What is Reclaimed Lumber?

Alan Rankin
Alan Rankin
Using reclaimed wood from old barns reduces waste.
Using reclaimed wood from old barns reduces waste.

Reclaimed lumber is wood that has been taken from existing architectural structures and repurposed for new uses. These new uses include decorative features or functional structures in homes, offices, and other buildings. This is a form of recycling, as no living trees are cut down to generate this lumber. The wood is generally taken from structures that are abandoned or scheduled for demolition. The reclaimed lumber industry has enjoyed explosive growth in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Until the 20th century, wood was the primary building material used around the world because it was widely available, durable, and easily shaped into many forms. Over the centuries, vast sections of forestland were cut down to meet the demands of expanding populations and rapidly growing cities. It was not until the 20th century that other materials, such as steel and concrete, were reliable and produced in sufficient quantities to replace wood in building construction. Many structures built before this time are still standing. While some have historical value and continue to be used, numerous others are abandoned or unsafe, especially in rural locations.

For decades, it was standard procedure for companies demolishing urban buildings such as old mills or factories to dispose of the resulting wreckage in landfills or garbage dumps. Rural structures such as old barns and fences were simply left to decay if the land was not otherwise needed. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, increasing interest in recycling led some enterprising builders to rethink these policies. Put simply, if a structure is still standing after 100 years, most of its material is probably still structurally sound. Many companies began harvesting reclaimed lumber from these locations for new use in building projects.

Reclaimed lumber has many advantages. The wood is often highly resistant to mold, insects, and humidity, either through prior chemical treatment or the wood’s own natural properties. It is widely available, either from urban demolition projects or from abandoned rural buildings such as old barns, houses, and outbuildings. Its use reduces waste and the demand on current timber resources. Reclaimed lumber often has aesthetic qualities that are pleasing to the eye and not readily available from freshly cut lumber.

Reclaimed lumber usually has to be processed once it has been retrieved from its original location. This can involve cleaning, removing unwanted attachments such as old nails, and cutting or reshaping the wood for its new use. For this reason, reclaimed lumber is more expensive than new lumber. This makes the economics of using such lumber more palatable to building supply and construction companies. Environmentally conscious consumers and home buyers often request such lumber for decorative accents, furniture, and flooring.

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    • Using reclaimed wood from old barns reduces waste.
      Using reclaimed wood from old barns reduces waste.