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New lumber from old pine

It’s not often you get a peek at local history from a woodworker’s perspective. Bloomfield United Methodist Church, a small country church built south of Des Moines, was expanding for the first time since the original building went up in 1869. That meant tearing out part of one wall and cutting away a couple dozen pine planks about 14′ long. These were so old, they didn’t even have the lumber dealer stamp I’ve seen on some old barn timbers. So, for a small donation to the church, project editor Kevin Boyle and I brushed the snow off and hauled them back to the shop for a closer look. Part of what we found were some good lessons on reclaiming lumber.

Lesson 1: Buy boards cheaply enough that you don’t feel the need to complain about the waste. We picked up our 21 planks for about $75, not bad considering some of them were 2¾” thick. A couple planks had long, knot-free stretches. The worst ones were a combination of insect damage, cracking, nail holes and knots. I saved the long, clear planks for Kevin, who needed material for moldings. I cut the ones in my stack into the longest pieces possible, but it’s a little like filleting a fish to keep just the best parts.

Lesson 2: Take a moment to appreciate these little pieces of history. I tried to put myself in the shoes of the country craftsmen who hand-cut the tenons on the ends of these monster wall studs. On a few planks, I could see where someone had cross-cut accidental kerfs a third of the way through and then filled the gap with hand-split wedges. The church—and the wedges—have lasted 141 years so far, so keep that in mind when you’re covering up a less-than-perfect dovetail on your next project. On other planks, it looked like someone had ripped the plank by starting at both ends and (almost) meeting in the middle. The resourceful church builders solved the problem of differing widths by tacking a lath strip to the narrow end. I guess they couldn’t wait 110 years for a Home Depot to open so they could buy a replacement.

The white stripes show where plaster pressed between the lath strips.

The white stripes show where plaster pressed between the lath strips.

Lesson 3: Invest in the best metal detector you can afford. The handful of galvanized nails jutting out the edges were easy to spot and pull. The real blade-breakers were the rusty square-head nails—think miniature railroad spikes—and the tiny cut nails used to tack lath onto the studs for plastering the walls. Age made the metal brittle and, from the surface, empty nail holes looked about the same as ones with a rusty nail tip buried inside. I went over each face and edge of each plank twice with a Handy Man Nail Finder and triple-checked even the accidental chirps set off by a hammer resting too close to the sensor. So far, the jointer and planer still have their blades and saws have all their teeth.

It seemed as though no two nails were alike, but they all spelled bad news for planer knives and saw teeth.

It seemed as though no two nails were alike, but they all spelled bad news for planer knives and saw teeth.

Lesson 4: Cut around what you can’t pull out. My salvageable lumber falls into three categories. The long, nail-free pieces can be used for tabletops, moldings, or anything else. The medium-length pieces can be cut up for everything from drawer parts to the short sections of table aprons. Everything shorter than that goes into my stockpile of woodcarving blanks. With grain lines tight as the pages of a book, this pine should be a joy to carve.

The board on the left is as close to flawless as you'll get from planks with nail holes and checking. The one on the right shows what can go wrong.

The board on the left is as close to flawless as you'll get from planks with nail holes and checking. The one on the right shows what can go wrong.

Lesson 5: The lumber isn’t really “cheap” after I add my sweat equity. Hauling, scanning, cutting, jointing, planing and storing these planks is just the start. Cutting around all those nail holes narrowed up the planks enough for me to see I’ll be edge-gluing pieces for days to come up with parts wide enough to use. Still, I can’t remember the last time I worked with pine that was such a joy to cut. Even after nearly a century and a half, slicing through a resin-filled knot still releases a pine potpourri.

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9 Responses to “New lumber from old pine”

  1. Hi, I love working with old wood, just seems more meaningful. The 141 yr old pine planks are awesome! I guess its the history that makes it more enjoyable. Good Stuff! Kevin

  2. I have about 1000 board feet of old growth yellow pine that came from a school house in Reston, VA. The work of saving the right parts for a trestle table is taking a lot of my time at the moment. It is a pleasure to work with and even if the growth rings are not tightly bound, they are very uniform across the 3 inch by 12 inch by 8 to 17 feet beams. regards, milt

  3. Another example of why you should use reclaimed wood when neccessary.

  4. I don’t think those were accidental saw kerfs you mentioned. I believe the carpenters cut into the board and used a wedge to try to straighten a stud or plank that had taken a bowed set.

  5. I recently reclaimed some walnut and some oak billets from firewood. I used a band saw. I did a pretty good job by eye, but they have to be “trued up” with a joiner before putting them to use. It is hard to assess unchecked wood from seasoned firewood, but its possible.

  6. I agree with Denny M, I have seen the exact same method used in 100yr old houses here in australia, the studs all had tenons cut by hand and the plates were tenoned by chisel and all joined witha nail in the side, amazing craftmanship!!

  7. I thought I was the only one to reclaim lumber. I built a tottlers bed for my great grand daughter. I used lumber from an old bunk bed. I spent about 8.00 on bolts to attach the rails.

  8. My favorite project was a cedar chest made from wood taken out of heat registers (yes, you read that right) from my 1904 house in Everett WA. When the new furnace went in, all the old ducting (dimensional 1″x12″, 16-foot boards of clear douglas fir) became candidates for the contractor’s dumpster (No way, Dude). Now my wife and my grown daughter (and her firstborn) have flush-paneled inlay chests with 3-board tops
    (except the baby, who got a nifty suspended cradle). There was never a better experience than to plane those old, filthy boards into brand new and perfect planks! These days, I prowl the local yards for timbers of that sort, but more often find old pallets (especially those from overseas) with usable albeit beat-up raw materials. JR Sloan, Spokane

  9. Reclaiming lumber is the way to go. I made a pair of small rocking chairs for my grandchildren and used red oak. The planks were salvaged from the removal of old barns in Southern Indiana that were at least 100 years old. I should imagine that the trees were about that old when they were cut and milled making the wood about 200 years old from birth of the trees. Once the planks were resawed and planned, there was some really good looking oak and fun to work with.

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