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Reclaimed Wood is Rich with History
Antique woods and timbers that have fallen in the forest, sunk to riverbeds, or outlived their use in industrial buildings are being reclaimed and remilled as extraordinary floors, paneling, and pillars.

A tung oil finish brings out the grain and color of this reclaimed pine floor while protecting and sealing the wood.

Gorgeous rediscovered and recovered woods are being offered by fine mills and merchants throughout the United States and Canada. These woods come from industrial mills, barns, old homes, forests, and riverbeds. Left to age naturally, these antique woods are of a quality and grain that is unequaled in woods found today. Heart pines with almost all heart, old growth oaks, Douglas firs, cypresses, black cherry trees, are all being rediscovered after centuries of growth and 150 or more years of aging. Antique softwoods harden with age and transform themselves into woods that are completely unlike wood products that are grown, stained, worked or distressed today. These antique woods are noted for their dimensional stability, grain, character, and size. Once cut from original old growth forests, these rediscovered trees and beams are enormous, rich in grain and in color, with the structural and dimensional integrity lacking in fast-growth woods found today.


Reclaimed, recovered, or rediscovered wood comes to its owners with a history. Perhaps it was used in a Victorian home that has been dismantled, in a textile mill from the turn-of-the-century, from a long forgotten logging route through the Great Lakes, or a slow-moving southern river. Whatever its origins, this wood comes from another era. Some logs bear a stamp on their sawn ends to prove where they were logged. Huge beams salvaged from old industrial buildings and barns can be dated and placed in a historical context.

Once these boards are milled to make new floorboards, they enter a new page in history. "This is the wood that was in grandma's house," explains Carol Goodwin, co-owner of Goodwin Heart Pine. This is the wood from the great timber stands of the 1700s and 1800s, the same wood that graced the old homes of America and is no longer available today. Recaptured from "industrial America as it's being dismantled, it's just a perfect wood to remanufacture," Goodwin says. Still it's a personal investment, a connection with the rich fabric of the past. "This is the product you put in your final home," Goodwin says, not one intended merely for resale.


This walnut floor is milled from recovered wood that has aged to reveal a rich color and grain.

Some recovered wood is certified. SmartWood offers a recovered wood certification program that authenticates the wood, providing a chain-of-custody document to tell the origin and handling of the wood. Such certification does more than trace the timber, it guarantees its owner that the wood, the built and natural environment, and the ecosystem were all handled with respect. It is important to many when purchasing recovered wood that the countryside and architectural history of this country not be dismantled to obtain it.

When purchasing riverbed-recovered wood, it matters whether the marine ecosystems were maintained during the recovery. SmartWood's program ensures that wood is recovered in such a way that it benefits all parties, a genuine act of discovery, reclamation, and reuse. Other companies offer their own documentation and wood histories. Wood obtained from demolition contactors can be linked to an address and pictures. Lost timbers recovered from riverbeds can be identified by the number of growth rings. Whatever the method, verify that the dealer is reputable before making an investment that is often three times what a new-growth installation would cost.


Recovered wood's beauty is unsurpassed. Left to age among the elements, whether in the baking sun, the close, dry conditions of an abandoned factory, or preserved in the cold depths by underwater silicates, these woods are transformed by the natural aging process. Steve Herrick, owner of Lost Lodge Timber, a recovered wood dealer, describes the beauty of wood left to age naturally, then recovered as fallen timber "aged beautifully, perfectly."

Goodwin Heart Pine tells a similar story when describing the recovery of the longleaf pine pilings used in the 1700s shipyard in Savannah. Once recovered, dried, and milled, "the wood is the color of the heart pine floor in George Washington's Mount Vernon…without waiting 250 years for the color to age." Heart pine like this, aged to a rich red color, hardened by the resin in its wood, or antique Douglas fir, aged rock hard with its extraordinary color and grain, cannot be replicated. "You can't fake it," says Herrick. "Trying to make a new product look old is not the same."

These floorboards are 17 inches wide and milled from recovered pine. The vast dimensions of antique timbers make them ideal for reuse as wide-plank flooring and paneling.

Remilled for Today
Long revered by preservationists, architects, and restorationists, recovered wood is now being discovered by discriminating homeowners. Carlisle Restoration Lumber mills the stunning wideplank flooring found in the homes and historic residences of the Northeast. Once recovered, Carlisle air and kiln dries the wood, and then mills each board individually. Carlisle recovers wood from barns and industrial buildings, then subjects it to the same standards used for new wood. The result is a dimensionally stable, uniform board, with the depth of grain, pattern, and color that cannot be found in new woods. "When you see beautiful paneling, cabinets, in the decorator magazines and wonder where they got them, this is where," says Herrick of the treasures found in reclaimed wood. "I would say it's a well-kept secret."

With more and more people discovering the beauty of rediscovered wood, it's unlikely that it will remain a secret for long. "The market is going to do nothing but grow," says Goodwin of the wood floor market in general and the reclaimed wood market in particular. People today are focusing in on their homes. They are opting to mix grades, selecting "casual chic" in the family room and a signature grade like Goodwin's Suwannee River longleaf pine for the showcase rooms. One of Goodwin's clients called it "cashmere with my blue jeans," a phrase that describes how people are living within their homes today.

Reclaimed wood is solid, stable, durable, and beautiful. It brings the warmth of the past to new construction, and gives owners a sense of history and place. Its beauty is unmistakable, its durability unmatched. Whether with telltale nail holes or clear-faced grains, these woods bring their history with them and invite another generation to imbue them with their own.

Text by Deb Alden
Copyright Bob Vila � 2001

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