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Being Green with Salvaged & Reclaimed Wood, Pt. 1

Elizabeth Baldwin

A reader wrote in requesting a comment on salvaged and reclaimed wood. She explained that she was talking to suppliers and that "they all said they re-mill beams from decommissioned factories and none seem to know the specific provenance of the wood they are selling. It seems that suppliers show up at the mill with truckloads of salvage and just drop it off. I would hate to install flooring in my house that might be contaminated with lead, mercury or other toxic materials left over from a factory setting."

Personally, I have done some work in reclaimed material, but not a great deal. Metropolitan handles a whiskey barrel floor (which I have in my office, below).

When you cut it, you can definitely smell whiskey for a day or so-but I don't think that's a VOC she might be concerned about.

When I've been to mills handling recycled material, I've seen different qualities of material. Some handled only huge beams, while others actually reworked original flooring. Some companies make an effort to really get that specific look by keeping exposed some old paint and other markings or the weathered surfaces, while others only use the fresh cuts. It's an interesting industry with lots of variables to consider.

To look at it, the first thing we need to do is to divide the production into two categories-recycled wood and salvaged logs.

Recycled (or reclaimed or salvaged) lumber generally comes from old buildings-most often the support beams of old factories. However, companies also recover material from old barns, fences, floors, railroad ties-basically any original wood product. I once saw one company do some amazing things with a reclaimed bowling alley maple floor, carefully refinishing it so that some of the original lane markings still dotted the new surface. And, of course, companies can recover material from whiskey or wine barrels. (And, of course, there is the work cork companies are doing salvaging wine corks.)  

Salvaged logs come mostly from river and lake bottoms. In most cases, these logs were harvested decades, even a century past, but never made it to the mill. In some situations, companies are salvaging "standing timber"-forests that were flooded when a new lake was created during the damming of a river. The logs can be rescued from their watery graves and finally utilized. Many of the timbers will be colored with mineral stain from their long soaks, creating amazing patterns and colors. There are underwater logging operations going on around the world as people recognize not just the economic value, but the aesthetic and green value that lies just under the surface.

Over the next couple of weeks, we'll look at each category of recovered wood and the general green condition of this specific subset of our industry.

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