Recycled barn wood

Processing and marketing reclaimed lumber. September 23, 2003

While searching various wood product exchange forums, I noticed that reclaimed barn wood made into flooring was bringing around 8.00 per sq ft. The nail holes are referred to as character defects. Does anyone here have experience working with reclaimed wood? Is there really that much demand for old barn wood? Why would barn lumber be worth more than freshly sawn oak or poplar? Does the aging of the lumber give it a different color or more character?

Forum Responses
(Value-Added Wood Processing Forum)
Our cottage floor is made from reclaimed barn board. Some of it is 8" to 10" wide. All I can tell you is that it was finished roughly (you can see gouges and circular scrapes) but it is beautiful. It is the first thing people notice. Seeing that floor makes me understand why there is a demand for it.

From the original questioner:
Are you saying the surface of the lumber is totally rough or is it planed hit and miss? I would love to see some pictures if anyone has any. I know of several old barns in this area (central Kentucky) and we run flooring and other special millwork on a regular basis.

The barn wood on our cottage floor was finished somehow. I have some leftovers that are original but the wood on the floor looks like it might have been sanded with a big disk or belt sander (floor models). Most of the wood is bowed (curved) and unless it all bowed after going through a planer, would never have turned out the way it did.

Some folks are attracted to recycled lumber (from barns and old buildings) since much of it was cut from old growth timber and may have a tighter grain pattern. Also, since it is relatively dry there may be less tendency for it to warp on the job site. I have read that recycled lumber carries with it half the embodied energy (total energy costs to produce a material) of new lumber (this could be a selling point to the environmentally aware consumer).

Note: An estimated 3 trillion board feet of lumber has been produced in the U.S. since 1900 and much of this wood still resides in buildings!

Steve Bratkovich, forum technical advisor

From the original questioner:
I wouldn't mind running barn lumber through my machines, but I am a little concerned about the labor involved in disassembling an old barn or building and removing the nails. Does the fact that the lumber is old cause it to get tight around the nails due to shrinkage? My friend told me he would give me his barn if I would tear it down. He said it was mostly hickory. Is there anything particular to look for in order to know whether it's worth anything? I'm sure there are some barns that just aren't worth the trouble.

One of the keys to successfully manufacturing and marketing value-added products is to have a good grasp of the market (i.e. the needs/wants of the customer). Of course, one of the first challenges is to determine "Who is the customer?" If profit was my only motive, I'd be wary of dismantling old buildings without having a clear focus on how I was going to sell the recovered material.

Steve Bratkovich, forum technical advisor

From contributor D:
I have installed many moulders for reclaimed manufacturers and all of them stay very busy. Many have high speed machines and run over 20,000 square feet a week. Some even much more than this. Reclaimed wood is fairly hard on the machines and will wear the tables or bed plates faster than normal. It is also hard on the cutting tools. I have found that the use of DGK-2000 knives increases the tool life considerably for this application.

There is obviously a market for reclaimed lumber. I checked out an abundance of antique lumber websites. A market survey could be beneficial. I honestly couldn't understand why anyone would choose this material over new hardwood products until I actually viewed pictures of what an antique floor looked like and I was outright amazed. The character that is embedded in old wood is truly fascinating. In order for me to market any product I first must believe in what I'm selling. I must then be able to produce it or find a supplier. For experimental purpose, I took a small board 4' long from the barn which is offered to me. The wood was covered with hog barn dust and dirt.

This old barn turns out to be chestnut (a rare find). After seeing the results, I was reminded of an article that I read here on marketing which said that most businesses fail not because of lack of capital but rather lack of imagination.

Being a relatively small manufacturer, I find this an ideal type of product to market since I already have the machinery and tooling to produce. I have also located a crew for barn disassembling. My next step is to locate a distinctive wood product distributor or broker.

I agree with Steve about the keys of manufacturing/marketing. I feel that people want and need building materials that are unique. Did you notice what the first response said about his cottage (first thing people noticed)? I'd also bet that he wouldn't take a share in a gold mine for his floor. This doesn't have to be a high volume venture because it is a low cost/high value item. I'm confident that I can produce 30,000 sqft of flooring (with present setup) a week although I wouldn't expect that kind of volume. I'll settle for 10,000 (smile). The machine doesn't know the difference between running 3/4" moldings and high value flooring. I can run my machinery 4 hours a week molding high-end flooring and make more money than running everyday run of the mill stock items all week.

Thanks for responding, contributor D. I have a matched set of stacked t&g flooring heads (carbide). Will this work well for the application? As far as machinery wear, how would you compare this material with MDF? If the material was pressure washed before being put in the kiln, would this reduce wear on machinery and tool life? The bed on our molder is chrome plated and shows no wear after 2 years of abuse. Any other ideas or suggestions are welcomed.

Barn wood and recycled timber are very popular in our area (southwestern Colorado). I think it is very beautiful but is really a pain to work with. I like it skip planed or hand planed with a little rough showing. Lately customers have been requesting total rough. We have pressed this onto doors, cabinets and other millwork by resawing the boards to a thick 1/4" to 3/8" veneer.

As contributor D said, it is very hard on machinery. The thin insert planer knives do not hold up well with old wood. I think older, heavy duty planers and moulders would be better suited for this.

You have to charge plenty for this type of work. Hitting nails and other metal objects happens even with good metal scanners. What are DGK-2000 knives?

From contributor D:
There are a couple of problems with reclaimed wood. The worst is the metal residue in the wood where nails and spikes were. It is much worse than MDF on the wear of machines. I suggest chromed bed plates or an old Mattison 276 or Diehl D8. These machines seem to hold up better. I personally prefer a through feed like a Weinig due to the faster setup, but I understand that the wear will be more.

DGK knives are made up of normal M2 steel with a special heat reflective extra hard coating. We developed this at Moulder Services a couple of years ago and have seen anywhere from double the life of the tool up to over 10 times the life. This is what our customers have told us and have been willing to explain to other people.

From the original questioner:
Are you saying an old Mattison or Diehl will hold up better than a Weinig? I have a feed-through molder comparable to a Weinig. My molder has servos heads with quick change numeric digital readouts. I can literally switch from one size to another is less than 6 seconds with extreme accuracy. Try that with an old Mattison. As stated above, my molder has a chrome plated bed. I ran approximately 900,000 lft through my molder last year and I'm very pleased with the results and bed wear. I do think Weinig makes a very impressive molder which would be at the top of my Christmas wish list. I tend to steer away from online discussions of machinery brands as it tends to open up the inevitable can of worms. Everyone seems to think there's nothing like the machinery they own and respectively so.

Joe mentioned that metal scanners were not totally effective at detecting nails. Why is that? Do metal scanners detect the metal residue left from the nails and spikes? I can see where this could be a problem. We have in house custom grinding and sharpening so I'm not very concerned about hitting an occasional piece of metal. I also have several extra heads for immediate change, just in case that happens. I'm sure there are several negative details of manufacturing reclaimed lumber and I want to know all of them.

From contributor D:
Most metal detectors will only detect a metal object large enough to trigger its sensor. So it depends on the type of detector as to how much it will pick up.

As for the machinery question, I prefer a through feed moulder myself, but a Mattison or push feed Diehl have very strong tables on them. A through feed with good chrome plates is preferred by most. A major consideration is the initial investment that can be made. If money is no object then a through feed is the answer for most folks. If money is a major issue, then the older push feeds can be made to work well and for a long time.

Contributor D is giving some good advice here. I always rough everything down with our old planer before running it through any of my good machines.

We are a small shop and only do recycled wood when it is requested. We just have an inexpensive wand; I am sure better ones are available. Last week we resawed about 500 feet of snow fence barn wood (new barn wood). Two men spent about three hours each pulling nails and wire brushing off a little mud. We ended up hitting two tips of nails that were embedded in the boards. This material is a little easier than the old barn wood. You would not believe the things you can cut into with this stuff. Quality old wood is pressure washed and kiln dried. I think the guys that do a lot of this probably have a system of low cost help to do the nail removal and cleaning.

From the original questioner:
I know a local guy that will deliver barn wood de-nailed to me for .30 per bft. He's made a full time job of disassembling barns and other old structures. He is presently hauling the wood about 30 miles and selling it to a guy that is shipping it to New York. The funny thing is that they are also paying him for the metal roofing (they only buy it if it's rusted). What would they want with old rusted tin?

I'm still debating whether or not to pursue the use of reclaimed lumber. I would personally get a lot of satisfaction from molding such an overlooked material. I don't have any doubt that I could produce excellent quality flooring and wall paneling, however, I don't have much of a local market. Good marketing would be essential in this venture. I may just play around with the idea and run a few samples through our molder to get a feel of how well this material runs. I did get a rather negative email from a guy that only dealt in reclaimed timbers (expressed that everyone liked to yack about it but no one wanted to buy it). I would like to hear from somebody that actually makes finished products from reclaimed lumber.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor B:
As a consumer, grandson of an old school carpenter, and owner of a 200 year old stone school house, I can tell you that anytime I need to do anything, I have to search for the right materials. Old wood is harder and more durable than new wood of the same species. It is also far more attractive. If you are concerned about marketing, consider the internet - your market is anywhere you can ship. Make sure to put up a clean, clear, concise site (guess what I do...). Points to keep in mind: minimum orders, shipping by common carrier and disclaimers about the "artifacts" (better word than defects) in the material.

Comment from contributor R:
Be very careful with old painted barn wood. Most of the paint used was
lead based. Machining material with lead based paint will create
airborne dust with lead and disposing of the waste materials such as sawdust and sander dust might involve hazardous materials.

Comment from contributor F:
I clearly do not have the expertise or equipment that these guys have, but as a "weekend woodworker" in Texas, I can tell you that there is a great demand for these various reclaimed woods and tins. There are 500K + homes being built with this material in them. People in this region really have an affinity for the eclectic, old west look that can be obtained from using these materials.