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.

 

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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.