Making Good With Salvaged Wood: Give New Life To Old Boards, And Reap The Rewards

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This article is from Issue 65 of Woodcraft Magazine.

From beams to boards to beautiful furniture. After harvesting large timbers from our industrial “forests,” reclaimed lumber specialists transform old beams into stock that’s suitable for fine furniture–like the heart pine cabinet shown here.

Give new life to old boards, and reap the rewards.

By Tim Snyder

Today, more and more woodworkers are interested in using salvaged wood. Some are building furniture that combines “reclaimed wood” with new material, while others complete entire projects using boards rescued from the dumpster. Even the high-end home furnishing catalogs tout this trend, showing off expensive wooden tables with nail holes, rust stains, and old paint as prominent features.

While the general public sees salvaged wood as a design feature that adds character and green value, woodworkers have more practical concerns–like how to deal with hidden nails, moisture content, lead paint, workability, and (last but not least) cost. That’s right: We actually have to find reliable sources for salvaged wood, select the material we want to use, and hope that our finished projects justify the extra time and trouble involved. The information ahead will explain how different woodworkers have met these challenges successfully. You’ll also find more about salvaged wood on our website, woodcraftmagazine.com.

Can old wood be “greener” than lumber from a freshly felled log?

Which 2x6 do you want to use? New framing lumber isn’t normally considered suitable for making fine furniture. But salvaged structural lumber like the Douglas fir 2x6 shown here can yield high-quality wood. Rescued from a demolished porch, the old board shows off the clear grain and dense growth ring pattern of old-growth timber.

You bet. Our growing environmental prudence continues to spur the development of “green” products, including eco-friendly, low-VOC (volatile organic compound) finishes that woodworkers use every day. Many of us place a high value on “sustainably sourced” wood that comes from well-managed forests. But salvaged wood is even more ecologically responsible.  “Embodied energy” factors (and carbon emissions) associated with salvaged wood are very low because you don’t have to harvest the tree, transport it to the mill, process logs into lumber, and ship the product across the country. Just as importantly, reclaiming lumber from the waste stream lightens the load on landfills.

For woodworkers, the benefits of using salvaged wood go beyond green value. If you love wood, the universe of salvaged lumber is worth exploring because you’ll come across material that isn’t available at a typical sawmill or lumber dealer. Quality varies greatly, but this is where you’ll find species like wormy chestnut, longleaf pine, and cypress, in dimensions that range from narrow moldings to 20"-wide floorboards. It’s also worth noting that wood salvaged from older buildings may have come from old-growth timber, providing you with density, hardness, and tight grain characteristics that are difficult or impossible to find in new lumber (see photo, above).

Profile: Appalachian Woods • Stuarts Draft, Virginia • appalachianwoods.com

A farm table with a top made from reclaimed pine has a patina and figure that you don’t get from new wood.

Old wood of all kinds

A family-owned business that began in 1976, Appalachian Woods is a major supplier of antique lumber in many forms. The company’s selection of salvaged beams, flooring, and barn siding comes from a large network of deconstruction contractors. Appalachian Woods sometimes sells old beams and other large-dimension lumber to timber-frame builders. But most often, they resaw this material into 4/4 lumber that can be milled into flooring or sold to furnituremakers. Kiln drying is another available service. When time allows, the shop crew makes farmhouse tables and benches from wormy chestnut and heart pine–two antique wood specialties.

Because small orders can be difficult to fill, owner Raymond Hochstetler recommends that local woodworkers put together a group purchase. “We’d prefer not to cut reclaimed lumber to set lengths and widths,” he says. “We like customers to tell us what they want to build–like a table or cabinet, for example. Let us know what species you want and give us an idea about wood condition, too. We’ll look through our stock and make sure you’ve got good material to work with.”

Sources for salvaged wood

  • Reclaimed lumber merchants. These specialized lumber yards have the best supply of reclaimed lumber. Small-scale operations  stock different types of reclaimed wood from local sources–like old floorboards and barn siding. Larger dealers (like Appalachian Woods, on page 33) are equipped to resaw large timbers, kiln-dry lumber, and do custom milling. They regularly produce limited runs of custom flooring and furniture-grade lumber for woodworkers to use.
  • Local remodeling contractors. Tapping into a network of local building contractors can give you access to jobsite waste that may contain valuable old wood.
  • Building deconstruction specialists. When old buildings get torn down, wrecking balls and bulldozers tend to turn old wood into splinters. But these days, deconstruction specialists often come in ahead of time to remove structural timbers, wood flooring, and architectural details. You’ll be lucky to find a deconstruction company that sells direct to the general public. Most prefer to wholesale their salvage to reclaimed lumber merchants and architectural salvage stores.
  • Architectural salvage companies. These businesses stock a wide range of reclaimed building materials, but don’t expect a well-organized selection of reclaimed wood. Locate nearby outlets by typing “architectural salvage” and your location into your Internet browser. Since you can’t count on finding what you need, it’s smart to call first.
  • Habitat ReStore outlets. There are over 800 Restores in the U.S. and over 70 in Canada. At any given outlet, you’ll find a variety of salvaged materials. Old wood is not as common as other items like plumbing fixtures, doors, and cabinets. Go to habitat.org/restores to locate your nearest ReStore.

Profile: Salem Board & Beam • Northampton, Massachusetts • salemboard.com

Using barn beams to build fine furniture

Before founding the Salem Board & Beam Co. in 1997, Ken Salem worked as an investment advisor. His passion for creating furniture from reclaimed lumber was awakened when he took a break from banking to help transform a 1705 farmhouse into a restaurant. “It may sound strange,” Salem explains, “but when I put my hands on a timber that was last touched by a craftsman over 200 years ago, I feel a powerful connection to the woodworkers who came before me. Building furniture from this wood is my way of honoring the tradition as well as the challenges of fine craftsmanship.”

“If I saw an old barn,” Salem recalls, “I’d find the owner and ask if I could take it down in order to salvage some of the lumber.” Salem even bought a portable bandsaw mill so that he could transform beams into boards. Many of Salem’s pieces are made from salvaged chestnut, a species that vanished from the American landscape as a result of the chestnut blight of the early 1900s.

If you’re planning a project with reclaimed lumber, Salem recommends starting with an ample supply. “You don’t want to be halfway through a project and realize that you’re running out of suitable stock,” he says. But there are also ways to make the most of a small amount of salvaged material.

“Antique lumber can be used in combination with newer wood if you design a piece of furniture to highlight the old material,” Salem advises. For example, you could use salvaged wood for drawer fronts in a case made of new wood, or as door panels surrounded by stiles and rails cut from new material.

Ken Salem’s armoire (at right) is made entirely from salvaged chestnut. His tall chest (opposite) combines chestnut with spalted maple. 



Salvaged wood PROS & CONS

Expect imperfections. This selection of salvaged oak boards shows why extra stock preparation time is necessary when working with reclaimed lumber. Nail holes, old paint, cracks, and warping are common defects.

Finding the right reclaimed lumber for a special project will depend on dimension requirements, wood species preferences, and the finished appearance you’re aiming for.  Cost is important, too, along with the amount of work required to make your salvaged lumber usable. The salvaged lumber types below are listed from least to most expensive. As you might expect, less-expensive types often have more significant disadvantages.

Jobsite waste

The dumpster or discard pile at a construction site can contain a large amount of new offcuts (plywood and framing lumber), which will have limited value for furniture and fine woodworking. But old framing, flooring, and trim can provide you with valuable material.
PROS: Free (if you know the right contractors) and local. If the wood has been indoors, it probably won’t require kiln-drying. 
CONS: Availability depends on remodeling activity in your area and your relationship with local contractors. Quantity and quality can vary greatly. Disassembly and denailing required. Lead paint may be present on older material.

Pallet wood

These plentiful platforms have inspired many DIY projects.
PROS: Low or no cost. No lead paint or other finish to remove. Locally available. Nearly unlimited supply. Exotic wood from imported pallets is sometimes available.
CONS: Disassembly and denailing required. Boards are short, narrow, and usually no more than 3⁄4" thick. Splits, nail holes, and oil stains are common.

Structural timbers

Most large-dimension stock comes from old barns, industrial buildings, and other structures. Douglas fir and longleaf pine (aka heart pine) are the two most common species in this category.
PROS: Best source for large-dimension stock. 
CONS: Expensive and difficult to transport. Resawing is usually necessary. Kiln-drying may be necessary. Some reclaimed lumber dealers decline to fill small orders.

Doors, cabinetry and millwork 

Architectural salvage outlets have an ample supply of these elements.
PROS: Items like old doors and antique wainscot paneling can yield straight, clear, high-quality lumber.  Doors, molding, and paneling may be reusable with little or no alteration. You just size your project to fit these architectural artifacts.
CONS: High waste factor and added labor if you plan to cut usable lumber from doors or millwork. Lead paint is possible. Limited dimension choices can limit design options.

Sunken logs

A small number of companies specialize in milling lumber and flooring from “sinker” logs rescued from lake and river bottoms.  The Goodwin Company (heartpine.com) has excellent historical and product information on this special category of salvaged wood.
PROS: Beautiful, premium-quality lumber is available. Custom-milling is sometimes possible, if you need special dimensions. Wood is kiln-dried and ready to work.
CONS: Limited availability. High delivered cost.

How to work with salvaged wood

If you want to incorporate salvaged wood into a woodworking project, it’s important to know what to expect and how to deal with issues that don’t come up with new lumber. The guidelines below will help you work safely, and get the best results when putting old wood to new uses.

Start with more than you need

Add at least another 15% to your stock requirement estimate when working with salvaged lumber. Increase the overage factor if your reclaimed lumber has lead paint, oil stains, mold, excessive cracking, or other undesirable characteristics.

Check for rot & insects

Old wood can attract insects like powder post beetles, as well as mold that can develop into wood rot. Remove surface mold by scrubbing with a mild bleach solution.  If you find wood rot, it’s best to cut away the punky wood or simply discard the board. As for insects, these pests can be killed by kiln-drying or by fumigating the wood with appropriate pesticide. Some pest control companies will perform this service.

Combine protection with dust collection. When sanding old paint, wear a toxic dust respirator and connect your sander to a HEPA-rated vacuum. Cover the floor with a plastic drop cloth to contain and dispose of dust and paint flakes. Make sure to wash your work clothes after a sanding session. 
Red = lead. Always test old paint for lead content, using a test kit that’s available at home centers and paint stores. Chemicals in the test swab will turn red if lead is present. A darker shade means greater contamination. If your material has multiple coats of paint, scrape top layers away in order to test more thoroughly.

Work safe

Use a toxic-dust respirator when sanding and cutting dirty or painted salvaged wood. When removing paint or dirt, make sure to use a dust-capturing sander in combination with a tool-triggered dust collector or shop vac equipped with a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate arrestance) filter. 

Remove lead paint safely

Any paint applied before 1977 is likely to contain lead, which can cause serious medical problems if paint flakes or dust are ingested. If you plan to use salvaged lumber that has paint on it, test for lead content before you work the wood. This is easy to do with a test kit available at home centers, hardware stores, and paint stores. If your reclaimed lumber tests positive for lead paint, one option is to simply resaw your lumber to remove a thin layer of painted wood. Seal the scrap material in a thick plastic bag, and contact your local health department for safe disposal instructions. Lead paint can be scraped and sanded off, provided that you work safely as described earlier, and use a plastic drop cloth to capture (and dispose of) any dust or flakes that fall onto the floor of your work area.

Test for metal

A visual inspection is the first step in identifying nails and other metal that shouldn’t be put in the path of cutting tools. It’s smarter still to double-check your wood with a metal detector. Be ready to excavate around embedded fasteners that don’t respond to a hammer claw. A couple of cat’s paws are useful tools for this work, along with end-cutting pliers to grab headless nails. 

Pay attention to moisture content

Many larger reclaimed lumber dealers offer stock that has been kiln-dried and ready for furniture construction. But in most other cases, you’ll need a moisture meter to evaluate salvaged material. Any wood that measures above 20% MC will be prone to warping and cracking as it dries out in your shop or storage shed. A moisture meter will tell you when salvaged wood is at the same equilibrium moisture content (EMC) as the new wood in your shop. 

Sand before you plane

Even if there’s no metal in the wood, grit and dirt will quickly dull planer and jointer knives. Rough-sanding and scraping will remove this grime and expose a clean wood surface that you can confidently machine.

Locate blemishes with care

The orientation of grain patterns is an important consideration when designing furniture that will be stained or clear-finished.

So are the markings on salvaged lumber. Some woodworkers choose to exclude features like nail holes, rust stains, and paint patches, while others incorporate this historic evidence into their designs. Either way, you’ll need to decide how these details are handled. For example, don’t locate a nail hole where it might weaken or interfere with a structural joint.

Record historic details

Does your salvaged wood have a story? If so, write it down. Some woodworkers create a “certificate” for furniture or other projects made from salvaged lumber. This historical record is a nice way to pass on details that make a project special.  

Profile: Landrum Tables • Charleston, South Carolina  • landrumtables.com

Stock and custom designs are available from Landrum Tables. The inset photo shows part of a dining tabletop made from pecky cypress. The irregular channels are created by fungus that attacks the wood fibers.

Modern tables, made from antique wood

A native of Charleston, South Carolina, Capers Cauthen grew up surrounded by historic buildings and schooled in the value of art and architecture by his father, a noted preservationist. In the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo in 1989, Cauthen worked as a carpenter restoring damaged buildings. Disturbed by the huge volume of antique lumber that was being sent to landfills, he decided to do something about it. Cauthen built his first two tables using salvaged lumber from a collapsed garage on his grandmother’s property. Six years later, tables remain a specialty, although other custom woodworking projects are also undertaken from time to time. 

“Our aim is to please our clients while accentuating the inherent beauty and history of every piece of wood we use,” says employee Jim Pagel.

Cauthen’s connection to historic preservation groups in his region often gives him early notice whenever an old building is slated for demolition. “Preserving an historic structure is always the top priority,” he explains. “But when that can’t happen, at least we can salvage some of the best wood and give it new life in the furniture we build.”

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