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 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.