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New Life for Old Growth Lumber
by James I. Miller

Been shopping for new lumber lately? One of the most challenging aspects of building anything from wood today is finding high quality goods. Just visit any of the popular “box stores” for proof.

In the search for good wood, more and more custom builders and discriminating home owners are turning to a valuable old resource – the precious supply of recovered wood from old homes, barns, buildings and other structures that have simply outlived their utility. Some of these structures are razed for safety purposes, while others are destroyed to make room for modern construction.

Much of the wood in these older creations was cut from old-growth forests, and is in many ways superior to the products of today. And better yet, much of it can be recovered and recycled, creating a win-win situation. Recycling keeps material from entering the wood waste stream and gives exciting new life to old lumber.

The idea of recycling wood goes back a long ways. In less developed cultures where wood resources – or any resources – are scarce, the practice of re-using building materials is commonplace. Woodworkers in far off lands or isolated island nations are often fully skilled in “deconstruction,” the habitual dismantling and storage of hard-to-find wood products for use in other projects. These reverse-carpentry skills are exactly what are needed to reclaim the valuable old wood resources lurking in structures of the past.

Aside from the merits of recycling, what makes recovered wood so desirable? “It’s the quality,” said Richard McFarland, co-owner of TerraMai, a northern California firm that specializes in recycling old-growth wood products. “There’s a feeling of heritage or history that comes from recycled wood that you just can’t get from recently milled products,” he added. This linkage to the past is even more significant, as it’s estimated that recycling wood can add another 100 years to the expected service life of old lumber. It also reduces the need to harvest a shrinking supply of existing old-growth reserves.

Unlike the building products of today, recycled wood has a remarkably different grain structure. It’s denser, primarily due to the slow, natural growth process that created it. The dense grain has a fine, higher quality look that few new woods can match. Highlighting the tighter grain is a time-honored pallet of rich, warm colors that tell everyone there’s something special going on here. In contrast, newer lumber typically comes from tree farms.

In spite of its qualities, recycled wood is a long ways from perfect. But for most applications, and for most customers, that’s not important. In fact, it’s sometimes the unique flaws that draw customers to it in the first place. The character that comes from nail holes, burns, stains, and discoloration add warmth and charm that new wood just doesn't offer. “It’s exactly what a lot of people want today,” said Jeff Horn, owner of Yesteryear Floorworks, Inc., in York, Pennsylvania. “Recycled wood offers something unique. Evidence of a former life can make it a focal point or even a conversation piece the second time around,” said Horn.

Recycled wood has structural advantages, too. Steve Moyer, owner of The Kendalbrook Company, Inc., builder of custom homes in Sylvania, Ohio said, “Older wood has completely dried out. It doesn’t twist or warp like new material can. The longer it’s in place, the wood becomes seasoned, and the stability it acquires makes it great for high visibility pieces like mantles, archways and especially hardwood flooring. We prefer working with older, recycled beams anytime we can find the right piece for the job,” Moyer added.

A wide variety of new building products are milled from reclaimed wood materials. Among them is dimensional lumber and rough-sawed or hand-hewn beams – the “big stuff” that shows. Other popular uses for recycled wood include casework for cabinetry and architectural items such as molding and trim pieces. But the most popular application for recycled wood is flooring. “People notice floors,” said Jeff Horn. And with more surface area to work with, many specialty builders consider floors to be the ideal application to showcase the beauty of recycled woods.

With the benefits of recycling wood apparently so clear, why isn’t more of it being done? Richard McFarland of TerraMai observes, “It’s often the economics of time. Recycling old-growth lumber is painstakingly done by hand. Each piece must be reclaimed one at a time and it takes an investment of labor to do the job well. Contractors don’t always have the luxury of advance planning for dismantling an old structure. As a consequence, a lot of the old-growth wood that might be recycled is swept away and disposed of as construction debris,” he said.

Then there’s the aspect of cost. Insurance companies are sometimes reluctant to write coverage for deconstruction firms, or must charge premiums that are simply too high for smaller operators. “Recovering timber from old buildings gets expensive at times,” said McFarland. “But money saved on wrecking equipment can be spent on worker’s comp and wages for skilled craftspeople.”

As history so often points out, there will be obstacles on any worthwhile pursuit. Recycling old-growth wood is no exception.

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