There’s one thing I know for sure… not all OLD wood is meant for fire.
My entire business is built on using recycled timber that I harvest from local farms, mainly from barns and fences. Not everything I take down is used in the furniture I make. Each piece is scrutinized for particular criteria and the rest do become firewood.
There are 2 main criteria I use for sorting reclaimed wood:
CHARACTER and STRUCTURE.
What I try to find is boards that have some of the trademarks of reclaimed wood. This happens in a few ways depending on the type of blades used by the original mill. The two I want in my shop come from circular saws which show up as round marks, and bandsaws which show up as straight marks. Back in the day, boards could also have been made by hand or by a chainsaw.
How do I figure out what character the boards have when there’s 50+ years of age on them?
Think about it – these boards have seen hundreds of storms and stood through snow, rain, wind, dust, and who knows what else. There can be a good layer of gunk hiding the treasure below. I always carry a handheld sander with me! I test a small section of each to see what lies beneath, looking for patterns in the ridges. It’s best to be doing this in good light or have an artificial light close by.
All I am trying to do at this point is take down a high area to check the wood. When I see what character is revealed the board gets sorted into piles.
Why do these older boards have character when recently made boards do not?
Mills these days have the benefit of technology to ensure cuts are as perfect as possible. Back in the day as a board was going through the sawmill, or PTO on the tractor, some of the saw blades might have been bent or the blade wobbled creating divots and grooves in wood.
Hallmark characteristics that you cannot find these days.
If all you have available to work with is perfect wood from a mill with a perfect planer, you may be able to find some character from nail hole, check, crack, or weathering.
One trick I have for adding character to a board is to take some creative angled chops at it with an axe, sander, wire brush or flapper wheel. You may have seen me do this on large beams like this:
With each board, I ask myself a few questions:
- Is it stable enough to be used for my projects?
- Are there cracks? If yes, how far through the board do they go?
- If I cut through the end, is it all rotten and falling apart?
- How straight is the board?
- Is the board cupped?
My goal is always to have a straight 90 degree flat top with lots of character still visible. If the board is bent (up and down or side to side) I need to have enough usable wood inside the imperfections. I need to pay close attention to see where I can square off, particularly with panels of wood that were made for fences as most were not squared up. Imagine cutting the crusts off a piece of bread to have a perfectly square sandwich.
When I’ve inspected each board it gets sorted in to three piles:
- STRUCTURALLY SOUND: This pile of 2x wood is used for furniture of all shapes and sizes. I’ve become known for my barnwood doors and dining room tables. I’ve also made spectacular kitchen islands, basement bars, wine cellars, outdoor kitchens, and boardroom tables.
- NOT STRUCTURALLY SOUND: This wood is milled down to a ¼” thick and mounted over plywood to have structural strength. These planks also can be used as wall panels and all sorts of art. I’ve had success with making national flags, home décor signs, and feature walls.
- FIREWOOD: If I can see no possible safe use for the wood it gets to meet some marshmallows.
Other considerations when I am examining wood is it's moisture content and infestation. I prefer to use wood that is below 10% moisture content. You can use a moisture meter to check what level your wood is at. Any boards with an infestation can be kiln dried or treated with a pesticide.
When I’m ready to make furniture or planks, I use wood filler to expose the saw marks. I prefer Woodwise filler in the color Ebony https://amzn.to/3nJ75UX.
Another way I emphasize character is by painting boards white and then skip plane them to get a weathered effect. This worked perfectly when I made some national flags! I paired red boards from an old barn with some white skip planed boards and they turned out awesome!
I hope this helps you sort and select the best reclaimed wood for your projects!