Working with reclaimed lumber: How rough do you want it?

Most people choose to work with barn wood or reclaimed lumber because they want a rustic look and the patina that only decades of exposure to time and elements can provide. But there are many benefits to working with reclaimed wood even if your vision for your final project is a finely finished aesthetic.

The barn wood look is in vogue right now. But tastes change, so it’s important to look beyond the rustic aesthetic and see the other benefits of working with reclaimed lumber:

  • Environmental: By working with reclaimed lumber you’re keeping building materials out of landfills.
  • Quality: Reclaimed lumber from barns and other old buildings is lumber that came from old-growth forests. It’s a limited resource and therefore, scarce and valuable. Today’s quick-growing stock can’t match the quality of these historic timbers.
  • Historic: For me—just ike working with antique tools—reclaimed lumber is imbibed with the spirit of those who worked it and lived with over the decades or centuries.
  • Financial (sometimes): Once upon a time “reclaimed” lumber was trash. You scavenged for it or took it off the hands of people who were grateful to be free of the burden of hauling it to the dump or burning it. Today, reclaimed lumber’s trendiness means you’ll pay just as much, if not more, than you’d pay for new lumber—especially barn wood. Non-profits like Chicago’s Rebuilding Exchange charge a reasonable price for lumber that comes from deconstructed homes, many of which are 100 years old or older. Boutique reclaimed wood shops are catering to the trend and charge a premium. Salvagers are making bank buying up old barns, carefully deconstructing them and carting them back to their shops for resale.

Finally, there are the aesthetic benefits. When I get new old lumber, I always take a sample and prep it to four different stages: Raw, cleaned, lightly prepped and finished. While the raw surface is always attractive, sometimes I find something beneath that surprises and delights me. Once I’ve done this investigation, I let the wood (and sometimes my wife) tell me what it wants to be.

Here’s a sample taken from a bunch of 4×6 beams I picked up a couple of years ago.

working with reclaimed lumber

The beam in its raw state

Cleaned reclaimed beam

Light brush cleaning

Lightly planed reclaimed beam

Lightly planed

Planed 200 year old beam

Planed and finished with wood oil

The beams came from a 200 year old home that was demolished in Chicago, and I picked them up for a great price in one of my pilgrimages to Rebuilding Exchange. I don’t always go shopping for a specific project. If I like it, I buy it and store it until I figure out what to do with it.

The raw side is gorgeous with its centuries’ old patina of weather, dirt and scars. The second side is brush cleaned with a little water, leaving the weather and history but removing the dirt. Side 3 is planed just enough to show the grain of the fresh wood below while maintaining the character of its scars and work marks. Side 4 is planed down to the raw wood then finished with wood oil, revealing a glow and grain pattern I could never have expected.

This surprising nature of reclaimed lumber is one of my favorite aspects. You just never know what you’re going to find. I’ve found pallets made of red oak. The guys at All American Reclaim in Crystal Lake, IL, (an absolute treasure) recently took down a barn and discovered the rafters and beams were black walnut instead of the pine they expected. As the owner pointed out, old-timers used whatever grew on their land to build their barns. For the shop, this was striking gold: They’re charging $20/bf, which is a good 10% to 20% premium over walnut from hardwood dealers. But for all of the benefits outlined above, it’s worth it. These timbers are gorgeous, and I’m busy working on a design incorporating them… once my tax refund comes in!

The beams from the old Chicago house have found a few different places in my home. One went up in its raw state on a couple of brackets for a book shelf. In our c. 1990 home, the raw wood provides some much needed organic warmth and architectural detail to an otherwise generic build.

Reclaimed beam as book shelf

Easiest reclaimed wood project there is … a book shelf

Another became a pair of speaker stands. These got the quick clean treatment. But the more I look at them, I think I’m going to take them down to a fully planed state.

Reclaimed wood speaker stands

Not much harder … speaker stands

That’s the great part about working with reclaimed lumber: Possibilities.



Dutch Tool Chest Part 5: Completion and thoughts

How to build a Dutch tool chest

The Dutch tool chest is complete.

The Dutch Tool Chest build is complete. What I thought would be a two-day project took me close to three months from start to finish. In fact, I still have one problem to solve, which I’ll get to later in case you don’t immediately notice it.

Missed the rest of the Dutch tool chest build? Start here.

Overall, I’m really happy with the outcome. The chest is attractive and functional, and it provided a great learning experience. It may be my favorite thing I own, and that really is what woodworking is all about to me… building beautiful, real things. It’s an honest, analog balance to living in a disposable and increasingly digital society. As someone who makes his living with words, numbers and ideas, whose only product is persuasion, I find it exciting, challenging and healing to pick up a tool and make something real. To see and touch and use something that I built is an awesome feeling. Two months ago, this thing lived only in my mind and in a stack of lumber at Lowes. Now it is a useful product. I think that’s friggin’ awesome, and I know I am not alone in this. Throughout this project, I sought and received help and encouragement from the good people at, and I am grateful for that support and the feeling of connection I have to a larger community of makers.

As far as the project itself, it is what I believed it would be: A great project for a beginning woodworker. It’s sufficiently challenging to build skills but simple enough that you won’t feel overwhelmed. It’s also extremely flexible, and while the project is basically just a box with a shelf in it, there is a lot of room for improvisation in the interior organization.

The interior tills and organization were the real learning experience. Almost each piece required two or three takes. And I’m still not happy with the saw till on the inside cover. As anyone with a good eye for detail will notice, the tills are open at the top, meaning the saws slip out when closed. This was the fourth attempt at a solution. The first three tries were closed, but did not have enough clearance to close the lid completely. The fact is, the chest is always open, so it’s not a problem. But I do plan on re-doing it so that it’s correct.

How to build a saw till in a Dutch tool chest

The interior lid saw tills took four tries, and they are still not correct.

As for tools, I kept my promise of building the chest exclusively with hand tools and period-correct fasteners. The only power tool I used was a drill to bore the dowel holes that connect the breadboard ends on the lid.

The surprise for me was how interested I got in hardware… something new for which to hunt. In addition to learning that vinegar is great for antiquing stainless steel, I also found that Kiwi-Strawberry Snapple is great at turning back the calendar on zinc plated hardware. (It’s the citric acid… so you can just use that.) My original intention was to find period-appropriate hardware, but everything I found was just too expensive for an inexpensive woodworking project, which this was supposed to be. I managed to locate some hand-cut nails on Ebay and slot head screws at my local Ace hardware. The handles are from Lowes. I antiqued the screws with vinegar and gave the handles a bath in the Snapple, and they look great.

All in all, a great project. I recommend it to anyone looking for a challenging but achievable beginner’s woodworking project.

Now… I have to go clean up three months worth of mess in my shop.

Read the full Dutch tool chest build here.

How to build a Dutch tool chest.

Just a small sampling of the wood shavings I created while building the Dutch tool chest. My planes got a good work out.

A simple and cheap way to antique screws

I found a simple and cheap way to antique the screws for the Dutch tool chest after discovering how expensive it is to purchase antique or reproduction hardware. I was able to find new-old-stock cut nails on eBay at a good price, but the screws eluded me. Whether purchasing them on eBay or from a restoration supplier like Blacksmith Bolt (an awesome resource) would have run about $20 bucks with shipping for a handful of plain steel screws.

I had read about using lemon juice, but that only works on zinc plated screws. All I could find was stainless steel.

The answer was vinegar. Just soak the screws in vinegar and the shiny stainless screws go back in time in about 6 to 8 hours. It’s important to check them regularly to keep them from turning black. You want a nice gunmetal bluish gray patina.

how to antique screws

A little vinegar is all you need to turn back he clock on stainless steel screws.

After soaking them, I rinsed them in water to stop the reaction, dried them well, then scuffed the heads with 80 grit sandpaper. Here’s the result.

how to antique screws with vinegar

The antiqued screws in place.

Dutch Tool Chest Part 4: Top, tool holders and finishing

My power tool exclusion broke down when it came to making the top for chest. I still don’t have the hand tools I would need to make the tongue and groove to make the traditional bread-board ends, so I wound up using a doweling jig and power drill to attach the breadboards. Other than (or because of) that, the top went together smoothly.

Dutch tool chest components

Main components of the chest.

I planed the boards flat and even for the main panel and jointed them to create spring joints, then glued them up and clamped them, then stood there trying to figure out how to attach the ends. I made a quick trip to Harbor Freight to get a biscuit joiner but wound up stumbling on a $15 doweling jig that turned out to work surprisingly well. HF is always a crap shoot, but in this case it turned out great. The jig was aligned correctly out of the box and I had the holes bored and the breadboards placed in about 15 minutes.

All the main pieces were built. What I thought would take hours has already taken days. I usually spend about 2 hours a day working on the chest during the week, and maybe 4 on the weekends, so I figure it’s taken me about 20 hours to get to this point, but I knew this would be a learning exercise, and I can already see how I could have cut that time in half.

From there I moved onto the tool holders for my chisels, marking gauges and saws, then decided to make a small drawer unit to hold miscellaneous items like pencils, dovetail markers, small files, etc. I pulled all of the materials for these pieces from my scrap box, so it’s a bit of mix and match, but I like the outcome.

The interior pieces came together easily, but the saw till inside the lid turned out to be a challenge. I went through three designs and builds before finding one that worked, and even then I had to make adjustments inside to allow the lid to close properly.

As a finish, I wound up going with General Finishes milk paint in Coastal Blue, which seemed close to the photos I had seen of actual Dutch tool chests. After a few tests, I settled on a mix of one part paint with 1.5 parts water and added a dollop of tung oil to smooth it out.

Here she is all put together, minus the top.

dutch tool chest construction

All together now… but still topless.

Dutch Tool Chest Part 3: Finishing the case


With the dovetails cut and the sides and bottom attached, I honestly believed I would finish the chest in one day. What I had not yet learned about woodworking is that the closer you get to the end, the further the end recedes. There’s always another step, and as the work starts coming together well, I would move more slowly and deliberately to keep from screwing something up. I had too much invested at this point. But I motored on (without any motors.)

First, I had to cut the dadoes for the shelf that splits the Dutch Tool Chest into an upper and lower compartment. This is a straight-forward operation: Cut the sides of the channel with a cross cut tenon saw and chisel the waste. Except I was so nervous of cutting the channel too wide, that I cut it too shallow and was having a hell of a time widening it without a side rabbet plane.

By coincidence, it was at this point that decided to post on a photo of an old plane I picked up at a flea market and asked for help identifying it. It’s a side rabbet plane.

I sharpened it up and set to work. After a few tests and trims, the shelf slid home. The sawdust faeries were looking out for me. But it was still two days later.


From there I added the front and rear boards with a few brad nails. My plan is to use cut nails to complete the construction, so the brads are temporary. In Christopher Schwarz’s version, the back of the chest is constructed of shiplap boards that run vertically. I simply don’t have the tools for that, so I went with two horizontal boards. I don’t foresee a lot of temperature or humidity changes in the chest’s future, and the cut nails should be able to handle any slight wood movement.


With the shelf and back in place, I cut the notches for the sliding board that will lock the unit together when the lower front is attached. Should have done the one on the bottom before gluing up the dovetails, but it came out fine anyway. For the bracket on the inside of the removable front piece, I used a piece of mahogany that I got in an Ebay grab bag. Marked the notch to fit the lock board, made several stop cuts along the length of the notch and chiseled the waste.

Well into my second weekend, it was starting to look like a chest. 


Dutch Tool Chest Part 2: Dovetail success; let the carcass begin

With the dimensions figured and the materials purchased, the first step was to cut the dovetails that attach the sides of the Dutch Tool Chest to the bottom board. One of the reasons this build appealed to me as a beginning woodworker is that it incorporates one set, and only one set, of dovetails. The rest of the case is connected by fasteners, but as with a drawer front, the bottom of the chest will handle the most stress. The flared tails will firmly secure the bottom of the chest when it is lifted.

My weeks of daily practice cutting dovetails paid off, as I cut the joint successfully on the first try. They’re not perfect, but they work and I don’t think they look too bad for a beginner.

Hand cut dovetails on a dutch tool chest

They’re not the prettiest dovetails, but for a beginner, I’m pretty happy with them.

I’ve discovered that hand saw skills are based on three things: Stance, muscle memory and confidence. As in golf, tennis and most sports, success stems not from the hands or arms, but through tuning the entire body to make and repeat the correct action starting with the placement of the feet and proper “ready” position of the core. Once the these aspects are properly dialed in, the cut becomes repeatable.

The right equipment matters too. Prior to starting the chest, I had been cutting dovetails with this Crown Gent’s Saw. It’s a good saw… love it for cutting small rabbets and dadoes… but the straight handle makes control difficult for angled cuts. During my practice I had promised myself that once I cut a successful dovetail I would reward myself with a good dovetail saw. After lots of research I chose the Veritas, which I bought at the Libertyville Woodcraft. I also picked up a Veritas dovetail saddle marker while I was there. I’ll post a review of the saw later, but suffice it to say I’m happy with it. It’s well balanced and comfortable and a huge improvement over the Gent’s saw. I went with the fine-cut, 20-ppi version only because it was the one they had in stock at Woodcraft.

How to build a dutch tool chest

The sides and bottom attached and square.

With the sides and bottom attached and square, it was time to move on to the carcass. At this point, I honestly thought the hard part was behind me and the rest of the build would be done in a few hours.

I was wrong.

Dutch Tool Chest Build

Shortly after I began my journey into working wood, I decided my first hand-tool project would be learning how to build a Dutch Tool Chest. I fell in love with the Dutch Tool Chest after seeing Christopher Schwarz present it on this episode of the Woodwright’s Shop, a show I loved as a kid and rediscovered after searching my cable provider for every woodworking show I could DVR.

How to build a Dutch Tool Chest

Roy Underhill checks out Chris Schwarz’s Dutch Tool Chest on an episode of The Woodwright’s Shop

This project seemed to have it all: Romance, utility, challenge, history. After watching the video a few times and Googling photos of Schwarz’s and others’ Dutch tool chests, I decided there were several reasons it would be the one of the best projects for a beginning woodworker.

  • It’s a perfect balance of simplicity and complexity. Dovetails connect the bottom to the sides, but the remaining joinery is done with fasteners. It would test and develop basic skills of design, measuring, marking, sawing, planing and joining without causing me to over reach my abilities and get frustrated.
  • Other than the 30 degree angle of the top, no dimensions were discussed and, at the time, no plans were available. (Plans were later made available in the Aug. 2013 issue of Popular Woodworking, but I was well into the build by the time I discovered this.) I would need to figure out the dimensions on my own. For me, problem solving is one the main draws of wood working so I avoid plans and either build from my own designs or mentally reverse engineer things that I like.
  • I could customize it to fit my needs.
  • It’s the type of project an apprentice woodworker (as I imagine myself) would tackle early on.
  • I particularly liked the simple yet clever lower compartment and locking cleat system that held on the lower front.
  • I liked the look.
  • It would provide a home for my slowly growing collection of vintage hand tools.

So  after months of trying (and failing) on an almost daily basis to cut dovetails by hand, the day finally came that I slid a pin board and tail board together… and it worked! It was time to start the Dutch.

woodworking hand cut dovetails

My first successful hand cut dovetail

Here’s the sketch I started with.

dimensions for a dutch tool chest

The first rough sketch

For dimensions, I started with the depth. Using 1 x 12 stock, the sides would be 11 1/4 inches, plus 3/4 inch added apiece by the front and back boards, for a total of 12 3/4 inches. I figured out the width by looking at a video of Schwartz hoisting the chest. We’re about the same size, so comparing his arm span to mine, I figured it to be about 30 inches. I then measured my cross cut and rip saws, which would be kept on the inside of the cover. I added a few inches for clearance and came to a final width of 33 inches. For the depth, I simply worked from the tools that would have to fit inside.

I planned to hang my chisels at the back, store my planes at the front and store my saws standing in the center. I came up with roughly 14 inches for the back and 7 inches for the front, then used the one piece of information I did know–the 30 degree angle of the slope from back to front–to determine the actual dimensions.

After several tweaks, here are the final dimensions for the Dutch tool chest that I wound up with:

  • Carcasse:
    • Width: 32 5/8
    • Depth: 12 3/4
    • Front height: 15 1/8
    • Rear height: 22 3/8
  • Top compartment:
    • Front height: 6 3/8
    • Rear height: 12 5/8
  • Lower compartment height: 8 9/16
  • Top: 33 3/8 x 15

Finally, I set a few rules for myself:

  • For historical accuracy and skill development, I would build the chest entirely using hand tools and traditional woodworking techniques… as far as my limited tool collection would allow.
  • For stock, I would use common pine and pull as much as possible from my ever growing scrap pile. I’m not confident enough yet to risk screwing up with expensive hardwoods, so I’d have to build this using home center pine. Not the most durable or romantic wood, but it’s utilitarian, cheap and easy to work. If you’re starting out, I suggest sticking with it for a while…. especially while all you’re making is sawdust and scrap.

Now, for the dovetails.