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This article is from Issue 10 of Woodcraft Magazine.
Working with reclaimed wood can be satisfying and cost-effective. Doing your homework is key when buying and working with reclaimed materials.
By Stephen C. Staples
Our forefathers lived in a world of candlelight, wood-fired ovens and outdoor plumbing. There were few machines available for processing logs to lumber, so it took two men with a long saw and strong arms to cut a log into boards. The boards then had to be hand-planed smooth.
I like to call reclaimed boards used in a tabletop or furniture piece today “the floors and walls of history.” This wood was walked on by the men and women who originally came to America and fought for their independence. Whether you build them or buy them, pieces crafted from reclaimed wood can be time-tested, artistic creations that will last into the next generation and beyond. Working with wood that was harvested from virgin forests and used to build the original America is an honor, and repurposing it into beautiful furniture is true bliss.
OLD, OLDER, OLDEST? Circular saw, gash saw, and hand saw marks are found on pieces of reclaimed pine. Such marks can help form a rough estimate of the wood’s age.
You Never Find the Same THING Twice
Reclaimed wood comes in many forms. You will find it in varying widths, thicknesses, textures, species and character; it will never come the same way twice. Wood can be reclaimed from painted and unpainted house flooring, attic flooring, nailed and unnailed flooring and flooring that has received a lot of foot traffic, wearing the boards very smooth with the hard knots raised. There are thick, wide planks that were nailed on studs randomly spaced to form the walls of a home. Then there are beautifully finished boards that on occasion made up the interior walls of a home. Their characteristics, which vary according to how the wood was used, determine their value.
Although there were no building codes, early builders knew the different characteristics and best uses of the different species. Early New Englanders rarely used hardwood for the floors of their homes. They used both hard and soft pine because it was plentiful and easier to cut than the harder woods. Oak and American sweet chestnut were used for beams and structural walls requiring a great deal of strength. Later, when water wheels were used to power gash saws — large saws with six blades evenly spaced, which cut with a reciprocating action — builders started using oak and chestnut for flooring.
Different kinds of found wood
The nice thing about attic flooring is that it is hardly ever painted. In earlier days, attics were working storage areas for supplies like corn and grain. Many attic floorboards that were put in place rough-sawn 200 years ago have been worn smooth by the constant moving of crates and such, and now make excellent tabletops.
“Grainery pine” is wood that was used to build grain bins. The constant movement of grain across the surface of this wood gave it a smooth, oily-looking surface. When grainery pine boards are hand-planed, they take on an oil finish beautifully.
New England hard pine (also known as yellow pine) was all but clear-cut during the Industrial Revolution to build factories. Much of this wood is being reclaimed from factory floors and beams, then resawn for flooring and furniture.
One predominant species of colonial times was the American sweet chestnut, which was used for many purposes, especially for structural beams. In 1906, a blight from overseas nearly killed off this species. Today it is highly praised by cabinetmakers for its hardness, workability and golden-brown color.
Oak, like chestnut, was used in all aspects of building, again primarily for beams. Oak can often be mistaken for chestnut; however, if you cut a sliver off a board and a wonderful golden-brown wood shows, it is chestnut.
In the late 1800s, spruce was used for beams and some flooring. It’s not the most desirable reclaimed wood, because it typically never takes on a patina. As you can see when you cut or plane it, spruce remains white. Hemlock may also show up as beams and flooring, and has a nice color and grain. In fact, hemlock makes beautiful tabletops but has a tendency to be splintery, resembling the feel of Velcro.
One of my least favorite finds is nailed-over flooring. It can be found when plywood has been nailed down over original wide plank floorboards, and then a hardwood floor nailed over the plywood with flooring nails, hammered in at angles. When the new floor is pulled up, many of the angled-in nails rip chunks out of the original wide plank floorboards. These tearouts — usually about 1" wide and 3" long — are numerous and must be filled. The labor to fill these holes can be excessive, and the finished surface will look patchy.
Did you say “Kiln” or “Killed”?
Reclaimed lumber has many attributes. The forests of early America were thick, supporting a large canopy. This thick canopy kept the trees growing very slowly in the shade. This produced very tight growth rings, hence a heavy, hard and dense wood. Wood bought today at the lumberyard is all kiln-dried, a process of adding high heat and moisture to the wood over a period of time, literally to cook out the moisture.
In contrast, old wood has been dried naturally over time. It would take a year to dry a 1"-thick board naturally whereas the same process could take place in a kiln in two weeks. Most fine woodworkers who have had a chance to try both say in comparison to the air-dried wood, the kiln-dried wood seems to have been “killed.” As a result, much of the wood’s workability and resilience are gone. The color or patina of old wood is beautiful, deep and dark; new wood has to be stained to achieve this. The texture and character of old wood are widely preferred for many aesthetic reasons.
A SIMPLE FIX for knotholes: keep a stash of limb sections. Fit a piece of limb into the hole, then trim it flush.
Finding Reclaimed Wood
Reclaimed wood can come from the floor of a house, barn, or hayloft, or from an old bookcase, boat deck or church pew. Lumber is even being resawn from logs that sank 200-plus years ago while floating to the sawmill, and are now being brought up from the bottoms of lakes and rivers. However you find it, the reclaimed wood will be dense and strong, and will have a color unsurpassed by conventional staining. Best of all, every time you build with reclaimed material, you take a small step to help our environment.
Tips for finding and purchasing reclaimed wood:
1. Learn your woods — Even if you know all the indigenous species at the lumberyard, such as maple, cherry and oak, learn the characteristics and looks of reclaimed woods. Know the characteristics of the conifers such as hard pine, hemlock, spruce, fir and other reclaimed materials like chestnut and butternut.
2. Older is better — Look for wood with saw marks running vertically and parallel to each other. This wood will be older, resulting in a deeper color and wood density. Wood from 1860 on could carry the marks of a circular saw.
3. Stay away from thick paint — It is best to keep away from thickly painted boards. If it is newly painted (within 100 years or so), make sure the wood is thick enough so the paint can be easily power-planed off. Using conventional stripper takes too long and creates a mess.
4. Look for beetle damage — If you see small holes and/or piles of sawdust, the wood has active powder post beetles. These beetles do their damage just below the surface of the wood. It is best to stay away from this wood. Dust-filled tunnels will show up when you begin to work the wood.
COMMON PROBLEMS WITH RECLAIMED WOOD
Clockwise from right: A warped beam from a deconstruction project. CUPPING can occur when a reclaimed board is resawn, just as it might in fresh-cut wood. CRACKING can be obvious, as in this photo, or hard to see. A chair rung showing entrance holes made by powder post beetles, and the same rung broken to show extensive tunneling damage.
5. Watch for dry rot — Look for soft, punky spots where a knife tip will penetrate easily. Dry rot is similar to powder post beetle spots, but with dry rot there is no telltale fine dust.
6. Watch for cracks — Look for cracks in the wood that are hard to see and are usually caused by an aggressive deconstruction process. Consider the time to repair the board in the purchase price.
7. Don’t buy wood at night — Just like buying a car, you want to see what you are getting. Much can be missed in the dark, so take a good look at the wood in daylight so imperfections can be spotted more easily.
8. Look for imperfections — Look for little hard-to-find things such as worm holes, lifted grain, brown painted finishes that look like wood, and cupped or twisted boards. Also check the consistency of the wood thickness. Some boards can be a shy ¾" on one end to 1¼" on the other end. Just a slight cup in the board will cause a surface, rich with patina and character, to be removed when it is milled off.
9. Every piece has a story — Learn the story of your wood − its history and how old it is. Check for valuable distinguishing marks of early American craftsmen.
10. Ask questions about the process — If the wood has been resawn, ask if the wood was kiln-dried or air-dried. Resawn wood should be treated as a freshly cut tree. Although it won’t take as long to dry, there is still a chance it will cup or twist.
11. Take a whiff — Smelling the wood will tell a lot about the its history.
Especially if it was part of the home of cats, raccoons, cows or other animals. Some odors can be very strong and difficult to remove.
12. Look for materials other than wood — You can often find reusable hardware and other items when hunting for wood.
OVER THE YEARS, horses wore indentations into the wood used to build this unique hutch. The author reclaimed the wood from horse stalls and let it tell its story by showcasing the worn areas.
Tips for working with your reclaimed wood:
1. Designate a “nail blade” for your circular saw, to be used only for material you think could have nails hidden in it. Cutting through nails is dangerous and could ignite a fire in your dust collection area.
2. If the wood is dirty and gritty, wash it with a pressure washer or strong hose and detergent. Stand the boards on end to drip-dry quickly.
3. Powder post beetles can be killed with either sustained heat, keeping the core temperature of the wood at 135 degrees for 30 minutes, or with a chemical called Boracare. Boracare is a salt product that, when ingested by the adult beetle, will kill the flora in its intestinal tract and cause it to starve to death.
4. Old wood poses health risks, just as new wood does. When working with any wood, be sure to wear gloves, respirator and goggles, and have adequate ventilation.
5. Try turning a table leg on the lathe without the aid of calipers to achieve a more authentic, handmade appearance. Look at a handmade table, and you will see a tremendous variation in leg circumference from one leg to another.
6. Have a collection of white pine and maple tree limb sections in a variety of diameters. When an original knot is missing, glue in its void a section of limb and cut it off flush.
7. Showcase your find’s quirks; for example, use an elaborate split or knothole as a decorative element.
A master craftsman and furniture maker with more than 30 years of experience, Stephen Staples specializes in furniture design using reclaimed and old-growth wood. For more information, visit staplescabinetmakers.com.
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