If this old barn frame (left) looks like a ruin to you, look again: as reclaimed lumber it’s actually a goldmine of potential woodworking projects. Whether it’s a 12x12 white-oak beam or a field of wide-plank Douglas fir flooring, reclaimed lumber adds character to just about any project. Nail stains, saw marks and old-growth grain patterns convey a sense of history and integrity that new lumber can’t match.
Reclaimed lumber isn’t limited to high-profile beams and vintage flooring; the term includes any previously used wood that’s ready to be transformed into a new project. The key is looking past the material’s current state and seeing its potential. Even a mundane object such as an old pallet or a packing crate has the potential to be a future heirloom.
Though reclaimed lumber has gained popularity during the past several years, the concept isn’t new. In fact, some reclaimed lumber shows signs that it has been reclaimed before. Jim Hildebrandt, owner of Barnwood of Minnesota, has recovered many framing members that appear to have been twice-reclaimed. “We’ve taken down buildings from the 1920s that contained beams that look like they originally came from buildings that were built in the late 1800s,” he says. “We can tell from the cutting marks and fastener holes when a beam was reused. I guess that makes it re-reclaimed lumber.”
Finding reclaimed lumber
If you need large pieces or large quantities of reclaimed lumber, a commercial supplier is your best option. These companies are speculators that love their work and their products. They look for hidden sources of good-quality wood in old barns, granaries, warehouses and even train trestles built with large pieces of lumber. The sleuths who succeed at harvesting this limited resource are equal parts woodworker, historian, treasure hunter, scavenger, demolition expert and remodeling contractor. Sometimes they must buy the wood; other times they get it in exchange for removing and hauling away the old structure or are even paid to take it.
Though more commercial suppliers are operating today than 15 years ago, it’s unlikely that you’ll find them listed in the Yellow Pages. To search for a supplier, you can start by contacting local sawmills, especially smaller operations. Saw mills often sell reclaimed lumber or do milling for local reclaimed-lumber dealers.
The Internet is another great way to search for reclaimed lumber. Combine your state name with key words such as “reclaimed lumber,” “barnwood,” “antique,” “beam,” “timber” or a specific wood species name. You’ll likely find businesses from all over the country. You don’t have to limit your search to local dealers because most will ship to anywhere in the United States, although you’ll typically get the best deal and will limit shipping costs by working with a local source. Reclaimed-lumber suppliers tend to know other dealers, and most are willing to help guide you to a source that has what you want.
Suppliers typically stock species that are native to their region because older buildings were usually built of native lumber. You’re most likely to find a specific wood by working with a supplier where that species grows. Some species, such as Douglas fir, that have been used extensively as structural lumber throughout the country can be found in varying quantities just about everywhere (although you’ll still find the largest quantities of Douglas fir on the West Coast).
You can also find reclaimed lumber on your own. Smaller quantities for furniture or other small projects may be right under your nose. For example, an old solid-wood door is a great candidate for reclaiming. (See Web Extras for an example of how a wood door was transformed into several new objects.)
Working with reclaimed lumber
You never know what’s been done to a piece of lumber before you get it. So before cutting, you must thoroughly inspect the wood for nails or other hidden metal objects. One hardened ring-shank nail can destroy a band saw blade. (Even if you luck out and it doesn’t get the sawmill blade, it will likely end up damaging another tool blade later on as the wood is worked.) Professionals use powerful pole- and wand-style metal detectors that can scan through large timbers, but less-expensive consumer models are available. These devices pay for themselves in saved saw blades.
Once the lumber is free of metal, it’s ready to mill. Most 14-in. band saws have the capacity to resaw at least a 6-in.-wide beam (and wider if you install a riser block), but supporting and controlling long beams is a challenge. Hire a sawing service to cut timbers longer than 4 ft. or if you have a lot of stock to cut. Some will even make house calls, using a portable band saw mill that they can tow to just about any location, so you don’t have to haul large logs or beams. Sawing-service costs are typically based on an hourly rate. (Band saw cutting services in my area cost about $50 an hour.) You will also be responsible for the cost of any ruined blades caused by hidden metal.
Most reclaimed lumber is already dry and stable, but if it has been stored uncovered outside, it will likely need to dry before you can work with it. Reclaimed-lumber suppliers often kiln dry their lumber to a uniform moisture-content level of about 8 percent. You can also air dry the lumber yourself by stacking it in your shop. Purchase a moisture meter if you plan to work with a lot of reclaimed or found lumber.
Another potential problem to consider is insect damage. It can add character, but it can also destroy the lumber’s structural integrity. Most insects are more of a nuisance than a hazard and will evacuate during the milling and drying process. You can kill them without damaging the lumber by spraying the affected areas with mineral spirits. Avoid lumber that has been infested by aggressive wood-eating insects such as termites.
Once the wood is milled and dry, it’s ready to be transformed into whatever you can imagine. The fruit of your labor will be a new creation that already has a rich history.
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