Reclaimed Wood: What To Know Before You Buy

Updated: Jan. 04, 2024

Save the forests and add rustic charm to your home by building with reclaimed wood. Here are some tips to help you find what you need.

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Builders began using reclaimed wood in the early 20th century because it offered better quality than fresh wood. Reclaimed wood often originated from old-growth trees, which are harder and denser than young trees.

Some of today’s reclaimed wood is still of this vintage variety. While working with this old-growth wood is desirable, sustainability is a more important reason for reclaimed wood’s continuing popularity.

Buying reclaimed wood is expensive because a lot goes into preparing it for the lumber market. If you think it makes sense to defray costs by doing some of the prep work yourself, Robert Kundel of Restorer Tools hears you. He invented a tool to make it easier to do just that.

You might find reclaimed wood for free at a demolition site, but may not have the time or inclination to prepare it for reuse. If you want to purchase ready-to-use reclaimed lumber, there are more potential sources than you might expect.

What Is Reclaimed Wood?

Reclaimed wood is recycled from old buildings, fences, barrels and railways. It takes a fair amount of effort to prepare it for reuse, and even after all that it still looks worn. But that’s an asset, not a drawback. Wood that has been milled and stored but never used would be considered salvaged, not reclaimed.

The best reclaimed wood comes from structures that predate the building booms following the two World Wars. This wood is denser and better quality. It was often quarter-sawn or milled selectively for heartwood. Both enhance grain appearance but would be considered wasteful today. If you’re looking to transform the feel of your home, you can make a unique kitchen island or table using a hatch door.

The most common reclaimed wood species are Douglas fir, redwood, pine and oak, but you can reclaim any wood species. You can incorporate it into building structures, floors, paneling, siding and even furniture.

Benefits of Reclaimed Wood

Despite the recent upswing in the price of lumber, reclaimed wood is still significantly more expensive, but it remains an attractive option for several reasons:

  • Sustainability: No trees are freshly cut when you use reclaimed wood. Consider the extra cost of the wood to be the price of reducing your carbon footprint. Structures built with reclaimed wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) get a higher green building score (LEED score), which can increase their desirability.
  • More design options: Reclaimed wood has its own charm. You may try to mimic it by distressing fresh wood, but you can never duplicate. Its visible circular saw marks and mottled surface make it a unique material that can be incorporated into interior or exterior décor and reclaimed wood furniture like coffee tables, headboards, etc.
  • Easier to finish: Reclaimed wood is supposed to look rustic. It seldom needs to be stained to enhance its appearance. It requires less effort to prepare it for a clear finish than fresh wood.

Where To Buy Reclaimed Wood

Surprisingly, Kundel says Instagram offers one of the best sources to buy reclaimed wood. Just search with the hashtag #reclaimedwood.

Other online sources for flooring, paneling, beams and more include Etsy, Craigslist and eBay, as well as distributors like Box Kite Barn Yard and Kentucky Wisewood. Another surprise: The Home Depot carries reclaimed wood paneling.

Various suppliers conduct business primarily in person but maintain an online presence and may be willing to ship to you. These include Kundel’s personal recommendations: Ohio Valley Reclaimed Wood and Sons of Sawdust.

Reclaimed Flooring Co. is a good source of reclaimed wood flooring. If it’s barn wood you’re after, Kundel recommends Humble Barn, If you’re shopping for beams, try Evolutia.

Any salvage company that recycles used building materials is also a potential source of used wood, although it might not be in ready-to-use condition. An economical source of reclaimed wood is a local demolition project. If you find wood from one of these sources, consider purchasing one of Kundel’s restorer tools and cleaning up the wood yourself.

How Much Does Reclaimed Wood Cost?

If you purchase from a distributor, reclaimed flooring can cost from $9 to $15 per square foot — twice to three times as much as conventional flooring. Reclaimed paneling can cost from $5 to $7 per square foot.

The cost of beams and other structural components varies with dimensions and condition. If you’re looking for a reclaimed beam to decorate your mantel, you’ll be looking at between $300 and $3,000.

Tips for Shopping for Reclaimed Wood

When you purchase reclaimed wood from a dealer and pay premium prices, you shouldn’t have to worry about defects. However, if you get it from a salvage company or a demolition site, best to do your own quality control. Here are some things to watch for:

  • Rotted wood: Look for areas of rotted wood and check how deep they go by poking them with a screwdriver. If the rot extends deep into the wood, pass on that piece and keep looking.
  • Insect damage: Reclaimed wood dealers kiln-dry their products to kill insects. If you’re sourcing your own, look for evidence of insect activity — tunnels, holes and signs of actual bugs. Unless you kiln-dry insect-infested wood yourself or treat it with low-toxicity borate-based insecticide like Nissus Bora-Care, don’t bring it into your house.
  • Lead paint: Beware of old, painted wood, because the paint may contain lead. The paint must to removed, and the person doing it must wear a respirator and assiduously control the sanding dust.
  • Nails and screws: Many old pieces of wood have nails and screws embedded inside. The heads may not be visible or may have broken off. Use a metal detector or magnet to find these fasteners before you saw the wood.
  • Preservatives: Old railroad ties, fence posts and even sometimes barn wood may have been treated with preservatives that aren’t safe for indoor use. Reserve this type of wood for outdoors.

Can You Stain Reclaimed Wood?

Yes, but that somewhat negates the reason to use reclaimed wood in the first place. Most reclaimed wood has been through many decades of use and weather to get the beautiful rustic, distressed patina it has today. Why cover that with stain or paint? You are better off saving a few bucks by using freshly sourced lumber if matching a wood stain or paint color is your goal.

Can Reclaimed Wood be Used Outside?

Reclaimed lumber is not changed in its characteristics simply because it has been reclaimed.  Reclaimed pine boards, for example, are just as susceptible to rot and insect damage as newly purchased pine boards purchased from the lumberyard. Though, as reclaimed wood is likely to be denser, a brand-new board would almost certainly deteriorate faster than a reclaimed board.

If you are interested in building an outdoor woodworking project from reclaimed wood, search for wood types that naturally resist weather. These wood types include black locust, cypress, redwood, or white oak.

Additionally, as noted above, certain types of reclaimed wood, such as railroad ties and fence posts, are loaded with preservatives, including arsenic. This makes them only suitable for outdoor use. Don’t forget to check out these reclaimed wood wall ideas.