Wood – Our Raw Material

What would a woodworker be without wood? If not a tool collector – most likely a would-worker talking about all the stuff they could have built – if they just had some wood…

would•worker noun 

    1. A person who  could build or make beautiful pieces from the wood if it was available.
    2. (Derogatory) Can also mean a person who has no skills, but think that with the most expensive tools – power or hand – could make anything from wood.

Joking aside; we have several choices available – green wood, kiln-dried wood, air-dried wood – all of these from recently felled trees. In the last decades, a few other choices have sprung up – recycled and/or reclaimed wood.

Over the years, woodworkers have become aware of the environmental impact of non-sustainable logging of many tropical hard woods. Combined with the diminishing source of high quality wood abroad and home, some woodworkers have turned to another source of wood – wood that is recycled or reclaimed.

Now – what is the difference? Looking at lexical semantics (the study of word meanings and word relations), in general recycling and reclaiming have similar meanings – that is – to re-use material that has previously been used. If we look at the wood industry however, there is a much clearer distinction between how these terms are used. (Notice that the “definitions” I give are based on how I have found them being used. They are not definitions found in a dictionary.)

Recycled Wood

Recycled wood is wood that has already been used for one purpose (its “primary” purpose) and can be recycled to be used for another – e.g. wood pallets or crates taken apart so they can be re-used in manufactured wood products.

Recycling usually involves materials removed from a “waste-stream” so they can be re-processed and re-manufactured.

Reclaimed Wood

Reclaimed wood is wood that has been used, but is not part of a “waste-stream”. The term reclaimed has come to mean wood recovered from (older) buildings and structures – often containing wood that is old growth. It is also used about old, dead-on-stump trees that are harvested – trees that would othervise just fall down, rot and return to nature.

Many smaller and larger companies that specialize in re-claimed wood of many species have sprung up over the last decades. Some deal only in high-end architectural materials, some can offer you almost everything from smaller pieces milled to your specifications to un-milled wood with its original tool marks, and some will only sell you milled floorboards. However, most companies will only sell you wood in larger quantities (several hundred board feet), so for the small time hobby woodworker, it might be hard to get hands on reclaimed wood. If you live in the area of one of these specialty dealers, they might be willing to part with smaller quantities.

Depending upon its end use, reclaimed wood can be milled or used as-is. Before milling, nails and other fasteners or hardware is removed.

Its many advantages compared to modern, kiln-dried or air-dried wood – makes it very attractive for many reasons:

  1. usually old growth wood from an era before modern logging times
  2. often the wood has toolmarks from the hand tools that were used to prepare it, making the wood (especially if from the interior of a building) very valuable as it can be re-used as-is without removing the old patina
  3. usually high quality wood and wonderful to work with
    1. often dense due to slow growth
    2. straight grain and defect free
    3. color, character and patina has had time to develop
    4. air dried for decades or even centuries, wood has had time to stabilize
    5. can find species not common today, like American Elm (due to Dutch Elm Disease) or American Chestnut (due to Chestnut Blight).
  4. environmental benefits. Using reclaimed wood helps prevent destruction of remaining old growth forest. Often fewer resources are needed to reclaim wood than to harvest new (virgin) wood, and can also be considered more environmentally friendly. Removing old structures can also have another environmental impact – loss of eye sores.