5 Strategies for Choosing Reclaimed Wood

5 strategies for choosing wood

Upcycling, or turning old materials into new projects, is all the rage these days. With the cost of lumber rising, it’s never been a better time to jump on the bandwagon. Multiple sources for reclaimed lumber exist, especially if you know where to look for them: recycling centers, Craigslist, the classifieds, the junkyard and friends.

Before you fill your shop with reclaimed lumber, however, make sure you’re getting a quality product. Keep these five tips in mind, and you stand a much better chance of choosing quality materials.

Choose Dry, Tight Wood

Although reclaimed wood can be visually appealing and adds to your eco-friendly karma, it is pointless to use it if you’re unable to work with it. Before purchase, assess the wood to make sure there’s still enough useable material left. While most reclaimed wood will have cracks or splits, ensure that they are small enough to use as is, or fill with epoxy, so they don’t ruin the look of your finished product or weaken its structural integrity. Also ensure it’s completely dry and free from rot.

Examine Wood to Ensure Inner Stability

Stability is important, and reclaimed wood may be more stable than new stuff due to the long time it has had to dry, and the fact that “back in the day,” wood was often harvested from old growth trees with tighter grain. However, since there’s no telling how long reclaimed wood has been exposed to poor treatment, the elements or other poor conditions, you must make sure that the wood isn’t rotten or otherwise ruined. Check for soft parts, rotting or moldy patches, or bits that look like they’ve got sawdust on them, which could indicate the presence of wood-eating insects. Lumber that shows signs of rot should be discarded. If the outside is sound, most likely the inside will be as well.

Photo by: Day1dan (own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by: Day1dan (own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Before you get all excited and buy a batch of reclaimed wood that seems like a great deal, remember to keep your project in mind. If you’re going for an antique look, then rough-sawn barn wood will make for great material. If you want a more polished project, you might choose reclaimed wood from an old floor which is worn smooth by the passage of time. Shabby chic is all the rage right now, so if you can find wood with paint partially worn off, you can save yourself the DIY hack of painting then sanding newer lumber. Keep your final project in mind and you’ll have an easier time selecting wood that will match your final aesthetic.

Choose Distributors Wisely

If you really care about buying the best reclaimed wood products, you may want to avoid classified ads or broken-down barns in favor of a company that specializes in recycling materials. Many distributors, those that care about their product and their customers, painstakingly choose wood that has a lot of life left in it, then process it to make sure it’s dry and free of nails, staples and other debris. If you choose to pay the higher costs associated with buying from a reclaimed wood distributor, make sure you research them first. You can find a reputable distributor by performing a browser search for reclaimed wood in your area. Have a look at their selection of material, and ask for contact info for woodworkers who have used their product.

Be Safe

Some old wood may have lead paint on its surface, which can be dangerous if you are not careful. Always sand outside and avoid working on windy days, as that can cause particulate matter to enter your home. Use a sander with a HEPA filter to catch paint dust and always wear a mask. Keep children away from unprocessed reclaimed wood that may have lead-based paint on it. If there’s any chance of lead in the paint, don’t use the material. This is another good reason for using a “middle man,” a reclaimed wood supplier, since cleaning up the wood will their problem, not yours.

Remember Beauty

There’s no reason you should have to forego beauty simply because you’re buying a new-to-you product. Buying reclaimed wood doesn’t mean you have to settle for materials that are warped, cracked or otherwise imperfect. Moreover, a beautiful piece of furniture depends on the ability to shape the wood to your needs so that its joinery fits well and it takes a nice finish. Just like with new wood, using quality reclaimed materials is crucial to a beautiful end product, even if part of that beauty is that the product contains the cracks, holes and defects that mark it as recycled.

Reclaimed wood is an excellent way to reduce your footprint and add some good old-fashioned character to your projects. But if you aren’t careful, it’s also a good way to be disappointed with the results of your hard work. Don’t let that happen. Instead, remember these tips when making your next purchase and you’ll do just fine.

Check out this video for more info on reclaimed and old growth timber:

Old Growth Lumber

You can also see a project made from reclaimed wood in this video.The table shown at the start of the video was made from Ponderosa Pine that was over 100 years old.

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9 Responses to “5 Strategies for Choosing Reclaimed Wood”

  1. Jeff west

    Good stuff!

  2. Barry Arnold

    I built a workbench from reclaimed timber from a 100 year old shed that was demolished. I removed 12 pounds of nails from the wood I actually used and there is a fair bit left yet. All various eucalypt hardwoods including ancient red gum which is a rarity these days. It was mostly 3x2, 4x2 and some 4x3 I machined it and laminated the top with the boards on edge it is totally stable and bloody hard.

  3. Robert P Senn

    I bought reclaimed teak for my exterior decks. 17 years ago. From Asia, old and beautiful. Termites have been a major problem. Not something I expected for a hardwood.

  4. Beautify and Upgrade the Outdoors of Your Home with These 9 Eco-Friendly Tips - Ways2GoGreen Blog

    […] wooden deck? You don’t need to fell a tree or several trees for that. Instead, opt for utilising recycled or reclaimed wood. This type of wood can be retrieved from buildings that no longer need them. Naturally, you should […]

  5. Alan Shotts

    I use as much reclaimed wood as I can, but also wanted to comment on another source. I reclaim a lot of the cheap particle board furniture from the box stores. It makes great (think cheap) shop projects and jigs. It is flat and has that layer of fake wood finish that actually makes pretty good jigs. I also end up with drawer slides, hinges, handles, etc. for shop projects that I don't have to buy. I find most of it in a pile by a dumpster or for a really cheap price in yard sales.

  6. Eddie Stnadard

    I find a lot of wood from dunnage used to haul pipes and heavy items to construction sites they want to get rid of the pallets and dunnage and the wood can be very good I get Cherry, Ash, Black Gun, Oak, and some that I have not ID'ed yet, but that does not matter. some I glue up and turn of the lathe, making bowls, goblets, spice containers, plates, and the like. have also made a couple of quilt racks for the house. you never know what you might find until you look and try.

  7. Vinny

    I remember reading that pallets may contain poisons or caustic chemicals that had leaked onto the pallets. I'm not sure how you could tell this except maybe from their smell. Just a thought!

  8. Edward Straub

    Check out re-claimers. They get logs sunk in water ways an reclaim them. I was watching one program the showed a piece of 2" plank 22' long and they only wanted $13,000 and got it. Me I like cedar fence and $2 for a 5" x 5.5' long it fits my budget. I also go to the lumber places like Lowes and Homedepot and search their damaged/reduced wood products and other items.


    I have made everything from toys, to shelves to furniture using reclaimed materials, although usually these materials come from stuff people are throwing away. I have also been using scraps from an unfinished furniture store that went out of business. For me, the first step is processing, that is, removing any nails, screws, damaged areas and so on. After that, the wood goes into my bins to be given new life as something useful and hopefully beautiful.