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Being Green with Salvaged & Reclaimed Wood, Pt. 5: Selecting the Salvage

Again, my thanks to Carol Goodwin of Goodwin Heart Pine, John Williams of Mountain Lumber and Alice DeGennaro of Longleaf Lumber for offering so many insights into the industry. I'm going to wrap this series up with some more information about how they select and work their salvage from a safety perspective. They provided so much interesting info that it will take two more posts.

John Williams told me that this is "not a matter of just finding old wood and putting it into your home. In most cases a lot of hard work and effort transpires well before the first stick is purchased. It is not uncommon for our buyers to actually pass on many opportunities before making a purchase."

When asked about the health concerns during salvage selection, Carol noted that their most common reason to reject a load was because of machine oil on the floor. "Old factory floors are more problematic than ceiling supports or wall joists as they are often coated with machine oil that was used to lubricate the equipment," she said.

John agreed, saying, "Oil contamination is a major factor. Many of the structures that are treasure troves of wood had machinery that was literally slathered with oil for lubrication. Large buckets of peanut and cottonseed oil often times sat right next to the looms or cotton combs. The oil was applied with large swabs or sometimes poured on with the excess being absorbed into the wood floor structure. While most of this oil does not present a health hazard, it should be segregated, as it may affect the final finish applied to it."

John continued to explain that they try to really look at the source of their material. "Certain industries and large manufacturers around the turn of the century didn't have the safeguards in place that we now have to protect either the environment or their employees. Foundries, chemical manufacturers and fertilizer plants are examples of places where heavy metals and other contaminates were often used and could have found their way into the decking and timbers of these old buildings. Therefore it is important that the use of these buildings is researched and inspected prior to salvaging the timbers for recycling into the living structure of a home.

"Personally, I once was visiting a fertilizer plant that was being razed just outside of Baltimore. The chemical reaction that was taking place with the heart pine timbers and their exposure to fertilizer and moisture was dissolving the lignin in the wood's composition, thereby disintegrating the structure of the wood timber and exposing the fiber. The effect was as if the wood timber was growing orange hair. Obviously, we passed on purchasing anything from that particular building."

Alice DeGennaro of Longleaf Lumber agrees that understanding the source is key. She told me, "There are definitely beams/material you want to stay away from. Certain industries used very toxic material in their operations and often that material would leak onto their flooring, joists, and beams. For example, material salvaged out of tannery buildings is typically very toxic-we stay away from these timbers."

Alice continued: "We almost always know our source and provenance of material. We will buy some lumber through trusted brokers, but usually we source our own timber. When practical, and worthwhile, we write brief histories about the buildings from which we salvage material on our website."

Clearly safety starts with the selection, and all these companies recognize that knowing the source is the key to their success.

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