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.

Pre-blight American Chestnut interior barn door, faded blue milk paint, water stains, iron nails; ca. 1850, Floyd, VA.

Old Growth Wood

America’s frontier forests were vast, and by all accounts, largely virgin or old growth. Standing in a virgin forest, one is impressed by how tall and massive the trees are, and how little undergrowth there is. We are told that this is because the trees spread a dense root system that allows very little else to grow at their feet.

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, old-growth poplar forest, North Carolina.

It is said that in the early years of the Virginia colony that a man could ride from the ocean to the mountains without stopping once, and that a squirrel could travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River without once touching the ground. It was like riding through a park with an endless tree canopy overhead. The stories conjure images of America’s unspoiled primordial landscape, the Eden that once was before logging, farming, and industry changed the landscape forever.

“Estes Park, Colorado, Whyte’s Lake,” by Edward Bierstadt, 1877.

Scholars, as they so often do, contest the romantic image, pointing to Native American practices of controlled burning to clear underbrush for hunting and maintaining fields and travel ways, accidental fire clearing, and other evidence of human modification of the forest prior to European contact. It is a sad irony that America’s forests are thought to have recovered during the  300 years after first contact with European diseases decimated the Native American population in the 16th century and before the great European immigration boom of the 19th century. In any case, the frontier era of the 18th and early 19th centuries was a landscape of trees, tall and straight and dotted with massive giants as far as the eye could see—a vast virgin forest.

This radio episode of BackStory, “Untrammeled [2016]: The Forest ‘Primeval'” does a great job of describing the history of America’s forests.

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“Home in the Woods,” by Thomas Cole, White Mountains, New Hampshire, 1847.

In an old growth forest, trees grow slowly and primarily upward. While they spend most of their energy growing tall reaching for the sun, relatively little girth is put on year after year. As a result, their growth rings are very narrow, which can be seen when the wood is sawn. This tight ring pattern identifies old growth wood. On this continent, this difference can be seen especially with pine and oak, species which tend to exhibit a wide grain pattern in newly lumbered wood. Pine in particular is farmed in such a way as to produce very fast growing trees. For some, the tight grain of old growth wood is a thing of beauty, and choosing it a matter of personal aesthetics. It is admired because it signifies the rarity of the wood or just because it is deemed beautiful. But there are other benefits to old growth wood, including greater strength, stability, rot resistance, and insect resistance. Although a good reclaimed wood artisan will treat this old wood for insects by kiln drying or fumigation (we prefer a borax solution for its environmental friendliness when chemical treating), new insect damage is virtually unheard of in old growth antique wood. The nutrients and soft moist environment sought by wood boring insects have long since vanished by the time this wood is reclaimed.

Old growth white oak beam cut to show a cross section, 20+ rings per inch, and old worm chase; ca. 1790, Floyd, VA.

Aged Patinas

Weathered wood acquires a distinct silvered patina, and this patina, particularly present in old barnwood, is desirable in some decorating schemes. Naturally time-weathered wood not only silvers but develops pitted textures that cannot be duplicated by faux finishing, sandblasting, or other means.

Smokehouse door, weathered grey, pitted, lichen, ca. 1850, Floyd, VA.

But interior wood not exposed to the elements develops other kinds of patinas over time. Darkening occurs that can penetrate into the interior of the wood. It provides a rich distinctive look that staining tries to emulate but inevitably fails to match. Again, the preference for these patinas is a matter of personal choice.

Antique white oak resawn and planed from 19th century beams, hatch-marked surfaces (left) and interior wood (right) both naturally darkened by age, clear lacquer finished.

Rare Woods

Some of the most commonly used building materials in the 19th and early 20th centuries during America’s great construction boom are now virtually extinct or extremely rare. American chestnut was a fast growing hardwood that was relatively light, easy to work, and extremely rot resistant. This tree was a cornerstone of the Appalachian economy, providing wood for building and nuts for trade and food. A fungal blight imported with the Chinese chestnut all but destroyed this native tree in the first decades of the 20th century. Worm damage characterizes blight stricken trees, and the presence of large distinctive wormholes identifies “wormy chestnut” from pre-blight harvested chestnut wood. The wood is a light brown that ages to a dark nutty brown over time. The wormy type has become prized for its distinctive character.

Wormy American chestnut tabletop, Floyd, VA

Longleaf yellow pine is a slow-growing native to the Atlantic and Gulf coastal regions of the United States savannah lowlands. These trees grow very tall and straight, and yield wide boards and rot resistant timbers and posts. This species was instrumental in the Industrial Revolution, providing factory timber framing and flooring, as well as being used extensively in naval construction. Today, it has been over-farmed and replaced with faster growing pine species so that it is practically unavailable as new lumber. Reclaimed longleaf yellow pine is invariably old growth, extremely durable and stable, and has a high percentage of heart wood content. Heart wood is the center wood which is no longer living at the time of harvest. In this species it is extremely strong and resistant to decay. Longleaf yellow pine is notable for its long tight grain pattern, soft luster, and reddish tint when aged. Hard among softwoods, it is considered very beautiful by many.

Reclaimed longleaf yellow pine flooring, quartersawn, clear finished.

There are many other kinds of rare, endangered, or extinct wood species that are available through reclamation: black locust, species of walnut, yew, teak, and many others. As with all reclaimed wood, we are reminded to approach these special pieces with care and respect. Preserving the past requires attention, time, and materials not needed for working with the new. The added labor involved in both salvaging old wood and preparing it for reuse, together with its limited and ultimately finite supply—when it’s gone, there will be no more to replace it—make this material more expensive. Reclaimed wood isn’t for everyone. But for those who love it or who find themselves falling in love with it, it is an adventure well worth taking.

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