What's the deal with reclaimed lumber?

No doubt about it, reclaimed lumber is hot right now. A simple Craigslist search will reveal that folks are asking anywhere between $7 to $15 a board foot these days for wood that has been salvaged from old buildings, houses, warehouses, and barns. That's $50 (or more) a piece for a standard 2X4!

Some people will argue that it's "green", others just want to be able to tell the story. It's become romantic to talk about the history and age of the wood used for all sorts of projects around the house these days. And, admittedly, I'm no different. I am, however, shocked at how hard it is to find old lumber and the cost associated with it. I never dreamed that an old, weathered, and oftentimes nail-ridden board would far exceed the cost of a nice straight new piece.

I have coveted this pic of a spiral staircase made from reclaimed lumber. I've searched, but can't find the details on exactly how it was made, but it is stunning.

I have coveted this pic of a spiral staircase made from reclaimed lumber. I've searched, but can't find the details on exactly how it was made, but it is stunning.

There is something sexy about old wood. Today's wood used in construction and furniture building is actually quite different from a piece used 75-100 years ago. Lumber filling the aisles at your local home improvement store is typically "new growth", meaning that is has been grown and farmed exclusively for that use. The trees used have been fertilized to some degree to force the tree to grow at a faster rate than natural. This results in a less dense piece of wood, which, when dried, results in more knots, less attractive grain, and is more prone to twisting and cupping. Troll through a stack of 2X4 "premium" studs at Home Depot; I usually find a truly straight piece 1 out of 5 times. 

What irks me is the chain stores that are "aging" new wood to make a piece look like it is very old. Something about that just seems wrong. What's worse are the companies reproducing old signs, that, when looked at closely, don't even begin to look vintage. What's the point? Several years ago, I watched an episode of Antiques Roadshow where a Victorian era chair had been appraised at over $200,000! Months later, they encountered a chair that looked almost the same. It turned out that a man on Long Island had made chairs (fairly well, too) and anchored them on a sandbar for several months, allowing the sea to weather the wood to a patina that appeared to be many centuries old. Amazing!

I am relatively new to the search process of finding old wood for projects. I scan every road I drive for old buildings, sheds, and barns, wondering if they are still in use and if the owner would be willing to part with them. It's a sad habit, as it has highlighted the fact that there are a lot of abandoned properties littering our countryside (and city-side). Half the fun is in actually finding the wood! I'm looking forward to sharing my adventures, so check out my blog in the near future.