Old House Journal

Old House Journal

Photo Courtesy Goodwin Heart Pine

Antique wood has long been the choice of restorationists in repairing floors or building additions. Now reclaimed or recovered lumber has growing environmental cachet. Outlets of rescued timber-retail and wholesale-have mushroomed: One dealer estimates that they’ve increased 10-fold in the past 15 years.

With so many newcomers of various backgrounds hawking these wares, flooring shoppers can run into high adventure sorting through all the glistening samples while avoiding potential minefields-or at least a hidden nail or two.

There are two primary sources for salvaged wood. Lumber is reclaimed from previous uses, sometimes from barns but more productively from huge abandoned structures such as old mills, water towers, and factories. Logs are recovered from lakes or rivers by divers. These are most often sinkers: timber logged 70 to 200 years ago and lost on its way to a mill, or forgotten for decades in a holding pond. In other cases, scuba divers use underwater saws to cut down trees still standing in areas inundated by the construction of dams or hydroelectric plants.

Either process is labor intensive. Reclaimers dismantle buildings one piece at a time, haul timbers long distances, then use a metal detector to find hidden nails before prying them out. In rivers and ponds, recoverers assess wood age and quality with flashlights. Then they haul the logs to a dedicated boat ramp for removal. In lakes, sonar allows them to find sinkers more than 100 feet deep. State lawmakers keep a close eye on water loggers to prevent harm to aquatic or bank environments.

All this effort doesn’t come cheap. Antique flooring prices are two to three times-or more-that of new wood.

What you pay for.

Yet the selling points are many. Dealers point to richer patina and more character in old wood. You can buy remilled planks as smooth as silk or riddled with evidence of nails, worms, and ancient saw blades. What you can’t see is its greater durability. In Colonial America’s virgin forest, trees were packed tightly together, competing for soil nutrients and sunlight. The harsh conditions meant they grew slowly and, as a result, produced more dense heartwood. Antique woods can have more than 30 growth rings per inch, compared to four to seven in a new-growth tree, so they stand up better to foot traffic, water, insects, and even fire.

Some are skeptical about quality differences between old- and new-growth heart pine, the most commonly sold antique wood. But even they cheer the recovery of American chestnut wood, virtually non-existent since a blight wiped out the species early in this century. Old birch is a color you can’t get any more because there is so much of the reddish heart in these huge timbers, says Charles Rayner. He’s sales manager for Timeless Timber in Ashland, Wisconsin, which also recovers sinkers of maple, oak, and hemlock.

In the West, Douglas fir and redwood are the most often rescued. The redwood trees we’re harvesting today are getting smaller and smaller, says Bob Legg, president of the Temperate Forest Foundation in Beaverton, Oregon. Yet people need big timbers for some of its popular uses, like decks.

Do you need your floorboards long and wide? It’s not at all unusual for support beams in an old mill or factory to be 18 thick and 20′ long. Logs recovered as sinkers are generally from tall, branchless trunks, meaning they can produce long boards with few or no knots. And the greater density of old wood allows the milling of wide planks with more stability, fans say.

Then there’s the panache of having an interesting tale to tell. We all love to tell friends how we snagged our vintage chandelier at a garage sale or salvaged a stained glass window from a demolished church. Why not some yarns about what’s underfoot?

Floor Stories.

Mountain lumber in Ruckersville, Virginia, gives homeowners who purchase reclaimed flooring a written and illustrated history about its source. We were doing so much research on these places ourselves, we decided the buyers should be enjoying the stories too, says owner Willie Drake. Drake has recovered wood from as far away as St. Petersburg in Russia, where Russian oak intended for use in Trans-Siberian Railway cars was stacked in a warehouse for some 80 years. Some customers make their choice based on these histories. A retired Naval officer ordered Tidewater pine reclaimed from the 85-year-old Naval Yard pier outside Washington, D.C. Baseball fans get excited about the heart pine from Baltimore’s Camden Yards, now home to the Orioles.

Finally, investing in antique flooring makes many feel more environmentally responsible. Although wood is a renewable resource, rescued wood represents an important sustainability ethic, says Legg. If we can extend the useful life of wood, we can stretch our resources.

Not everyone agrees, however. James Murray Howard, curator and architect for Thomas Jefferson-designed buildings at the University of Virginia, says he has no choice except antique wood for making historically appropriate repairs. But I’m pained by the process. You’re losing the building you’re taking the wood from. I don’t say we have to save every old building, but you need to make sure you’re robbing [the wood] for a good cause. Reclaimers counter that they’re taking wood that would otherwise end up in a landfill, often removing buildings that have become dangerous.

Avoiding surprises.

If antique wood appeals to you and you can give this slice of history a good home, as one seller puts it, do some homework before sending in that order.

There is no uniform grading system for antique wood as there is for newly milled flooring. Various dealers have their own fanciful terms for different grades that may or may not be illuminating. Naily tells its own story, but how many wormholes can you expect to find in Legacy versus Cabin or Country? What appear to be bargains at first glance may involve your paying extra to have nails removed, making your installer fill large knot holes, or wasting a high proportion of your purchase.

What Should You Look For?

  • Proper drying. Most antique wood sellers dry their wood in kilns. Done too quickly this might reduce resin content and damage the wood’s cellular structure.

You can’t rush through the process, says Pattie Boden, sales manager at Mountain Lumber. Every piece of wood is a different animal depending on where it came from. The roof may have been off and it may have been water damaged. In large timbers, the outside can be 15 percent drier than the inside.

Carol Goodwin of Goodwin Heart Pine in Micanopy, Florida, says their river-recovered pine has a moisture content about half that of newly cut wood. Nevertheless, they air dry it for two to three months before kiln-drying it for five days. Advocates of kiln drying shoot for a moisture content of slightly less than 10 percent.

  • Clearly specified content. If you want 100 percent antique heart pine flooring, make sure that this is what you’re getting. Any sapwood will stay yellow instead of turning the heart’s signature pinky orange. Some dealers mix pieces of new wood with the old.
  • Wood cut to expectations. Quarter- (or edge-) sawn flooring will have all-vertical grain, while plain or flat-sawn will have whorls and flame shapes. Those shapes may be what you want. A rare heart pine form called curly is full of burls and squiggles. But some connoisseurs, like the UVA’s Howard, feel that with heart pine in particular, only quarter sawing will play up the tighter texture of the antique wood.
  • Appropriate dimensions. Plank flooring 3/4 thick is fairly standard, although 1/2 is sometimes sold for glue-down installation. Dealers often offer random widths in ranges, say 3 to 5, 3 to 7, and 6 to 10, and in random lengths of 11/2′ to 12′. Others offer same-width boards, such as 21/2, 31/4, 51/4, 7, and 9. Because so many of these dealers do their own milling, they can accommodate special orders including boards a foot wide or 16′ long, or unusual widths or thicknesses.
  • Several samples. Many dealers have well-illustrated web sites, which is a fun way to begin exploring. Many will send you a photo. But cameras can lie, so ask to see some samples of the actual flooring. And not one little piece, says Boden, but at least three of nice sizes.
  • Guarantees. A reputable dealer will not only certify that the wood is really old, but indicate a maximum amount of waste (5 percent should be adequate unless you have a diagonal or other unusual pattern) and agree to take the flooring back, even if you just don’t like the color. And you may want to know the source of reclaimed lumber for reasons other than gleaning a colorful anecdote. Drake researches the buildings’ histories to make sure they weren’t the site of chemical-intensive industries such as tanning. I wouldn’t feel comfortable with that for my workers or my customers.
  • Recovered vs Reclaimed

    Sellers of water-recovered wood say it’s superior to reclaimed wood on a couple of counts. An absence of oxygen makes the underwater environment like a time capsule for recovered logs, whereas reclaimed wood has been buffeted by hammers and nails, heat and humidity. Underwater, substances in wood that would ordinarily crystallize over time are instead eaten by bacteria. Timeless Timber in Ashland, Wisconsin, says this makes its woods ideal for musical instruments because the open cells improve acoustics, while Carol Goodwin of Goodwin Heart Pine in Micanopy, Florida, says it gives the heart pine a more translucent look. But many buyers want a distressed look, says Goodwin, whose company also sells some reclaimed woods. I’ve had people leave wood outside with chains on it or take golf cleats to it. Reclaimed wood is more apt to come with such evidence of age, and sellers say the stress of humidity and temperature fluctuation over the years increases the wood’s stability rather than lessening it.

    Shaping Up, Not Shipping Out

    If building green appeals to you and you don’t need to match an unusual old floor, the U.S. Forest Service project at its Southern Research Station at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg should be worth investigating.

    Phil Araman, a research project leader there, is promoting the recycling of old shipping pallets for flooring, paneling, and counter tops. The flooring is mostly red or white oak, while the other uses include walnut and cherry. Pallet manufacturers are encouraging the repair of old pallets, but as recently as 1995 surveys showed that only three in 10 pallets were reclaimed from old ones. That meant a lot of nice wood was being buried or ground up, says Araman. In the mid ’90s a not-for-profit organization was established in the Bronx, New York, to train inner city youth to make flooring and furniture from pallets, but the enterprise is no longer operating. For more information call Phil Araman at (540) 231-5341, or email paraman@vt.edu.

    Photo Courtesy Goodwin Heart Pine

    Antique wood has long been the choice of restorationists in repairing floors or building additions. Now reclaimed or recovered lumber has growing environmental cachet. Outlets of rescued timber-retail and wholesale-have mushroomed: One dealer estimates that they’ve increased 10-fold in the past 15 years.

    With so many newcomers of various backgrounds hawking these wares, flooring shoppers can run into high adventure sorting through all the glistening samples while avoiding potential minefields-or at least a hidden nail or two.

    There are two primary sources for salvaged wood. Lumber is reclaimed from previous uses, sometimes from barns but more productively from huge abandoned structures such as old mills, water towers, and factories. Logs are recovered from lakes or rivers by divers. These are most often sinkers: timber logged 70 to 200 years ago and lost on its way to a mill, or forgotten for decades in a holding pond. In other cases, scuba divers use underwater saws to cut down trees still standing in areas inundated by the construction of dams or hydroelectric plants.

    Either process is labor intensive. Reclaimers dismantle buildings one piece at a time, haul timbers long distances, then use a metal detector to find hidden nails before prying them out. In rivers and ponds, recoverers assess wood age and quality with flashlights. Then they haul the logs to a dedicated boat ramp for removal. In lakes, sonar allows them to find sinkers more than 100 feet deep. State lawmakers keep a close eye on water loggers to prevent harm to aquatic or bank environments.

    All this effort doesn’t come cheap. Antique flooring prices are two to three times-or more-that of new wood.

    What you pay for.

    Yet the selling points are many. Dealers point to richer patina and more character in old wood. You can buy remilled planks as smooth as silk or riddled with evidence of nails, worms, and ancient saw blades. What you can’t see is its greater durability. In Colonial America’s virgin forest, trees were packed tightly together, competing for soil nutrients and sunlight. The harsh conditions meant they grew slowly and, as a result, produced more dense heartwood. Antique woods can have more than 30 growth rings per inch, compared to four to seven in a new-growth tree, so they stand up better to foot traffic, water, insects, and even fire.

    Some are skeptical about quality differences between old- and new-growth heart pine, the most commonly sold antique wood. But even they cheer the recovery of American chestnut wood, virtually non-existent since a blight wiped out the species early in this century. Old birch is a color you can’t get any more because there is so much of the reddish heart in these huge timbers, says Charles Rayner. He’s sales manager for Timeless Timber in Ashland, Wisconsin, which also recovers sinkers of maple, oak, and hemlock.

    Old House Journal

    In the West, Douglas fir and redwood are the most often rescued. The redwood trees we’re harvesting today are getting smaller and smaller, says Bob Legg, president of the Temperate Forest Foundation in Beaverton, Oregon. Yet people need big timbers for some of its popular uses, like decks.

    Do you need your floorboards long and wide? It’s not at all unusual for support beams in an old mill or factory to be 18 thick and 20′ long. Logs recovered as sinkers are generally from tall, branchless trunks, meaning they can produce long boards with few or no knots. And the greater density of old wood allows the milling of wide planks with more stability, fans say.

    Then there’s the panache of having an interesting tale to tell. We all love to tell friends how we snagged our vintage chandelier at a garage sale or salvaged a stained glass window from a demolished church. Why not some yarns about what’s underfoot?

    Floor Stories.

    Mountain lumber in Ruckersville, Virginia, gives homeowners who purchase reclaimed flooring a written and illustrated history about its source. We were doing so much research on these places ourselves, we decided the buyers should be enjoying the stories too, says owner Willie Drake. Drake has recovered wood from as far away as St. Petersburg in Russia, where Russian oak intended for use in Trans-Siberian Railway cars was stacked in a warehouse for some 80 years. Some customers make their choice based on these histories. A retired Naval officer ordered Tidewater pine reclaimed from the 85-year-old Naval Yard pier outside Washington, D.C. Baseball fans get excited about the heart pine from Baltimore’s Camden Yards, now home to the Orioles.

    Finally, investing in antique flooring makes many feel more environmentally responsible. Although wood is a renewable resource, rescued wood represents an important sustainability ethic, says Legg. If we can extend the useful life of wood, we can stretch our resources.

    Not everyone agrees, however. James Murray Howard, curator and architect for Thomas Jefferson-designed buildings at the University of Virginia, says he has no choice except antique wood for making historically appropriate repairs. But I’m pained by the process. You’re losing the building you’re taking the wood from. I don’t say we have to save every old building, but you need to make sure you’re robbing [the wood] for a good cause. Reclaimers counter that they’re taking wood that would otherwise end up in a landfill, often removing buildings that have become dangerous.

    Avoiding surprises.

    If antique wood appeals to you and you can give this slice of history a good home, as one seller puts it, do some homework before sending in that order.

    There is no uniform grading system for antique wood as there is for newly milled flooring. Various dealers have their own fanciful terms for different grades that may or may not be illuminating. Naily tells its own story, but how many wormholes can you expect to find in Legacy versus Cabin or Country? What appear to be bargains at first glance may involve your paying extra to have nails removed, making your installer fill large knot holes, or wasting a high proportion of your purchase.

    What Should You Look For?

    • Proper drying. Most antique wood sellers dry their wood in kilns. Done too quickly this might reduce resin content and damage the wood’s cellular structure.

    You can’t rush through the process, says Pattie Boden, sales manager at Mountain Lumber. Every piece of wood is a different animal depending on where it came from. The roof may have been off and it may have been water damaged. In large timbers, the outside can be 15 percent drier than the inside.

    Carol Goodwin of Goodwin Heart Pine in Micanopy, Florida, says their river-recovered pine has a moisture content about half that of newly cut wood. Nevertheless, they air dry it for two to three months before kiln-drying it for five days. Advocates of kiln drying shoot for a moisture content of slightly less than 10 percent.

  • Clearly specified content. If you want 100 percent antique heart pine flooring, make sure that this is what you’re getting. Any sapwood will stay yellow instead of turning the heart’s signature pinky orange. Some dealers mix pieces of new wood with the old.
  • Wood cut to expectations. Quarter- (or edge-) sawn flooring will have all-vertical grain, while plain or flat-sawn will have whorls and flame shapes. Those shapes may be what you want. A rare heart pine form called curly is full of burls and squiggles. But some connoisseurs, like the UVA’s Howard, feel that with heart pine in particular, only quarter sawing will play up the tighter texture of the antique wood.
  • Appropriate dimensions. Plank flooring 3/4 thick is fairly standard, although 1/2 is sometimes sold for glue-down installation. Dealers often offer random widths in ranges, say 3 to 5, 3 to 7, and 6 to 10, and in random lengths of 11/2′ to 12′. Others offer same-width boards, such as 21/2, 31/4, 51/4, 7, and 9. Because so many of these dealers do their own milling, they can accommodate special orders including boards a foot wide or 16′ long, or unusual widths or thicknesses.
  • Several samples. Many dealers have well-illustrated web sites, which is a fun way to begin exploring. Many will send you a photo. But cameras can lie, so ask to see some samples of the actual flooring. And not one little piece, says Boden, but at least three of nice sizes.
  • Guarantees. A reputable dealer will not only certify that the wood is really old, but indicate a maximum amount of waste (5 percent should be adequate unless you have a diagonal or other unusual pattern) and agree to take the flooring back, even if you just don’t like the color. And you may want to know the source of reclaimed lumber for reasons other than gleaning a colorful anecdote. Drake researches the buildings’ histories to make sure they weren’t the site of chemical-intensive industries such as tanning. I wouldn’t feel comfortable with that for my workers or my customers.
  • Recovered vs Reclaimed

    Sellers of water-recovered wood say it’s superior to reclaimed wood on a couple of counts. An absence of oxygen makes the underwater environment like a time capsule for recovered logs, whereas reclaimed wood has been buffeted by hammers and nails, heat and humidity. Underwater, substances in wood that would ordinarily crystallize over time are instead eaten by bacteria. Timeless Timber in Ashland, Wisconsin, says this makes its woods ideal for musical instruments because the open cells improve acoustics, while Carol Goodwin of Goodwin Heart Pine in Micanopy, Florida, says it gives the heart pine a more translucent look. But many buyers want a distressed look, says Goodwin, whose company also sells some reclaimed woods. I’ve had people leave wood outside with chains on it or take golf cleats to it. Reclaimed wood is more apt to come with such evidence of age, and sellers say the stress of humidity and temperature fluctuation over the years increases the wood’s stability rather than lessening it.

    Shaping Up, Not Shipping Out

    If building green appeals to you and you don’t need to match an unusual old floor, the U.S. Forest Service project at its Southern Research Station at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg should be worth investigating.

    Phil Araman, a research project leader there, is promoting the recycling of old shipping pallets for flooring, paneling, and counter tops. The flooring is mostly red or white oak, while the other uses include walnut and cherry. Pallet manufacturers are encouraging the repair of old pallets, but as recently as 1995 surveys showed that only three in 10 pallets were reclaimed from old ones. That meant a lot of nice wood was being buried or ground up, says Araman. In the mid ’90s a not-for-profit organization was established in the Bronx, New York, to train inner city youth to make flooring and furniture from pallets, but the enterprise is no longer operating. For more information call Phil Araman at (540) 231-5341, or email paraman@vt.edu.


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