Working Reclaimed Wood: A Guide for Woodworkers, Makers & Designers

Working Reclaimed Wood: A Guide for Woodworkers, Makers & Designers

by Yoav Liberman


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This book is a celebration of reclaimed wood and the beautiful range of possibilities that exists for its creative use. Through technique discussions, ideas for sourcing wood, coverage of safety concerns, detailed photographs and helpful case studies, this guide helps you plan and execute your own reclaimed wood projects. Whether you're interested in sourcing reclaimed wood for environmentally-conscious reasons or tapping into the history or story behind the wood, this guide will walk you though every aspect of using this wonderful material.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781440350818
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/04/2018
Pages: 160
Sales rank: 326,912
Product dimensions: 8.10(w) x 10.10(h) x 0.70(d)

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Reclaimed Wood

Definitions, subcategories, reasoning, types

Many people who show interest in reclaimed wood assume that reclaimed wood means "barn wood." But barn wood – timber, flooring and siding (or cladding) salvaged from dismantled barns or other farm structures – represents only one part of the reclaimed wood lexicon.

Sources for reclaimed wood span much wider than this, from sunken timber salvaged from the bottom of North America's lakes and rivers, to the dense Indonesian dunnage beams and battens acting as spacers between railroad rails shipped from Japan; from dismantled cedar staves that used to constitute old vinegar tanks, to mushroom-bed planks that show spectacular terrain and color.

Reclaimed wood originates from diverse sources and can come in a variety of shapes, physical and structural conditions, and historical pedigree. It can come in the form of small scraps, planks, sheets, slabs, boards, beams, columns and much, much more. This huge array of repurposed wood varies by species, physical and structural condition, and of course aesthetics. In order to help us learn about and distinguish between each subgroup of the reclaim menagerie, I created a classification system that divides the reclaimed wood into four groups: Heritage Reclaimed wood, Common Reclaimed wood, Salvaged/Recovered wood, and Recycled/ Scrapped reclaims.

The four types of reclaimed wood

Heritage Reclaimed wood

Heritage Reclaimed is the most prestigious and attractive of all reclaimed woods – rare, sometimes even finite in quantities, and exotic. It is lumber salvaged from historic barns, mill buildings, old wooden boats, water tanks, boardwalks and more. It is steeped in history, character, esteem and attributed value. Heritage reclaims carry the hallmarks of time and legacy, and often come from old-growth timber cut down many years ago. Heritage Reclaimed is coveted for its unique appearance that stems from the rarity of its core wood, or as a result of remarkable surface patina from years of use. Occasionally, Heritage Reclaimed will earn its rank thanks to unique circumstances such as in the case of a table built by Maria Pergay. The table's centerpiece is a slice of oak from a tree that was planted hundreds of years ago.

Iconic Paris-based designer Maria Pergay built this regal dining table around a very symbolic slice of wood from a tree planted in 1685 that became a favorite of Marie Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI of France. The tree survived not only the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, but also both World Wars. It eventually succumbed to the forces of nature and fell in a catastrophic storm in 1999. Madam Pergay was able to procure some pieces of this historic tree and incorporated thin slices of the centuries-old oak into a few unique tables. This table features the last slice of oak available. It's a unique illustration of what I call the "Esteem" quality, attributed to some reclaimed woods.

Another example of Heritage Reclaimed wood is the old-growth claro walnut rifle blanks reconfigured by Wendy Maruyama to build the Bell Shrine cabinet in commemoration of elephants lost to poaching.

Wendy Maruyama's poetic cabinet "Bell Shrine" is a symbolic lamentation on the meaningless killing of elephants and rhinoceroses by poaching. Through this piece she tries to raise awareness and evoke empathy to the plight of the world's largest land animal. In an earnest irony, the beautiful old-growth claro walnut she used to build this piece came from reclaimed gunstock blanks, obtained from a rifle factory that had gone out of business. Her tall, somber cabinet protests the irrational hunger for ivory, which wreaks havoc on the African elephant to the point that on average a hundred elephants are killed every day solely for their tusks.

In her piece, modeled after a Buddhist shrine, a picture of an elephant is etched on the inner back. It is flanked on the right by a candle, representing unchanging truth (Dharma), and on the left by flowers, representing impermanence. An incense offering/burner is in the middle, as it relates to our spiritual state in the present moment. Above, a cast bronze bell, made by Sophie Glenn, rings every 15 minutes in honor of every elephant that loses its life to poaching. Maruyama, a celebrated studio-furniture maker, artist and scholar, voices a compassionate message that resonates clearly within and around this meaningful piece.

Sometimes, Heritage reclaims might serve the same purpose they served during their original use. For example, posts and beams salvaged from an old barn might be incorporated into the construction of a new building. Heart-pine floors from a vintage building might be recommissioned as floorboards in a new home or upscale restaurant.

As another example of this type of project, Gilad Erjaz incorporated reclaimed hewn post-and-beam components to enrich the design theme, and also to serve as structural weight-bearing elements, in a newly built Asian-style restaurant.

Of course, Heritage Reclaimed can also be repurposed to serve in different usages as well. After being cleaned and dried, for example, boards previously constituting mushroom beds might be installed as wall covers in a trendy coffee shop.

Heritage Reclaimed is often transformed for a totally new purpose. Cherished for their core wood, structural timber frame elements made from old-growth longleaf pine (heart pine) are often dismantled and reconfigured via sawing and milling to become dimensional boards from which new furniture and interior design elements are built. Teak pillars from Indonesian houses might be resawn into planks that give birth to a slick chest of drawers.

Common Reclaimed wood

Common Reclaimed wood is any used generic lumber materials derived from buildings, furniture or architectural woodwork that is being repurposed. Sources include lumber dismantled from newer buildings destined for demolition, cargo wood (hardwood, softwood and plywood from shipping pallets and crates), found furniture parts, bathroom and kitchen cabinets (doors, wooden countertops, etc.) left on the side of the road to be picked up by the trash truck.

Common Reclaimed may bare a coat of wood finish such as varnish or paint, but rarely displays patina, significant texture or aging. It is inexpensive or even free. In general, the lumber that yields this wood is not rare or extinct, unlike old-growth Heritage Reclaimed lumber.

Examples of this type of reclaimed wood usage: Strips of wood from a dismantled wooden pallet might be turned into parts for a futon bed. Pine roof rafters from a torn-down house can be glued together to make a workbench top. Doors discarded from a renovated kitchen might be incorporated into a newly built armoire.

Salvaged/Recovered wood

This is newly processed lumber that was saved from decomposition. A good example is "sinker" or sunken wood – logs that were inadvertently submerged more than a century ago in the waterways of North America on their way to the wood mill. Once brought to the surface they can be sawn and dried into magnificent planks. Driftwood is another example of this type of reclaimed wood. Trunks and branches that were swept into rivers and seas are naturally sculptured by the water over time and then drift ashore.

Salvaged wood can be obtained from fallen trees. Often these trees lie on the ground for some time before being claimed for a sculptural project or sawn into planks, and carry the evidences of marginalized decay and spalting as a result, which can make for interesting design features.

Recycled/Scrapped wood

These are repurposed scraps and cutoff pieces from woodworkers' shops, furniture manufacturers and lumber mills. Pieces of recycled wood can be amalgamated to create a new "canvas" of panels, beams and blocks, from which new pieces are created. Great recycled wood projects include cutting boards, segmented turned objects and small objects such as toys, handles and pens.

So, just what is it that makes reclaimed wood stand out when compared to new lumber? When looking to buy new wood for a project, most reputable woodworkers and enthusiastic amateurs aim for the best available grade of lumber. Our decision as to which type of wood to buy factor in the wood's intended use, strength, grain appearance and color. For an interior design or for a furniture project the greatest emphasis is put upon the species appeal, cost and aesthetics. If your project's orientation gears mainly toward construction or it is an outdoor project, price, wood resiliency and strength govern your choices.

But when users, designers and makers consider reclaimed wood they do it mainly for four reasons: Ecology, Aesthetics, Esteem (the "story" or narrative of the wood) and Economy.


Concern for our environment leads to conservation and preservation. This is one of the strongest motivations that attract people to reclaimed lumber, which is both rational and emotional. By buying reclaimed wood we believe that we help to preserve the lives of living trees and the forest's habitat, saving them and the lives that depend upon them from the reaper (or, in this case, the lumberjack). We also believe that we help in reducing the wastefulness of disposing and losing a perfectly viable resource that otherwise would have ended up buried in the landfill.

In addition, when we buy reclaimed wood we know we're helping to cultivate a market for it – which means that more people in the wood industry will view it as a commodity, and thus save, process and offer it for sale. We also know that if we display reclaimed wood and show its splendor, the people who are close to us and those we influence will learn to appreciate it too, and help further increase the demand for this wonderful resource. Reclaimed wood also resonates strongly with anyone who keeps the ideas of conservation and preservation high on their list. People who care about these issues are naturally inclined to want to make use of materials from the past around them in their homes and furniture.


Surface texture, patina and the wood's core beauty distinguish reclaimed wood from new lumber. These unique attributes of tactility, patina, signs of age, rarity of grain and evidence of previous usage trigger our appreciation and make reclaimed wood precious.

Many are attracted to reclaimed wood because of what they see on its surface – its unadulterated raw appearance derived from the way it was originally processed, used and aged. They react to the wood's history with humanity. Others are mesmerized by the beauty of its core organic grain. Once milled, sanded and finished, Heritage Reclaimed woods afford a rare opportunity to go back in time and see the glory of primordial wood that can't be obtained today – unless it is from a reclaimed source.


Two of our most powerful senses are sight and touch, so when we are exposed to both sensations by the same object, our experience intensifies. No wonder so many people are attracted to the visual and tactile texture of reclaimed wood.

With furniture and some interior elements we have the unique opportunity to experience surfaces both visually and through touch. Think about a coarse and weathered barn-wood wall that you can touch and appreciate. Imagine looking at the ceiling and noticing impressive timber beams scarred by hewing marks and nail holes, a testimony of their origin and the work that shaped them two centuries ago. Think about eating dinner on a table whose top was created from the thick floorboards of an industrial mill – checked, indented, perhaps even stained and riveted with pegs. After the boards are glued together, smoothed out and finished with moderation – just enough so that neither your shirt nor the linen would catch on the accented wood – your dining experience is enriched even more.

Rustic reclaimed lumber displays both surface patination and texture. This makes it great for additions to period-correct building or in projects that require complete reconstruction of buildings. Authentic posts and beams show the appropriate marks of a specific historical period. For example, if one wanted to build a new post-and-beam house that carries the hallmarks of rural 18th-century Colonial New England, they would probably look for reclaimed wood beams that were extracted from an old barn or house. The surface of these beams would look gray, brown or even black and show a scale-like pattern left by the surfacing tool chosen by the original carpenter who shaped the timber into posts and beams.

Surface texture

Surface texture is the physical evidence of the tools that shaped lumber, and testifies to the mechanical, biological and chemical forces, which over the years altered the landscape of the reclaimed wood. Was the original lumber hewed by an axe or an adze? Was it sawn by a pre-Industrial Revolution water saw? Had it been walked upon in a barn and gotten depressed by the hoofs of horses and cows? More surface textures include compression marks left on water tank staves as a result of the bracing force applied on them by the metal hoops that held the tank together.

But reclaimed texture can also come from less forceful conditions. Many reclaimed sidings or cladding boards salvaged from the walls of buildings show rugged surfaces that resulted from gradual erosion of the wood by the elements; we often refer to it simply as "weathering." With the help of the sun (UV radiation), wind and rain, the soft earlywood tissue slowly erodes, leaving behind the pronounced lines and curves of the more resilient and dense latewood ridges.

What else impacts the texture? Holes and grooves left by insects, and even pitting and bruises that are silent reminiscence for past presence of hardware and fasteners that were once embedded in the wood and later extracted.

Perhaps the most fascinating reclaimed texture that I have seen is the result of an organic transformation of the wood surfaces by acid, bacteria and fungi in the dark and humid facilities where mushrooms are grown. Mushroom beds are typically constructed from hemlock, cedar or cypress planks and then filled with compost made from straw and poultry manure. Gradually, with the help of moisture the mushrooms lay roots in the compost and embed into the planks, slowly digesting the susceptible earlywood and leaving the latewood proud of the surface. Once the bed can no longer serve its purpose the wood is dismantled and discarded, unless it is reclaimed. After cleaning the board with a high pressure water jet or a wire brush an attractive surface is revealed, displaying a terrain of spectacular flaky ridges and deep serpentine arroyos that look as if taken from the topography of a great desert of the Southwest.


Patina is the color change of the surface of either raw or painted wood as a result of environmental conditions, oxidation and aging. Examples of patination in reclaimed wood can include graying of the surface resulting from prolonged exposure to sunlight; staining after repeated contact with rusted metal hardware (such as hoops around a water tank) or infiltration by fungi; discoloration by oils, solvents and chemicals, mainly on floorboard planks retrieved from factories and mills, and even wine and whisky stains in wood reclaimed from barrels. Patina can also be present in wood that had been painted and over the years flaked off, got darker or lighter, eroded, bruised, etc., and now displays a complex irregular yet intriguing skin.

Wood's core beauty – the grain

Where in many cases we covet reclaimed wood for its opaque, ragged, period-appropriate look, in other instances we may seek to harvest what lay underneath its surface in order to expose, then celebrate, the splendor of the wood's color and grain, or what I call its "core."

A voyage back in time (or, trees are like time capsules)

Perhaps the most coveted characteristic of reclaimed wood core is its grain pattern. The grain is a manifestation of the tree's botanical characteristics (its DNA) and is a testimony to the environment it grew in and its age. As trees grow taller and wider, they enlarge their trunk circumference with sequential layers of new growth – layers of tissue added year by year and growth season by growth season. A rainy season, such as in the spring, will yield a wider and less-dense growth tissue, while a drier season, such as the summer, will generate a slower and denser tissue growth. In most cases a tree adds two new growth tissues per year. However, in warm tropical areas where it rains more frequently, the tree tissues grow constantly and thus the differences between the annual rings can sometimes be harder to identify and the texture of the grain is more homogenous.


Excerpted from "Working Reclaimed Wood"
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Copyright © 2018 Yoav Liberman.
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Table of Contents

INTRODUCTION About this Book, 8,
CHAPTER 1 Reclaimed Wood, 18,
CHAPTER 2 The Reclaimed Warehouse Experience, 38,
CHAPTER 3 A Reclaim Resource Guide, 54,
CHAPTER 4 Processing Reclaimed Wood, 70,
CHAPTER 5 Salvaged/Recovered Wood, 88,
CHAPTER 6 Restoring Reclaimed Hardware, 106,
CHAPTER 7 Designing with Reclaimed Wood, 120,
CHAPTER 8 Epilogue: Reclaiming the Future, 152,
INDEX, 158,

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