Reclaimed Wood – Tips on How To Turn Recycled Wood Into Timber Gold

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old wood - Brad Baker photoReclaimed wood is anything that has been used before and is going to be used again. Going green means more than recycling plastic and paper. Whether the carbon footprint involved in demolishing, packaging, and shipping reclaimed lumber to its final location is really green is a topic for another time. But for the most part, using old wood from someplace else is very cool.  Structural lumber from old barns or factories is finding its way into buildings ranging from lofts in New York to poker rooms in Beverly Hills. Smaller grade lumber is being made into face frames, drawer fronts and cabinet doors. 

Lots of clients love being able to boast to their friends, “See that wood over there? Came from Denmark! Over two hundred years old!”  Obviously the style and motif of the project dictate whether wood like this can be used or not. That’s why I mentioned poker rooms earlier. The house may be super contemporary, but the man of the house may really get off on having his “poker room” or “deal room” be something completely different from the rest of the place. And if the wood has history, so much the better.

Where to Find Reclaimed Wood

If you want to find reclaimed wood, you can look anywhere – from your backyard (meaning close by) to Europe and beyond.  It’s not going to be cheap, unless you find something like the load of lumber I scored that a cabinet shop going out of business wanted to unload. I picked up over 1,000 board feet for a hundred bucks. What a deal.  It included all the hidden nails, lead paint, and black widows you could ever ask for!  This load of wood came from an old church in England that had been torn down.  The wood was over 100 years old.

Reclaimed Wood Ain’t Cheap

That wood that I picked up cost the unfortunate out-of-business cabinet shop a fortune to get it over here, and whoever was going to get it ready for cabinetry was going to have to spend another fortune preparing it for use. That’s what I want to address here. Milling old wood is no picnic. It’s old, nasty, full of holes, embedded with nails, and it clogs up the sander (don’t sand lead paint by the way).  And no way can you use the planer, because it’s so twisted and warped… so what do you do?

First off, see if someone else will mill it for you… but if your wife gives you “The Look,” you are going to have to do it yourself.

Prepping Reclaimed Wood Can Be Is Hazardous

Absolutely wear a mask, safety glasses, and long sleeves whenever you are working with this kind of material. The surface of the wood can actually change composition and turn into a kind of grey matter that doesn’t sand well and dulls the crap out of joiner blades.

Start by checking the wood for nails or anything metal. You won’t catch them all, but you can get a good jump on it.

Like with any building material, you have to start with getting a flat surface to work with. Depending on how rustic the job is, there may be just a few or a hell of a lot of passes that’ll need to be run by the joiner. Once you get a semi flat side, then you can run it by the planer. Most likely it will be so warped you’ll need to take off a little at a time.  Keep a lot of extra blades on hand, and keep telling yourself it’s a labor of love so you don’t go all Rory. (My buddy Rory works for the post office.)

The last step of milling will be straight lining the wood on the table saw. This is really the most dangerous step of all. I know it’s a pain in the ass, but just use a non carbide tipped blade. If a carbide tipped blade hits a buried nail, the tip can fly off and hit your eye (it will go right through most goggles), get embedded in your forearm, or worst of all hit you smack dab between the eyes and end life as you know it. Meaning – you’re dead.  I’m not kidding.

old wood 2 - photo by Brad BakerNow with those words of encouragement, the look of old pine cleaned up and looking all golden, with streaks of grey in the cracks, makes for a stunning old world look. Just make sure you’re around to see it.

Photo of author

About Brad

Brad Baker is Vice President of Operations at Miller Woodworking in the Los Angeles area, designers and builders of custom cabinetry and interior millwork for the rich and famous. They make the impossible, and their work has been featured in fancy schmantsy architectural glossies more than a few times. All that high end creative stuff aside, he maintains a strong spiritual belief that the real sign of a good woodworker is all 10 fingers. He and his wife Ann Baker co-write for HomeFixated. Ann is CEO of Publicity Pros, a firm that provides “All Things Publicity” services and training for small businesses. She’s a hopeless nerd who revels in anything and everything having to do with the technology of attracting attention. And, no joke, she loves to bake.

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5 thoughts on “Reclaimed Wood – Tips on How To Turn Recycled Wood Into Timber Gold”

  1. Pingback: Reclaimed Wood Buyer’s Guide: Everything You Need to Know - AssociationGreen
  2. Hey Brad
    Had some great points and I liked the article. I love using reclaimed wood for projects. Especially since I’m cheap and don’t mind sweating or cutting myself. But generally the work is well worth it.


  3. Just a bit over the top, Brad. You’re scaring the children. Also between your boasting and extreme caution, I believe you missed the opportunity to make several good points.

    For one, you don’t need to track down wood with exotic histories to reclaim. Free reclaimable wood is abundant in the form of shipping pallets and remodeling scraps. Don’t be afraid to saunter up to a job site and ask if you can dumpster dive. Since contractors have to pay to have their scraps removed, they are usually happy to lessen the load in their dumpsters. Used joists and wall studs are easy to clean up; just clip off the ends. Pallets are similarly predicable; 2-3 nails per plank.

    As you mentioned, barns are another good source. I see barns falling down all around me. Sometimes it only takes having the gumption of walking up to the door and inquiring to be given the entire pile of barn. Of course it also takes a lot of sweat and brawn to sort and move that pile. Nails in old barns are rarer than most might think; many were just mortised and pegged. Still, it’s smart to give them a once over with a metal detector prior to sending them through your machinery. The cost of a metal detector will quickly offset the cost of new blades and bits.

    Still, ferrous metals aren’t the only danger. There’s non-ferrous metals such as stainless steel, aluminum, brass, copper that could be buried in there for some random reason. Likewise there could be brick, glass, ceramic, gravel, buckshot, mortar, or bone (my miller actually has a crotch plank on display that he planed to reveal a whole squirrel skeleton!). Even after you get around all that there is still sand. Sand is the real blade killer and it’s lousy in old barn beams. The general rule is the older the lumber and more exposed it’s been for all those years, more sand and dust that is embedded in it and the quicker it’s going to dull your knives.

    For the record, I don’t think you need to be quite so afraid of hitting nails using a carbide toothed blade. Rather, instead of switching to a steel tooth blade, try using a higher TPI carbide tooth blade. Sure, a hidden nail will [harmlessly] chip off a tooth or two but the other 58 teeth will easily saw through the metal – carbide is actually an optimal material for milling hard steels and I have never heard of anyone being seriously wounded or killed by carbide projectile though. While I am sure it’s entirely possible to be wounded by flying carbide, it’s also likely that the extremely dry and exceptionally dense old wood could ‘explode’ when you saw through a knot or more likely simply make you sick if you inhale the fungi/bacteria infested sawdust. So, sure there are dangers but hey, woodworking can be dangerous even with new lumber and under perfect conditions.

    Lastly, I had to snicker to myself when I saw your line “…see if someone else will mill it for you…” the fact is they won’t or at least not for a price you’d be willing to pay. I once looked around for a miller to S4S some barn beams that were too large for my machinery. Then general response was “Sure, but we charge $$$$ per chipped tooth or blade.” A few just said “GTFO” then usually recanting a time they once did mill old beams then hit a spike that F’d up the whole machine.

    So, there you go Brad. I know I went a little wild on the comment length but I felt that I just had to set the record straight. Obviously I am a major advocate of reclaiming lumber. If possible I hope to see more articles like this in the future maybe some that better detail the processes of reclaiming lumber; from dumpster to dinette or the like. Lots of photos, of course.


  4. On a more encouraging note, I’d suggest starting out with more beginner level reclaimed lumber, such as hardwood flooring from an old gym. Planks are all relatively straight and flat. There’s no lead paint and they haven’t been exposed to the elements for strange grey matter to form. You can easily run them through your planer, edge them on a joiner (after cutting the tongue & groove if you aren’t going to use them as flooring), and edge glue them into panels for your new project. Also, unlike today’s engineering flooring that’s only about 5/8″ thick, old gym floor boards are an 1+”. Check your local Craigslist. I’ve seen them turn up from time to time.

  5. I’d given some thought to getting ahold of old damaged furniture and such and using the not entirely re-milled/re-finished pieces to make newer less borked and perhaps more useful pieces. This post is giving me some serious pause.


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