Reclaimed wood creates floors that are truly one-of-a-kind and Mother-Nature-friendly.
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If you love the richness and warmth of wood floors but are concerned about depleting the environment, try reclaiming a bit of history to get those beautiful and truly unique floors without ravaging nature in the process. Using salvaged wood is the ultimate in recycling, and it's a growing trend that's not only eco-friendly but stylish too.
Reclaimed wood was harvested anywhere from 100 to 300 years ago and was used to build railroad trestles, old barns, industrial warehouses and other structures. Wood salvaged from the demolition of these structures can have a new lease on life in your kitchen floor — as well as its walls, ceilings, cabinets and countertops. And sustainability isn't this wood's only advantage; reclaimed wood is denser, more stable, adds instant history to your home and is the only source for such by-gone species as heart pine and chestnut.
Reclaimed wood comes with plenty of history and character, which is what people value about reclaimed wood, says interior designer Elizabeth Schultz of DesignWorks in Bozeman, Mont. For one client's kitchen, Schultz used reclaimed Douglas fir from an old railroad trestle that ran over the Great Salt Lake.
"The colors of the planks vary quite a bit," says Schultz. "This is due to the effects of the salt in the air. Personally, I think this adds to its character. Part of the beauty of the trestle wood is its variation in color and that so many other wood tones such as cabinets, beams, furniture, etc. will easily blend or coordinate with it."
David Foky, of Mountain Lumber of Ruckersville, Va., agrees with Schultz that the major draw of reclaimed wood is its looks. He cites its "wow" factor and calls reclaimed-wood floors "trophy floors," because they're so gorgeous.
"If reclaimed wood still had all these advantages but looked bad, no one would buy it," Foky says.
They're not just another pretty floor, however. There's also the eco-factor, and then the storytelling element. Mountain Lumber gives you a printed history of your floor. So if you're cooking atop planks from former Guinness beer barrels, you'll know it.
And if you've fallen in love with heart-pine flooring, salvaged lumber is the only way you'll have such beauty in your kitchen since the old-growth longleaf pine is no longer around in any quantity. The same is true for the beautiful American chestnut. Much of the reclaimed wood was originally harvested from the 1700s through the late 1800s, when the old-growth forests were exhausted. And that's not a replaceable resource since old growth equals slow growth. It grew slowly due to larger trees above acting as a canopy and limiting sunlight and rainfall. That slowly grown wood is much denser and stronger than other wood, such as that from sustainable forests, which grows faster.
In the 1970s, some hardy and enterprising people started realizing that some good wood was being thrown away. So they offered to cart it away from demolished structures such as mills and warehouses (and even scraping it from the bottom of Lake Michigan), saving wood destined for the dumpster and reusing it for building or renovating homes and businesses. The business has been growing every since, says Foky.
With numerous dealers to choose from, potential buyers should do their homework first. Reclaimed wood has often had more than one previous incarnation and it behooves the customer to know just what those past lives entailed. The quality of the wood, says Foky, depends on its source.
"We would never reclaim wood from a tannery, because all the toxic chemicals used in the process permeate that structure," Foky says. "There should be a connection between the people bringing down the lumber and the people selling it to you."
Those people should also kiln-dry their wood, heating it to a specific temperature for a specific amount of time, for two important reasons, says Foky.
"That wood could have been out in the rain for two years," he notes. "And the other reason is to kill any bugs. The blight fungus that killed the American chestnut could still be in there. Run screaming from any dealer who doesn't kiln-dry their wood."
Foky stresses protecting your beautiful floor once it's laid down, too. Moisture and grit are the two things he warns against, and a professional-grade polyurethane coating can take care of both worries.
And, since there are no industry-wide standards on the grades of wood, you should select a company that publishes its grading system so you have on paper or in a computer file just what is promised.
The Reclaimed Wood Council is working on standards for the industry, but in the meantime, buyer beware — even better, be a researcher before buying.
Bill and Betsy Peabody of Lake Sunapee, N.H., put reclaimed Douglas fir floors throughout most of their timber-frame house at their architect's suggestion. Betsy says that they were sold by the color and richness of recycled wood, as well as its softer qualities.
"It's easy on your legs," she says. The Peabodys built the house not once, but twice. They were just starting to move in when the newly finished house burned to the ground.
The Peabodys, their son (who built the house) and the architects, O'Neil Pennoyer Architects, repeated the whole process again, reclaimed lumber and all, and moved in a year later. Barring any other such unfortunate incidents, their floors have perhaps as much as another 100 years of use — and beauty — in them, enough for several generations.