Reclaimed wood: Bringing the old back to life
By James Niehaus,

Unless you have been trapped under a rock for the past decade, anyone interested in woodworking is already well aware of the meteoric rise that reclaimed wood has seen. Reclaimed wood offers a number of benefits for both the modern woodworker as well as the old-schooler, which means the market boom for this material shows no signs of slowing down.

But what kind of wood should you use when making a woodworking project using reclaimed wood? Also, where would you even find reclaimed wood to work with in the first place? We will answer these questions as well as provide some caution in what to watch out for when working with reclaimed wood.

Which wood?

Technically, most kinds of wood can be used for reclaimed wood projects, but the length of appropriate exposure will differ depending on the type of wood. For instance, hard, dense woods will be able to withstand far longer and rougher periods of exposure while still being suitable for reclaimed wood projects than softer woods would be. That said, even softer woods like pine can be used so long as their exposure has been less intense.

One thing to keep in mind is that the age of the wood will have a lot to do with its structural integrity. For instance, most wood these days comes from special farms where trees are grown with the specific purpose of being harvested. Unfortunately, those commercial tree farms rarely allow the tree to mature before they are harvested. This means that the wood is often not as strong nor can it be made into as large of pieces of lumber.

Market for reclaimed wood

The market for reclaimed wood projects is on the rise, and this popularity is being driven by a couple of factors. First, arguably one of the biggest reasons for reclaimed wood’s rise in popularity is due to its peculiar aesthetic. Favoring an untreated and weather-beaten look, reclaimed wood has a distinctive appearance all on its own that sets it apart from virtually every other type of lumber available -- including pre-stressed lumber. In fact, reclaimed wood is almost required for certain styles of furniture, houses, and other woodworking projects.

Additionally, regardless of what someone thinks about the appearance of reclaimed wood, there are numerous projects that give rating points based on the percentage of recycled materials used in the construction or renovation of new buildings. Depending on the local ordinances, a passing grade or better can actually net business tax write-offs for using reclaimed wood.

Sources of reclaimed wood

Reclaimed wood can be found one of two ways: either at specialty markets or through individual diligence. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, though, and it is important to understand what you are getting yourself into when trying to obtain old wood to reclaim for use with a new woodworking project.

Because of the cyclic nature of trends, the rustic style of home design is once again in style. For reclaimed wood, this is both a blessing and a curse, because it means that the renewed popularity of rustic furniture and decoration has spawned an entire sub-market centered around selling reclaimed wood.

While this can make finding reclaimed wood easier, the potential problems can be two-fold. First, and most obviously, when the demand for something which has a static or declining supply increases, the price will follow. As such, reclaimed wood is more expensive now than it has been for decades. The other issue is that with an upsurge in popularity, scammers and other swindlers have come out of the woodwork to make a profit -- as we will explain.

Challenges and quality

While reclaimed wood offers a wide variety of benefits, there are also a number of difficulties that can come from using it in woodworking projects. The most obvious of these is the strength and durability of the wood. Quite often, rot can infest the interior of the wood without being as noticeable from an exterior position. This can make judging the wood a bit difficult.

The potential instability of the wood can create other secondary challenges as well. For instance, if the wood is too worn or old, it may not even be able to handle the process of disassembly. Instead, it will just snap as you deconstruct the original project. Of course, you may not want to use the wood in its current cut and have to remill it. This is yet another instance when varying stages of decay can cause the wood to be unsuitable for your purposes.

Still, even if the wood is structurally sound, there may be other challenges and risks. Unscrupulous dealers will often pass off newer wood as much older than it truly is. This lack of verification can be further compounded depending on if the wood was treated. The same standards for paint, lacquer, and stains do not hold across decades and older wood may gas out VOCs or have lead residue.


Despite the price, difficulties, and potential unscrupulous salesmen, reclaimed wood is still an amazing material to use for virtually any woodworking project. Whether you are building a picture frame, a music box, a piece of furniture, or even an entire house, reclaimed wood can impart a character on the finished project that simply cannot be duplicated--no matter what stressing or antiquing is done to new wood.
Just be sure to keep a clear eye out for fakes and know ahead of time how to properly judge the structural integrity of wood -- and especially how to spot rot hidden deep within. And while this is a good rule of thumb in general, make sure you only buy reclaimed wood from a dealer you trust--or even better, find an old barn and see if the property owner will let you reclaim some wood firsthand.

James Niehaus,


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