The benefits and challenges of the reclaimed and primitive furniture trend for woodworkers

The current craze for reclaimed furniture, or primitive furniture, means unique opportunities and challenges for woodworkers.

The main benefit is that interest in reclaimed is tied to a desire for handmade furniture, and that’s good for woodworkers. People are tired of prefab, off-the-shelf design and they are yearning for more authentic and unique expressions in their design. We’re seeing major market furniture makers from West Elm to Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware rolling out “reclaimed” and “handmade” lines of furniture, and they’re charging a pretty penny for them.

But if people are yearning for handmade and unique, why wouldn’t they seek out items that are actually handmade and unique. For most woodworkers, a project like this nightstand from West Elm would take a couple of hours to make. Its simple construction is actually a desired design element by people who are looking for this type of furniture.

making reclaimed furniture

This “reclaimed” nightstand from West Elm is $349. How long would it take you to make it?

West Elm charges $349 for this piece, which contains about $12 worth of materials. You can get the materials for free if you use pallet wood, which is all the rage.

But that simplicity is also the challenge for most woodworkers who have spent time, energy and money learning to make fine furniture. Is it insulting to our craft to make work like this? How many woodworkers who have logged hundreds of hours learning to cut perfect half-blind dovetails are even willing to nail together a drawer?

To me, creating simple furniture that people want to buy is an easy way to make money to fund our passion. That seems like a win-win.

But there’s another challenge. For those of us who enjoy working with reclaimed wood, the reclaimed craze has driven prices for pre-used timber to crazy heights. Wood that you used to be able to get for free is now fetching premium prices. Farmers who used to pay people to take down old barns are now besieged by salvage companies paying top dollar to deconstruct their old buildings. The salvagers sell the wood to millworks who charge premium prices for antique flooring, beams, etc.

I’m lucky to live in the Chicago area and have access to the Rebuilding Exchange, a non-profit whose mission is to keep building materials out of landfills. They accept donations of deconstructed material and sell it at a great price. Even if you’re not into building projects that look reclaimed, a lot of what they sell is old-growth timber that is beautiful re-milled and blows away modern, harvested wood. I’ve found gorgeous old-growth pine, fir and redwood timbers for bargain prices, all the while supporting a nonprofit with a great mission instead of a big box retailer.

I’m curious to hear about similar organizations in other areas, so if you have one near you please let me know. And let me know your thoughts on the whole reclaimed thing. Do you think interest in reclaimed and primitive furniture is good for the handcraft movement, or is it a negative? Have you made any reclaimed pieces? Feel free to share them here.






5 thoughts on “The benefits and challenges of the reclaimed and primitive furniture trend for woodworkers

  1. I think that the reclaimed furniture thing is a very cool look. I own a flooring store and tend to build a lot of the projects I make out of hardwood flooring that we take up from jobs or leftovers or the pallets they are shipped on. I haven’t yet made a project though that the wood wasn’t milled down and made to look fresh though. It’s just that stigma in my head that you pointed out. The only project I made completely out of reclaimed wood was for charity and it was a wooden beer cooler made completely out of the reclaimed cedar from an old swingset. Cost = $30 for the cooler I put into it, charity auction sold it for $150. People love the idea of reclaimed products today. Reuse and repurpose is the name of the game any more. My goal for woodworking this year is to make a few projects like that. I know of a guy who built a farm table out of reclaimed wood using a pocket hole jig and sold it on facebook within hours. No fancy joinery, just a cool looking table built in a weekend with free wood sold for a profit and still probably better quality than anything bought in the store.

    1. Greg, that’s great. My first project was a simple farmhouse table that I built because we needed a dining table and I couldn’t afford to buy one. Seemed like a no-brainer to spend $100 on some home center pine and build something that cost $800 or more in the furniture stores.

  2. Steve,

    great article.
    I have this exact discussion with my students on an almost daily basis.
    Especially here in Toronto, where every new restaurant and store is wrapped in the reclaimed fad that’s currently taking place.
    Never a dull moment in this designer/maker world of ours!

    all the best,

    1. Tom,

      Thank you for the comment. I am a big fan of your work… it’s a wood-geeky honor to have you as a reader. Half of Hip Chicago is also clad in old farm boards, truck beds and flooring. It’s comforting to be surrounded by wood, but its sheer scope tells me it will be abandoned as quickly as it was adopted. I believe there will always be a place for a natural esthetic, and I like that.

  3. I loved your article and am an advocate in keeping wood out of the landfills. I live close to a hospital and reclaim the wood thrown out. Some of it is pallets, some it is replaced cabinets. My wife plays keyboard at our church so I made her a stool to sit on. The seat is from an old table top, the legs are from railings that were on the hospital walls, the rungs are from an old mop handle that was thrown out. All it cost me was time. Priced out a “similar” stool and it was $125. Would add a picture but it doesn’t want to paste in. However, reply to the email and i can send it then.

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