What is Reclaimed Wood?

Reclaiming wood that speaks of our architectural and cultural heritage has seen a recent surge, as homeowners, architects, and contractors alike continue to gain new appreciation for its intrinsic value, usability, and beauty. Other reasons for looking to upcycling wood include growing concerns for environmental responsibility, thriftiness, and exponential web access to information and images related to creating beautiful and unique projects that incorporate reclaimed materials.

At Distinguished Boards and Beams, we love reclaimed wood because it is original and soulful. Every piece is a slice of history. Homeowners love the way it looks, architects enjoy designing with it, and contractors get excited about getting creative with its installation. While we consider ourselves to be more of a boutique supplier of historic barn wood and an in-house milling facility of barn wood siding, flooring, and timbers, we also appreciate the wide array of reclaimed wood that is available at most people's fingertips—if one only takes the time to look for it. Historic structures are an excellent source for large amounts of reclaimed wood because they were built in a time when old growth trees were abundant and wood was the main material used in both domestic and commercial construction. A few examples include:

  • Standing Barns
  • Tobacco Plantation Buildings
  • Retired Mills
  • Factories
  • Warehouses
  • Schools
  • Log Cabins
  • Fences
  • Pallets

The walls, floors, and timbers found in these structures find new life when transformed into siding, flooring, framing, features, furniture, and even artwork for some of the finest modern homes, offices, and businesses. Once you’ve formed the habit of seeing, interpreting and listening to the stories of historic wood, you see and hear them everywhere. The bar in your favorite restaurant may be made from reclaimed log cabin beams. The doorway in your neighbor’s home could come from a dismantled distillery in Georgia. The office trim in that new hi-rise could be off an Iowa farmer’s storage building. Reclaimed wood is everywhere!

For a more detailed list of reclaimed wood sources, see our post titled Where to Find Reclaimed Wood.


The Look

Like good cooking that uses age, spice, aroma, distillation and daring to create a savory dish, the use of historical woods presents the designer with a myriad of colors, emotions, and grains to choose from to create a savory look. Textures combine with age, old growth grain patterns, and previous wear for this attractive and pleasant foundation to design. One way to really understand the draw of authentic reclaimed products is to find out or imagine all you can about its previous use. Are there nail holes? Mortise pockets? Scuff marks? Stains? These are all clues to the journey behind your selection or discovery. For example, if your wood comes from the hold of a ship perhaps the natural polish you discover is the result of thousands of repetitions of chains weighing anchor, smooth metal bumping and bouncing along smooth, stout decking. Perhaps your choice of wide plank oak flooring came off the walls and floors of an early American factory like the historic textile mill built by Samuel Slater in 1790 in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. There’s always a story.


The Story

As suppliers of heritage reclaimed wood products, we constantly hear new stories like 225 hand hewn logs lurking beneath updated drywall or old growth vertical grain red fir flooring hiding under that shag carpet installed in the 1960s. There is a story behind each individual item and that story becomes a part of its new architectural life. 

The internet is filled with projects that speak of DIY reclaimed wood projects utilizing thrifty upcycling from a number of sources, as well as stories that describe the realization that their old barns or forgotten cabins contain desirable wood. This author was personally amazed to find, once learning more about reclaimed wood types, that his family's 135-year-old homestead contained a wide variety of barn boards, timbers, and hand hewn timbers that still make up the solid bones of historic barns on a working farm. 


The History

The unsung hero of America’s first two industrial revolutions is wood. Wood was used for flooring, siding, beams, and supports in thousands of facilities across the country. It was also a big player in spurring developments in transportation including roads and rail. Wood had to be logged, milled, transported, and handled in new ways as our country developed. The trees that these lumber products came from are the ones logged during America’s first sweep west and march forward into the industrial revolution. Between 1760 and 1840 massive factories rose from America’s forests. These industries included textile manufactures and factories that deployed steam powered tools that took the work out of people’s hands and put them into powerful machines.

The end use is only a small part of the picture. To find the history of modern reclaimed wood you have to look at the very first settlers and the introduction of sawmills. In the American colonies wood was widely available and all but free. Labor sources in America were few and costly so new Americans made the very most of wood, going beyond the obvious buildings, fences and furniture. Pioneers and builders were also using pitch, char and ash for resin, tar, dye, textile treatments, boat building, and more.


Role of Sawmills

Before water-powered sawmills came along many hard working people were forced to shape America’s forest into wood products by hand. If they were lucky they had beasts of burden to help with logging and transporting. Many fabulous pieces of wood were painstakingly hand hewn and planed for homes, businesses, rail projects, ships, farm buildings, and fences. 

Sawmills started appearing on the east coast by the early 1620s. This signaled the start of wood production on a mass scale. Those early sawmills may have contributed greatly to the nature of the heritage reclaimed wood pieces found today. For example the sawing style used on specific boards and beams can be plainly seen and contributes to the overall look and texture. As new townships were created across the country sawmills were often the first industrial structures to rise. For an in-depth of the sawing styles used in early mills, see How Heritage Barn Boards Were Originally Made.


Timber Framing

Early timber framed buildings consisted of solid beams connected by a hardware-free system of connectors called mortise and tenons. These connectors can still be found on reclaimed beams and other wood products. Even though original joinery pockets may no longer be connecting a beam, they still look beautiful in the right context of a home, office or business. 

We are lucky to have wood and beams that still have these markings and systems. Once hardware was introduced, wood became less important for some phases of construction. Mortise and tenon construction went by the wayside with the introduction of the mass-produced nail in the 1790's. Before that, hardware was so valuable and scarce that some buildings were burned to reclaim the nails and hardware for another project. Nails and other hardware made building with wood more cost-effective and popular than ever. With transportation systems and sawmills in place, America was poised to log the bounty of thousands of years of uninterrupted forest growth. 



Reclaimed is the way to go when stability important, which is why many timber framers prefer old growth, slowly air dried heritage timbers. New wood products, even when kiln dried, are not yet cured and therefore, are potentially unstable. Some woodworkers and designers don’t want to wait to find out how wood is going to age and potentially bend, crack or fade. Only time and circumstance can cure and stabilize wood entirely. That’s why some suppliers repurpose large beams into plank flooring or wall coverings, large mantles, bars, and home accents. This material is cured, beautiful, and durable. Milled pieces can be mistaken for new wood products or they can retain their rustic qualities depending on how they are treated (or not).

Size is also a desirable feature of reclaimed timbers. Massive reclaimed timbers that were cut from the tallest, straightest, and widest old growth trees that were once readily available in North America are much more common than newly cut examples. Environmental laws and over harvesting have led to restrictions on the cutting of old growth trees. Thus, oftentimes utilizing reclaimed pieces is the only way find unusually large dimensions. 



Besides restrictions placed on harvesting old growth timber, the growing need to preserve forest land makes reclaimed wood an environmentally responsible choice for projects. Many architects intentionally use reclaimed wood as part of their design process ethos, and many homeowners ask specifically for designs that will make their home sustainable as well as eligible for LEED credits. The choice to use reclaimed wood for projects is easy to make when considering the aesthetic, integrity, size, and character of the multitude of reclaimed pieces available.