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How to Buy Reclaimed Lumber

Our Cambridge, Massachusetts, project house used wood from old, redwood olive-oil barrels. Here's how to get wood that has a history that's longer, even, than yours.

If you own an old house, you already know the satisfaction of having something that's unique, and when you renovate, you look for one-of-a-kind materials. Unlike other materials whose appeal lie in their looks, reclaimed wood has beauty and history.

Not surprisingly, people are going to great lengths to find reclaimed wood that makes a stylistic statement about themselves and their homes.

Using reclaimed wood in a renovation requires more legwork than just stopping at a home center for lumber, but our Cambridge, Massachusetts, project house highlights the unique beauty that used timber can bring to a renovation.

As you enter homeowner George Mabry's front door, your eyes are immediately drawn to the teak staircase crafted from wood reclaimed from a demolition site in Southeast Asia. Outside, the white stucco exterior is accented by a section of redwood siding made from California olive-oil barrels.

There are four strong arguments for using reclaimed wood, says Chad Beatty, vice president of Elmwood Reclaimed Timber, which collects and sells used wood.

1. It's environmentally friendly. Reclaimed wood isn't grown on farms, which often cultivate only trees that grow fast, but aren't supportive of an ecosystem. Yes, it represents a tree that's been cut down, but at least it's getting another life in your home.

2. It has an age and character that cannot be mimicked. Old wood likely grew in a natural environment where it had to fight for nutrients and sun, making the wood strong and durable. Aging also brings out the color in the wood.

3. Most old-growth wood is no longer available. Regulations prevent many species of tree from being harvested, so Mabry couldn't buy new redwood for his siding, for example.

4. It has its own history. How many people do you know who have olive-oil barrels on the outside of their houses?

And buying reclaimed lumber continues to get easier—and in some instances, less expensive relative to the escalating cost of new hardwood. Depending on what kind of wood you're going for, you will spend $5 to $20 per square foot. The redwood that Mabry bought retails at just under $9 per square foot.

Local shops and a handful of national dealers like Elmwood can be found in phone directory or an Internet search (search under reclaimed wood, reclaimed timber or reclaimed lumber).

But beware. There are folks out there trying to make a quick buck selling used wood. Be suspicious of dealers who don't guarantee their products, who have prices that are unrealistic compared to other bids, and who lack of professionalism--like shoddy paperwork or improper billing.

Make sure upfront that you'll be getting wood that's been properly treated. Your dealer should agree to scrub the wood clean and use a metal detector to spot any hidden nails. The wood likely will be cut from a large beam, planed and—this is critical--kiln-dried.

"Reclaimed wood has been air-drying for probably 150 years," he says. "The problem there is you'll get (natural) inconsistencies in the wood--it warps and bends."

That's why it often needs millwork, particularly for indoor use. Many, but not all, dealers will kiln-dry the newly planed wood, Beatty says. Without that step, the wood could warp again. Kiln-drying also ends any infestation, ensuring that you won't bring termites into your house with the wood. Of course,

Once you've signed your contract, be patient. Kiln-drying isn't quick. The wood is heated at low temperatures, a process that can take more than a year for some bigger beams. The more rare the wood, the more likely it is that it isn't kiln-dried and waiting for you to buy.

For the character and beauty it brought to the Cambridge House, it was clearly worth it.