(See also New Life for Old Wood, below, Recommended Construction Timbers, and Timber Recyclers, Building Materials Secondhand, and Repairers & Restorers, in the Directory)
Recycled Timber is co-rated with Non-Timber Materials as a First Choice for construction...
It has minimal environmental impact and is highly recommended, because, not only do you save money on the cost of your timber1, you significantly reduce waste and energy expenditure.
Recycled Timber is Salvaged from Demolished Houses, Old Buildings, Sheds Factories, Warehouses, Wharves, Boats, etc. It is available from:
You can also use:
Preparing Recycled Timber
I've worked with wood for half a century, building furniture, houses and small boats. Still, I marvel at the endless possibilities of the material. But as I get older and the trees get fewer, I prefer to use wood that has already had a previous career in bridges, boats or buildings (or two previous careers, if you consider its life as a tree). Far from being a limitation, wood with a history stretches the imagination and calls for considerable ingenuity.
There are many alternatives to cutting live, healthy trees for timber. The possibilities range from scavenging the forests, rivers, waste-containers and seashores, to buying recycled timber from a salvage yard. These options become increasingly attractive as the price of new lumber soars and landfill operators turn away woody material. Unfortunately, too many buildings are still being "wrecked", and their debris is being carted off to landfills or just burned.
The difference in price between new and old timber can be staggering, but before going hunting for pre-owned bargains, there are several questions you need to ask your timber recycler: Have the metal fastenings - nails, bolts, brackets, etc - been removed? Also, which timber species does the yard have in stock, and in what dimensions? What is the price-range per metre? Where did the material come from, and has it been stored under cover?
When scouting for used timber, I always bring a tape measure and a hand lens so I can get a good look at the ends of the boards or timbers, which are usually piled flat. I examine the annual rings to see how closely spaced they are and whether the timber was milled with a vertical grain or if it was flat-sawn. With this information, I can guess at the grain patterns and whether it's worth pulling a piece out of the pile for further inspection.
The next step is to look for the blue or black stains that betray the presence of hidden metal. Fastenings that have broken off inside the wood are the most troublesome. Also, look for traces of cement, tar, actual or incipient rot, surface checks (imperfections), knots and sapwood. See if the timber is bowed or twisted and whether it has been treated with preservatives. You can usually detect the latter by the wood's colour and smell. If you come across timber that has been treated with creosote or other preservative, it's best to leave it alone.
The biggest headache with used timber is milling it to size. Running it through a thickness planer is a risky business - even if you've received the "all clear" from a metal detector. If you buy timber close to its finished thickness, you can surface it easily with a hand-held power planer and scraper. The alternative is to resaw: bandsaw blades are cheaper than planer knives; check for fastenings and then run the boards through a thickness planer.
Beaches are another happy hunting ground for timber pieces - whatever you find is free for the taking. Driftwood has usually been floating around for a while and has developed a distinctive character. It is also often likely to be deeply ingrained with sand, shells, grit and even small stones, which make it difficult to resaw. Try using a chainsaw equipped with a ripping chain; the teeth are easily refiled or even replaced when they get dull or broken. Wear goggles for protection any time you are milling recycled timber.
I've made furniture from used wood and have noticed that the colour tends to be darker and richer than fresh timber of the same species. I've also found that a certain amount of flexibility in the design is essential. You are better off working from a rough idea than from a detailed plan, and you should be willing to accept the history of your material. Bolt and nail holes can sometimes be ignored, if they appear on the inside, back or underside of a finished object. More often, you'll want to either conceal the holes with artful patches or highlight them with plugs made from contrasting woods. I fill small nail holes with sealing wax. For a finish, I prefer three or four coats of marine spar varnish 3, with a light sanding between coats. To get rid of the gloss, rub the final coat with fine steel wool, or use pumice powder.
A desk I made for myself uses oregon purchased from a local wrecking yard. After removing all fastenings, I wirebrushed the surfaces to remove grit and ran the boards through a thickness planer. I incorporated the bolt holes, iron stains and other evidence of the wood's history in the design and made no attempt to conceal them. Like most of the larger pieces I make now, the desk knocks-down completely. The four top boards are dowelled together (without glue) and the base consists of mortise-and-tenon joints drawn tight with tapered pins and loose wedges. A time may come when my desk outlives its usefulness. With no glued joints and no fastenings, the wood could be easily turned into something else - my small gift to woodworkers of the next century.
1. Recycled timber may be dearer than 'green' or unseasoned timber, but is normally cheaper than kiln-dried timber. Its relative scarcity along with its desirability due to the 'instant character' it can provide in a dwelling, has put a premium on its price. However, this refers mainly to higher quality, reprocessed pieces, such as large beams from old warehouses and wharves which have undergone metal-detection, re-milling and refinishing. A lot of smaller formats of weathered, unprocessed timber salvaged from building demolitions will be significantly cheaper than the brand new equivalent.
2. At the very least, untreated timber can be shredded to make excellent mulch!
3. Published by the Good Wood Alliance - formerly Woodworkers Alliance for Rainforest Protection or 'WARP'. (See Books, Journals in the Alternative Directory.)
4. For an enviro-friendly, locally available substitute, see the Alternative Directory - Non-Toxic Paint Suppliers.