For many of us, reclaimed wood is our gateway to the world of woodworking. Be it wood from the side of the road, pallets collected from the back of businesses, or 2x4s ripped out during a remodel, creativity blossoms when materials speak to us.
Long associated with the terms “rustic,” “farmhouse,” or “shabby,” reclaimed wood will always be prized for its lack of pretension and accessibility. But in defining the term “reclaimed” I envision a wider description. That is, reclaimed is anything that once served one purpose, but has been stripped down to serve another.
It’s barnwood, but it’s also pallet wood, flooring, fence boards, your grandfather’s old shed, wood washed up by the tide, and dismantled furniture pieces.
It also doesn’t have to be rustic. Case in point, this blanket chest is made from reclaimed white oak flooring:
So now that we’ve established a definition, let’s spend just a minute on the why.
This post will include a couple affiliate links (I think). So check out my affiliate disclosure if you have a moment.
Why use reclaimed wood?
The first reason to use reclaimed wood might be that it’s accessible. But after some time, as your skills grow and you want to challenge yourself further, you might start sourcing different types of wood. As you work with older wood from structures such as barns you’ll see a huge difference in new lumber versus old growth lumber. The rings are tighter and more numerous. Check out the end grain of these pieces and then compare them to wood you can pick up at your local home improvement store:
For this and other reasons, you cannot fake the look of old reclaimed wood. No amount of beating with nails or chains or whatnot is going to produce the patina and texture of old growth reclaimed wood.
We’ll talk more about that texture in a moment. One last thing to note is that historic reclaimed wood has something new lumber never does: History.
One of the truly thrilling things about working with materials such as barn wood is when you can learn a bit of its history. This barn was dismantled by the team at Salvage Works PDX. Because I sourced it through a reputable establishment I know exactly where it came from. I know that it was built in the late 1800s by a builder named “Cactus” and was part of a family apple business.
What does knowing that do? It makes me think through how I utilize the materials. It just so happens that I fell head over heels with the ponderosa pine beams from this barn and bought as many as I could get my hands (and bank account) on.
The results are this dining table:
This sink front:
This pantry cabinet:
And this series of builds:
What you absolutely need to know about reclaimed wood
If you have decided to go all out and pursue building with reclaimed wood you need to give serious thought to sourcing kiln dried wood only.
The basics here are that all wood carries moisture. The crazy thing is that even wood that has been part of a structure for 100+ years retains some of that moisture. In order to be best for furniture building you need to get the moisture content down to somewhere around the 6%-10% mark. There’s some debate over what is best for what application, but that’s a general guideline.
You can find the moisture levels of wood with an inexpensive moisture reader such as this one. Greener wood will dry unevenly on its own, creating all sorts of twists, cups, bows, and backward handsprings that will turn your newly constructed farmhouse dining table into a reclaimed climbing gym.
Also, bugs. Kiln drying wood kills bugs. You don’t want bugs in your shop. These bug holes are in a non-kiln dried piece. Do you want to chance that this hotel is unoccupied? Nope, you don’t.
The other thing to know is that older reclaimed wood often comes in actual, real, down-to-earth dimensions. None of this “1 1/2″ x 3 1/2″ = a 2×4” business. No. In those days a 2×4 was a 2×4.
I know I’ve been speaking only of older reclaimed wood, but hear me out on one last point. If you are sourcing locally available reclaimed wood be aware that what you will find is locally available wood. To wit, I would dearly love and consider selling my soul for reclaimed white oak like some of my east coast woodworking friends. But, alas, douglas fir is what grows here, so douglas fir is what you’ll find.
So HOW do you work with reclaimed wood?
That is what I promised to tell you, isn’t it?!
There are several things to know and do if you are working with reclaimed lumber.
First, it’s dirty. I like to pull out a couple sawhorses, whip up some warm water with just a tiny bit of dish soap, then scrub it all down with a bristle brush out on the driveway.
Second, it may have nails in it. Reputable dealers in reclaimed wood do their best to remove nails, but sometimes that low man on the totem pole that got stuck with the job of pulling nails from 8 to 5 misses one.
Your table saw blades do not like nails. Your miter saw blades do not like nails. And when your planer blades hit one you will cry like a baby. Do a visual check before running any pieces through your equipment. Consider buying an inexpensive detector to check for buried metal as well.
Next, you will need to determine how you want your lumber to appear. Do you want to keep the texture? The patina? You can keep that look and still sand it fairly smooth, but if you rip the piece down at all you will expose fresh lumber that will not match the rest of the sides.
So, basically, you need to decide whether you want to go for a clean milled look or keep the texture.
Here are two examples.
For this bookshelf I really wanted to keep the texture. But as there are no 2x2s in reclaimed boards I had to rip them down. So for this I ripped reclaimed wood veneers and glued them on the exposed sides in a process that was just about as tedious as it sounds.
But the results…they were worth it.
You could also opt to go for a clean milled look. Will it still look reclaimed? Heck yes, and the look is really nice as well.
But before you can craft your pieces you will need to some planning. Arguably, planning out your cuts and lumber usage is a more complicated process using reclaimed wood. In all likelihood you will have to deal with working around different lengths of wood, defects in the wood, places that were previously cut for mortises or tenons, and the like. When I am planning to construct a piece from reclaimed wood I up my overage by a bit. So, for example, I might have an overage of about 20% instead of 10% in ordering supplies.
Making things a bit more complicated is that you may end up doing a fair amount of math on the spot. Say, for example, you need pieces that are roughly 2″ square – you might cut those from a 6×6 beam because you love the look of it, or opt for a 2×4. Here’s how I plan ahead for these sorts of builds:
Planning and Selecting Reclaimed Lumber
Once you have found a good reclaimed lumber yard, make friends with the people that run it. Without exception I have always found them to be wonderfully genuine, gracious people who want to help. But you also need to be respectful of their time. Call ahead and find out what they have in stock. Often I discuss my upcoming project with them and I have a good idea of what I am going to choose from before I go.
If you need something while you are there – ask! Don’t be shy. Sort through the stacks. Take your time finding pieces that will work for what you are building and that aren’t bowed, twisted, or otherwise reaching for the sky. Don’t be embarrassed to examine each board – that’s expected. I mean, don’t take like 5 hours staring at a piece of wood, because then you are basically a crazy person. If you see something that you need and you are not a terrible sort of human being, the people at the lumber yard will most likely be more than happy to dig it out for you. Don’t ask how many times I have ended up having workers forklift out pieces of lumber. But, you know, I genuinely appreciate all they do and always walk out with a lighter bank account.
You might even send them photos of what you built. We are all kind of like one big woodworking family that way. Awwww.
Planning for your reclaimed wood furniture
Congratulations, you found the perfect wood. You have a plan for what this is going to look like. Now you need to mill it all up. No two ways about this, splitting this all into the dimensions you want is messy business. Wear a mask.
Did you catch that? No joke – wear one. You don’t want any of that stuff in your lungs.
One you split everything up, take some time to plan before cutting to length. Are there major splits or other defects in the way? Can you incorporate that cool tenon joint, or do you need to cut around it? Can you incorporate anything from the wood that will tell a story?
I’ve made a couple dining tables that still sport the numerical numbering system that the barn builders used to ensure beams when in the correct place. (It’s hard to see here, but look in the lower right hand corner.)
And here’s the concrete topped dining table base during construction, with the roman numerals prominently placed.
My advice is to cut each piece a little long so that if a piece is soft or has other issues, you can take another cut without sacrificing the entire piece.
Finally, label your cuts. If you know one piece needs to have a certain side down, label it! Sometimes it’s necessary to plan for which side shows best – particularly in reclaimed wood – but once you get going it will be hard to keep track. Note each piece in pencil for easy assembly.
One more thing: Finishing.
My favorite finish for reclaimed wood is clear wax. Once I’ve sanded a piece up to about 320 or 400, so that I’m certain it won’t cause splinters, I rub it all down in clear wax. If you have done your time with the sander that piece will be as soft as can be, no matter how much texture it has.
There’s so much more that can be said about working with reclaimed wood. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to ask. I hope that this helps introduce you to the exciting world of reclaimed wood furniture. Challenge yourself, have fun, and build something awesome.