The quality of lumber available today is no match for the lumber of yore. That is not to say today's lumber is bad, it’s just not the same type of lumber produced 50, 75 or 100 years ago. Lumber produced in the past was cut from slower growing trees that produced denser wood. Go back far enough and lumber was cut from virgin timber grown in the great northern and northwestern forests.
The good news is that wonderful, vintage lumber is available for use today. Some companies specialize in selling old lumber. They range from businesses that offer specific types of lumber, such as railroad ties or wood flooring to non-profit organizations such as Habitat for Humanity's Re-Store. Your other alternative? Salvage your own vintage lumber by dismantling old structures—otherwise known as architectural salvage. Using reclaimed lumber also makes ecological sense in that each board you salvage is one less board that must be produced, thereby saving the environment.
Many woods can reclaimed and reused. The most popular is barn wood, which is used for everything from furniture to interior accents to paneling. Railroad ties, old doors, framing lumber, heavy beams, and wood pallets have also become popular vintage construction materials. One of the newest materials is reclaimed decking from semi-trailers, often red or white oak (see our Latest Products in this newsletter featuring Reclaimed Route 66 Lumber, which is sourced from the decks of tractor trailer trucks).
The secret is careful reclamation and cleaning to prepare the lumber for reuse. Minimizing damage is also essential; old structures were put together with hand-forged nails or wooden pegs so taking them apart can be labor intensive. Special care is needed to minimize damage. Most critical to that goal is to take your time and do it right.
There may be disadvantages to using reclaimed lumber. Dismantling a building in Oregon and moving to lumber to a job site in North Carolina may not be economical or ecological because of the energy required to move it. Also vintage wood often comes in non-standard sizes. At the turn of the century and before, a 2X4 or an 8X10 was actually two inches by four inches or eight inches by ten inches. In many cases, especially in barns, there were no standard sizes. The log from which it was hewn determined the size of a beam.
Reclaimed lumber offers a look and quality that is hard to match, and it adds warm, beautiful character to whatever project you undertake. Whether you buy reclaimed lumber or reclaim it yourself, you won’t regret the results.