Salvage your own hardwood lumber and save big bucks

Tune in your wood-seeking radar, and it's hard to not see salvageable lumber. However, be prepared to swallow some pride and roll up the shirtsleeves.

  • Brake for remodeling sites

    Don't pass a remodel or demolition site like the one shown without putting the car in reverse. In all likelihood, that material in the construction dumpster will go straight to the landfill unless you intervene. Seek out the head contractor or the property owner and politely request to take some of it off their hands. The older the building being remodeled or demolished, the better the chance for desirable old-growth timber with tight growth rings.

    Great finds: Hardwood floors, wide trim, solid doors from residential sites; timber beams from commercial sites.
    Steer clear of: Post-Depression-era homes. Standardized construction materials were great for the housing boom, not so much for hardwood projects.

  • Barnwood bonanza

    Wooden barns are all the rage in the salvaged wood set. "But don't go hooking a chain to your truck hitch and pulling one down on your head," warns Jay Wikary, CEO of American Barn Company of Chicago. His company specializes in dismantling and salvaging barns and turning the wood into rustic architectural beams, flooring, and custom furniture. Jay says farmers have specific requirements when it comes to demolition. They need to avoid liabilities (meaning you better be insured and knowledgeable about dismantling barns). And they want the entire barn gone, not just partially stripped.

    Great finds: Classic timber-frame construction, with long beams, straight grain, and high board-foot yields.

    Steer clear of: Wood with signs of powder-post beetle or termite damage. Live insects could easily spread through your wood pile and your home.

  • Don't discount the discards

    Discarded furniture might be the most overlooked source for project wood. Just because it no longer looks like a board doesn't mean it won't have usable wood. Keep an eye out for garage-sale gems. When you see a going-out-of-business sale, skip the shoes and shirts and ask about salvaging the shelving. Even if you don't find any usable wood, you might come across cabinets or wall organizers for your shop. And if your city has a spring cleanup, hit the streets early-maybe even the preceding evening-for the big scores.

    Great finds: Tabletops, headboards, broken pianos, and church pews, are the board-foot jackpot.

    Steer clear of: Veneered woods masquerading as solid stock.

  • The ever-present pallet

    You'll find shipping pallets, at almost any company with a loading dock. But be warned; they represent the most work for the yield with lots of nails to pull and grit to clean up. So be picky. Don't waste that kind of time and effort on common pine pallets. Look for hardwoods instead (after getting permission at the front office). The heaviest or most expensive items are generally shipped on oak pallets with thick pieces.

    Great finds: Companies with oversized international shipments. What's cheap, available wood in one country is exotic in another.

    Steer clear of: Pallets from pesticide, fertilizer, or other chemical companies. Those stains might be hazardous.

  • Mind the metal

    Public enemy number one to blades and bits: metal. Remove all obvious nails and screws from the board. For hidden fasteners, use some of that money you saved to invest in an inexpensive metal detector, such as the Zircon m40 shown here. Mark the hot spots with chalk and cut around them.

  • A clean board is a happy board

    Dirt runs a close second to metal in the blade-dulling offender list. Scrub off any loose grit with a stiff plastic- or brass-bristle brush. Avoid steel bristles, which may re-introduce a problem metal.

  • Reveal the grain

    The last step before blade touches wood: purge the last coat of dirt or any old, protective finish. This is no time for finesse. Get out the belt sander and clear it away quickly with an 80-grit belt. Keep the tool moving though. Belt sanders hog away material quickly and can gouge the surface in a heartbeat.

  • Lose the ends, save the blade

    The porous end-grain of wood collects dirt like a celebrity tabloid. Boards piled in barns or dragged across the ground as pallets especially pack away the grit. Cutting off an inch or several from the ends of each board not only spares your cutters, it removes splits from old, checked boards.

  • Can we just machine it already?

    Yep. It's finally time to mill the wood into usable material. First take off that expensive, premium blade and pop in a cheap or old blade you don't mind dulling. Then start by straight-line ripping one edge with the tablesaw or a circular saw and straightedge. Flip the board and true up the opposite edge to parallel the first, removing just enough material to eliminate rot or stains. Give your jointer and planer the same old-blade downgrade before squaring and thicknessing the material.

  • Celebrate the story

    With any heirloom furniture, the provenance proves almost as important as the construction. Reclaimed lumber adds history on top of history. Celebrate that story by displaying it proudly in the wood. Rough edges, nail holes, worm tracks, and faded finishes can all become design elements in the final project.

    For every barn Jay Wikary salvages, he records the history. "We jot down whatever we know about the barn. We put that together with a picture and we give that to everybody that gets one of our salvaged-wood products," he says.

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