it is always best to purchase through an established, trustworthy company.

Reclaimed Beams

Reclaimed Beams

Where does reclaimed wood come from?

The first step in acquiring reclaimed wood is to find a source. This in itself can involve quite a bit of work with regard to gathering information. Companies who sell reclaimed wood may look to demolition contractors, government agencies, historical societies, and a variety of other contractors to find possible salvage sites.

Next, the company should proceed with a thorough investigation of the proposed site.  This may include but is not limited to the age of the building or structure, how it was built, the materials used in construction, what the use of said building or structure was, and the possibility of contaminants being present from original construction or its function during its first life. Research of a possible collection site is quite possibly the most important step of the entire reclamation process. Any structure that was previously used in the manufacturing of chemicals or for the creation of goods that require use of toxic chemicals during production is not safe to gather reclaimed wood from. In addition to chemical contamination there are other factors to consider. A site may not have any of the negative characteristics listed above, but may be covered in lead paint, a highly poisonous coating that at one time was used regularly. A specific example of seemingly good wood to reclaim is a railroad tie. They are abundant and are made up of a lot of workable material, but are treated with creosote a very toxic, strong smelling chemical used for preservation. While they are great to line your driveway with they are not a good fit for the interior of your home.

After a company has conducted intensive research on the site and the materials present are deemed safe for reuse the deconstruction process begins. Deconstruction usually involves a piece by piece removal of usable timber. This is an arduous process and those taking part must be diligent so the timber is not damaged.  The product is then sent off and prepared for milling. Upon arrival to the factory the wood is inspected again and a thorough removal of nails, random pieces of metal, and anything else that may have traveled with it must take place. Like deconstruction this is all done by hand.

From this point the reclaimed wood goes through the same process as new growth lumber. It should be kiln dried to a moisture content of six to nine percent. This ensures that the wood is sterile and free of any mold, insects, or worms that may have made a home in it over the years.  Once all of this is complete the company should have a usable product ready for resale.

 

Sawmill, U.S. Route 11, Sperryville, Rappahannock County, VA

Sawmill, U.S. Route 11, Sperryville, Rappahannock County, VA

Possible sources of reclaimed wood

As new manufacturing methods were invented and goods made the shift into mass production during the industrial revolution the need for factories and buildings for these enterprises to take place also arose. These structures were built on a grand scale relative to buildings built prior, and at this time wood was still the primary resource for construction. As new technologies emerged many of these once state of the art facilities fell out of use. Though many of these structures are unusable today the materials they are constructed from are still valuable. Most of the large scale reclamation going on today takes place within these monuments of former industrial glory which can yield millions of board footage. Other source examples for reclaimed wood: old saw mills, old barns, retired ships, antique water tanks, storage tanks from old breweries and wineries, old food stuffs tanks, and condemned houses. Imagine a new set of kitchen cabinets crafted from the air tight wood vats formerly used at an old pickle plant. It doesn’t get much cooler than that.

Old Barns are a very common source of reclaimed wood.

Old barns are a very common source of reclaimed wood.

The value of reclaimed wood 

Reclaimed wood is not an inexpensive building material. Its high price point comes from the fact that it is difficult to recover and make into a usable product. It should also be noted that many types of wood are finite resources despite the fact that they were once in common use for construction. Certain species are legally unobtainable as new lumber due to their endangered status or outright extinction from over harvesting and disease. Using reclaimed wood is the only option for acquiring many of these rare wood types.

If reclaimed wood is within your project’s budget it can prove to be a very rewarding choice. Reclaimed wood provides an authenticity and aesthetic that is far superior to that of new lumber. While finding a source for reclaimed timber should be left to a professional it is easy for anyone to see the beauty in wood that has slowly created its patina over the course of many decades or even centuries. Each piece is unique and this deliberate process is impossible to replicate in a short amount of time.

Reclaimed wood is different from other materials in the sense that old age does not bring about a fragile state of being. In fact strength and stability are defining characteristics of quality reclaimed wood. Much of it was cut from trees that had centuries to mature prior to human contact, and the lack of air pollution in the past provided trees with a healthier more robust environment to grow making them far stronger than their counterparts of today. Reclaimed wood has already stood the test of time and proven itself as durable.

Reclaimed wood also comes with history and character. Before the reclaimed lumber became your new cabinets or paneling it lived another life. Countless people may have earned their daily living on the factory flooring that you now have in your kitchen. Perhaps a mutiny occurred on the deck of the ship where the planks for your new counter top came from. Multiple generations of farmers may have stored their crops under the structural beam that is now your mantel piece. Maybe your new dining room table was once a tank used to hold a fine wine.  These stories become a part of yours when you make use of these materials. Reclaimed wood not only adds beauty to your home it adds intrigue.

Long Table crafted from salvage reclaimed wood and industrial machine parts

Table crafted from reclaimed wood and salvaged machine parts.

Is reclaimed wood a sustainable resource?

On a fundamental level reclaimed wood is a sustainable, environmentally friendly resource. In most cases wood that is not reclaimed is discarded as waste, and trees do not grow as fast as they can be cut down so it is almost always better to recycle, re-purpose, and reuse whenever possible. While this all seems rather obvious there are other factors that should be considered in order to make sure the product you will receive is in fact sustainable. When finding your reclaimed wood consider the sources. Where did the company you are buying from get the wood? Was there long distance shipping involved or was it local? Anything that has traveled in excess of 500 miles is usually deemed non sustainable due to fuel consumption. Was the wood processed in a non wasteful manner? Was the waste created in the process disposed of in the best possible way? There are many more variables to account for when determining if a product can be considered a sustainable resource. Learn about who you plan to work with and ask a lot of questions. The more knowledge you have the easier it will be to make a decision.

A log train in the virgin timbers.

A log train in the virgin timbers.

Conclusion 

Reclaimed wood has become very popular in recent years and we currently have a sizable amount of it available through a number of differing sources. It is impossible to determine how long this supply will last. It is expensive because producing a finished product is challenging, but the end results are often incredibly interesting and even more beautiful. It is also a sustainable resource that has the potential to save a lot of trees. Before purchasing reclaimed wood do your research and learn as much about the company and available products as possible. Being a good consumer is important when making decisions to improve your home.We hope this helps you in your search for the perfect cabinets, table,  shelves, or any other project made of wood.

 

 

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