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What Is Reclaimed Wood?

Reclaimed wood, salvaged wood and recycled wood are common terms you may have heard referring to furniture and flooring. Here, we’re clearing away the confusion – and breaking down exactly what each of them means.

Where Is Reclaimed Wood Taken From?

Reclaimed wood is repurposed wood, meaning it once served a different function. Here are some of the common original sources of reclaimed wood:

  • Old barns. A barn is made almost entirely of wood – that’s a huge wood source for reclaiming. There are a host of reasons why an old barn would be torn down (defunct, or renovation plans), and all will almost certainly involve surplus of old wood.   
  • Construction sites. Buildings are one of the most popular sources of reclaimed wood, so naturally, the site of construction (or more accurately, destruction) is, too. The disassembly of office buildings, warehouses and other developments are fodder for furniture. Whatever wood that can still be salvaged (i.e., the wood that is still considered clean, healthy and durable) is most often reclaimed.
  • Wood crates. Whether it saw life on a ship or a farm, the wood crate is a go-to source for reclaimed wood, since it’s all wood. It’s a simple design – and easy to disassemble. Once it’s served its purpose transporting or storing goods, many carpenters will gladly take it off the hands of the original owner.  
  • Warehouses. Warehouses are a hotbed for reclaimed wood – because of their very construction and what they house. The walls, ceilings, floors, crates and beams of old warehouses torn down contains tons of salvageable wood that can be reclaimed.
  • Factories. In old factories, most everything was made of wood – from the factory tables to chairs to the packaging of the goods. Even some post-20th century factories have to be torn down for one reason or another, and what wood elements they have are also rescued for the purposes of reclamation.
  • Boxcars. Wood boxcars are no longer in use today (for safety, practicality), but prior to the 1960s, they once were. It was around that time – when boxcars everywhere had to be discontinued – that a whole new source for reclaimed wood entered the picture.
  • Other structures. Other structures like old bridges, concert halls (old concert halls were often made of wood for the acoustics), bowling alleys and basketball courts are pretty much just wood. The options for recycling that wood are multifold. Most old wooden structures like the ones mentioned here and above are filled with history, each designed for a particular purpose in a particular time; the process of reclaiming them is akin to preserving a little bit of that history and giving it new life.

Why Choose Reclaimed Wood?

Reclaimed wood has a distinct look. Most reclaimed wood is wood taken from old barns, factories and other structures – old being the keyword here. Let us explain:

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During the days of the industrial revolution, a lot of things were being made out of wood. Forests were much more abundant than they are now. Not only were there more trees available, there were more of a certain kind of tree – kinds that are rare today, and whose wood looks different than most of the wood we’re accustomed to seeing in furniture today. These include species like redwoods, oak, poplar, cherry, Douglas fir and walnut. Fast forward a couple hundred years, and most of the structures for which these trees were chopped down are defunct; Instead of throwing these away, the reclaimed wood industry recycles the remnants. Instead of new wood, reclaimed wood gives new life to pieces of homes, buildings and factories that once were.
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The species of wood that reclaimed wood uses often stands out simply because it is different than the types of wood commonly used today; However, the difference in species isn’t the only reason why it stands out. Centuries ago, when furniture-makers and construction managers needed wood, they would go to the natural virgin forests. It was in these forests that trees were allowed to grow slowly – in fact, they had to grow slowly; Most forests back then had more trees, and more trees meant more competition for sunlight. When trees grow slower, their rings grow tighter, and the result is wood that is denser in looks and feel.

After the industrial revolution, most lumber sources were depleted, thanks to the craze for wood furniture, homes, buildings and factories. While wood sources were getting harder to come by, the craze was still very real. In response to the demand there came a new concept: lumber farms. Here, trees were mass-produced. Only the fastest -growing trees were chosen, and they were planted far apart (so that there would be no competition for sunlight). In total, it takes around ten years for these trees to grow; then, they can be chopped down and used for a variety of purposes. (To put this in perspective, before lumber farms, most of the trees in natural virgin forests could take anywhere from 200 to 300 years to be ready for harvest.)

As mentioned before, the slower a tree grows, the more rings it has, and the more rings it has, the tighter is its density. Since most reclaimed wood is taken from trees that once grew very slow, it’s usually better quality wood. Denser wood means heavier. It means more resistance to rot. It means less movement (the wood is less likely to expand when it’s wet and contract when it’s dry). It also means higher aesthetic value; more, tighter rings means more, unusual grain pattern.

While reclaimed wood is often used in floors, it’s becoming more and more popular to see it in furniture. More and more consumers are shopping with a heightened awareness of how their dollar will impact the environment; as a result, reclaiming wood has branched to more and more industries, including furniture and décor, flooring and housing/construction.

Even if you never knew or heard of the term “reclaimed wood,” you probably knew it (without knowing it). If you’ve ever walked into a restaurant or home with walls, ceilings and floors made of dark, tonal (bits of contrasting light brown and dark brown) wood, then you’ve experienced reclaimed wood. Reclaimed wood is distinct, you can’t miss it, and once you see it, you know it. It’s not always smooth (think of the exterior of a log cabin); it can be lumpy and bumpy and knotty in some places, but it always gives a rich, cozy, cabin-in-the-woods type of feel. Reclaimed wood is an experience, definitely.

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What Is Salvaged Wood?

Like reclaimed wood, salvaged wood is “old growth.” Unlike reclaimed wood, it was never used prior. It is wood that is simply “rescued” from the ground; old trees that had fallen and were just left there, never used. It was never furniture or a building or a crate in a past life – it was only and always a tree. Salvaged wood is often sourced from places that have been “cleared” for a new construction project. (It is often the case that salvaged wood is trees that had to be knocked down for a new housing development site, or something similar.) Because “old trees” that have fallen to the ground will start to rot over a period of time, the process of salvaging wood involves taking only the healthy pieces of the tree – leaving the rotted, unsalvageable rest to decay.
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What Is Recycled Wood?

Recycled wood is another industry term you may have heard floating around. Believe it or not, reclaimed wood and recycled wood can be interchangeable. (While there may be slight variations in definitions according to different viewpoints, the general denotations of the words are the same.) There is no difference between recycled and reclaimed wood. Reclaimed is just another way of saying “recycled.” Additionally, you can also use the term “upcycled,” to refer to wood that has been only slightly touched to be repurposed. (When not in reference to wood, recycled means anything that has first been destroyed or broken down before repurposed.)

The Popularity of Reclaimed Wood

Thanks to an increase in consumer demand for more sustainable products and a more environmentally-conscious consumer base in general, it’s easy to see why reclaimed wood has seen an uptick in popularity over the past few years. Here are a few of the most common reasons why consumers love shopping reclaimed:

  • It’s friendly to the environment. The best and most popular reason for shopping reclaimed is that it is sustainable. It doesn’t support the trend of lumber farming (or making products from new trees). It saves water and resources needed to grow new trees. It supports recycling and finds a new purpose for old things.
  • It’s rich with character. Reclaimed wood is often knotty. It can be lumpy, bumpy, wavy, contain uneven grain patterns and uneven colors. It’s not perfect, and its imperfections make it unique. It’s rich with character (growth rings and patterns tell a story), and, when incorporated into a home, is kind of like an additional member of the family!
  • It’s usually more durable. As mentioned before, reclaimed wood is often sourced from really old wood that was itself sourced from really old trees. The older a tree is before it’s taken down, the tighter its growth rings. The tighter a tree’s growth rings, the more dense is the wood – leading to a durable, more rot-resistant and heavier furniture piece.
  • It’s versatile, style-wise. Reclaimed wood isn’t limited to just the “modern style” or the “rustic style.” It’s neutral coloring and soft finish makes it the perfect “background” for any style. A reclaimed wood coffee table will look just as chic styled with contemporary decor as it would vintage. No matter what style you choose, a reclaimed piece adds a touch of natural ambiance. It grounds and warms and makes the perfect cozy accent.
  • It’s versatile, design-wise. One of the reasons why reclaimed wood seems to be ubiquitous in most furniture and decor stores is because virtually any type of decor or furniture piece can be made out of this material. Coffee tables, buffets, beds, picture frames and wood art are all known to contain reclaimed elements now and then.
  • It can be more affordable. Since reclaimed wood is often easier to source than brand new wood, the final product is often more affordable than a product made out of new wood. (Of course, there’s always exceptions to the rule; in this case, some reclaimed furniture manufacturers will take extra steps to preserve and shape the reclaimed piece, resulting in a higher price lead.)
  • It’s a preservation of history. Going off the last step, reclaimed wood is historical. It actually can be considered a piece of history. It was once something else before its current state, and oftentimes, that something else was something big and integral to old society. Keeping a reclaimed piece in your home isn’t just about the environment or style – it’s also a living testament to what came before. It’s grounding, mindful and a reminder of “the bigger picture.”

What Are the Most Common Uses for Reclaimed Wood?

Reclaimed wood is often used for home furnishing. Popular pieces include reclaimed wood coffee tables, buffet servers, credenzas, nightstands, beds, dressers, end tables, console tables, kitchen islands and countertops. If it can be made out of wood, it can be made out of reclaimed wood! In terms of styling, reclaimed wood brings a bit of rusticity; it can soften down the modern style, and match perfectly with the rustic-chic styles. Other uses of the material include floors; it’s hard to forget the experience of walking into a home or establishment with reclaimed wood flooring – it has a singular elegance that literally can’t be replicated or manufactured!

If you’re wondering how to style around reclaimed wood, there isn’t one “answer” – the answer will vary from person to person! Since it’s reclaimed, it has variations in color, texture and grain pattern. Colors will range from light to dark. Texture will range from uneven to smooth. Grain pattern will range from tight lines to round circles (depending on how the wood was cut). For a lighter feel (best for summer décor), you can bring out the lighter colors of the wood by styling it with white fabrics (like ivory rugs and cream upholstered seating). You can also bring out its darker tones by styling it with rich brown leather or black upholstery.

How to Choose a Reclaimed Wood Piece

There are different types of reclaimed wood. It can come sanded, un-sanded, painted, unpainted or rough-sawn. Choose sanded and painted for a more modern look and un-sanded, unpainted (or distressed paint) for more vintage-chic. Also pay attention to the characteristics of the wood itself. Reclaimed wood is unique; some will have knots and interesting cuts, and others appear smoother and more like new wood. Of late, it’s become increasingly popular to choose older-looking woods. (So much so, that even some new wood pieces are manufactured in such a way as to resemble an older finish. To make sure you’re getting the authentic version, always double-check the product labels for material type.)

Other Tips for Sustainable Shopping

One thing to keep in mind when shopping for furniture: You can also choose metal. Most case goods will be made of wood, but some also come in metal, which makes for a more eco-friendly alternative. Another thing to keep in mind is plastic material: Avoid it if you can. Check the material listing of a product to see whether or not it may contain plastic, and if possible, choose an all-wood or all-metal one instead. Finally, make sure to ask a retail associate about FSC-certified items. These are items which the Forest Stewardship Council has inspected and approved. You can read more about FSC certification here.

While all of this might seem like shopping reclaimed and sustainable is complicated, it actually isn’t. If you really want to watch your footprint, you can take extra steps to ensure the materials and products you are buying are safe and eco-friendly, but taking those extra steps will make the pieces you do choose to buy more worthwhile. Plus, being a friend to the environment doesn’t have to be painstaking; it can be something as simple as choosing reclaimed wood!

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Editorial Disclaimer: Articles featuring tips and advice are intended for educational purposes and only as general recommendations. Always practice personal discretion when using and caring for furniture, decor and related items.