What makes reclaimed wood so special? At its most elemental, reclaimed wood is salvaged from its original use and turned into something new rather than relying on new lumber. It could be a 5 year old pallet, a 50 year old shed, or a 200 year old log building. The critical difference is that reclaimed wood has been put to use at least once and will be reused rather than thrown away or chipped up for mulch. In every case, it means that living trees won’t be harvested for this project. Wood for a table or a door or flooring may represent a drop in the bucket for forest preservation, but as the parable of the starfish reminds us: it matters to these trees. Beyond that, it’s all about the wood.

Pallets make a rough but serviceable reclaimed wood source.

Talk about reclaimed wood with a connoisseur and their eyes glow. They talk about character marks, tight ring patterns, unique aged patinas, extinct or rare woods, and the story of the piece. They wax eloquent about the founding of this country and about the sweat of labor required to hack the wood out of the wilderness by hand. It’s hard to avoid when studying the subject.

What they’re really talking about is antique reclaimed wood. We typically define reclaimed wood as antique when we date it from the 19th century or earlier. This has more to do with the historical landscape of wood harvest on this continent than a standard definition of the term antique, as we will see.

Character Marks

During the frontier era, buildings in North America were constructed of hand-hewn beams and hand-sawn boards using the abundant stands of trees in the local vicinity. The tools and methods of modern millwork weren’t available, and the hand-wielded methods left their mark on the wood. Adze and ax marks hatch the surface of hand-hewn beams and tell a story of countless hours of hard labor to square a log with hand tools.

Hand-hewn white oak logs, ca. 1830, Floyd, Virginia

Irregular saw marks trace the surface of wood sawn by hand into boards by a two-handled saw drawn back and forth between two men.

Pit-sawn or cross-sawn antique white oak, ca. 1790, Floyd, VA.

The great effort required to produce both of these kinds of wood materials is difficult for the modern mind to fathom.

Woodcut print showing two men cutting a log into planks, Latrobe Photographic Collection, National Trust Tasmania. Source: Wikipedia.

Although water-powered and mechanized sawmills replaced these hand methods by the early 19th century, individual use in remote areas, especially by simple farmers and landowners of limited means persisted sometimes into the early 20th century. But even the mechanized mills of the 19th and early 20th century were less precise than modern sawmills, and left their distinctive marks on wood produced during that time. Long curved or straight rough saw marks trace parallel lines across the surface of saw trace wood produced by early mechanized mills. These boards are thicker and wider than most modern lumber, and often of a kind of wood rarely seen anymore: old growth white oak, American chestnut, and longleaf yellow pine, among others.

Circular saw-trace reclaimed white oak barn boards, ca. 1850, Floyd, VA.

And let us not forget the marks that time, wear, and use add to an antique piece of wood. Dents and scratches, worm traces and iron stains become like the battle scars by which a veteran tells his story. Each piece becomes unique, marked by its making, by its use, and by the history of which it is a part. If it could speak, this wood would tell the story of a people and the building of a nation. I wax eloquent.