Today, many varieties of wood which were once abundant and freely available are in very short supply. Some, such as the American chestnut, are to all intents and purposes extinct and not available for commercial use from natural sources. However, there is an alternative supply of wood in the shape of reclaimed timber.
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Lumber can be reclaimed from an interesting and diverse range of sources. The most prolific supply is reclaimed from old buildings including barns, factories, and warehouses which contain large volumes of wood, often oak, chestnut and pine. This timber is often in sizable pieces making wood from these buildings the most flexible in terms of future use. Lumber can also be sourced from railway sleepers, fences and even storage vessels like wine barrels, beer casks and pickling containers. These produce wood with great depth of colour and unique patterning. Timber can even be reclaimed from old shipping pallets which can be made from exotic hardwoods due to the need for strength and durability. There is also a supply of timber which is recovered rather than reclaimed. This is lumber from trees which have toppled over, died naturally or fallen into rivers.
There are many important benefits to be gained from the use of reclaimed timber. We live in a world of diminishing natural resources, over-forestation and environmental concerns. Using reclaimed wood helps to preserve our forests by reducing the need for virgin timber. Generally, processing this wood has less impact on the environment than felling, transporting and processing new lumber and the varieties recovered can include those not available naturally.
The benefits are not just confined to helping the environment. Reclaimed timber is often from very old structures and vessels which were formed of wood from mature trees. Today, the demand for virgin timber means that trees grown commercially are rarely matured long enough to reach their full potential size. Thus, reclaimed timber can afford access to larger planks. The wood from mature trees is stronger and less prone to splitting, as is timber that has been exposed to the elements over a period of time. The wood in old buildings has expanded and contracted constantly over the years and has fully dried out, making it more durable and less prone to warping and splitting. Old wood also tends to have a dense grain making it more stable. One of the most important aspects of reclaimed timber is its character. Every section has a story and no two pieces are identical, giving depth and unique character to anything fashioned from the wood.
Reclaimed timber can have some drawbacks. The fact that the wood has been weathered and aged making each piece unique is one of its greatest qualities but can also be problematic to some people who do not favour the non-uniform appearance of flooring or furniture made from it. Reclaimed wood can also have scars and indentations caused by the removal of old nails and pegs. Again, some people love the character of these marks, others see them as flaws. This wood can also be more expensive to produce than virgin timber due to the demands of dismantling, sorting and preparation. There have also been concerns voiced about the weak provenance of some wood. It is difficult to know how it has been treated across its lifetime leading to the possibility of harmful, volatile organic compounds being released from the wood.
It should always be remembered that reclaimed timber is, itself, a finite resource. There are only so many old structures out there to source the wood from and eventually these too will become unavailable. In the meantime, reclaimed wood provides a valuable source of characterful material for producing furniture, flooring and architectural features.
S. Stacey is a frequent guest blogger on a variety of topics, often working in collaboration with her favourite online store for affordable oak furniture, National Furniture UK.