Nothing In Nature Is Wasted: Reclaimed Wood

Sep 12, 2017

In this month's installment of Field Notes Scott Bowe of Kemp Station discusses reclaimed wood, how nothing in Nature goes to waste.

A friend of mine has a saying, “Nothing in nature goes to waste.” It’s true. When a branch falls in the forest, fungi go to work consuming its sugars and recycling it back into the forest floor. When a blue gill dies in a lake, it provides a meal for a lucky raccoon or crayfish. As human consumers, we try to do the same by recycling cans, bottles, and paper. But what about wood from barns or buildings? We are doing that too. Reclaimed wood is becoming more popular, and local companies are meeting this new demand in interior design. Truly, nothing in nature goes to waste!

One of the first questions we should ask is why should we reclaim wood from old barns and buildings? We have a vibrant forest products industry in Wisconsin, and we can certainly meet our demand for wood products with virgin raw materials through sustainable forest management. I believe reusing products is in our frugal nature, but more importantly, consumer demand for this unique product is driving this market. Each reclaimed board has its own unique character or personality with distinguishing nail holes, markings, and patina that tell its life story. Many consumers are willing to pay to add this character to their homes.

Two national examples of this trend toward reclaimed wood are the Building Materials Reuse Association, which is a nonprofit educational organization with a mission to facilitate the salvage and reuse of building materials, and more locally, the Habitat for Humanity ReStores, which are retail outlets where used and surplus building materials are sold. Approximately 30% of sales are wood-based materials. Nationally, more than 55 million tons of wood waste is generated on an annual basis. About half of this material is of acceptable size, quality, and condition to be considered available for recovery. Clearly, the amount of waste wood available for recovery in the U.S. is a substantial figure. Deconstruction or “unbuilding” is the preferred method to recover wood rather than demolition with a wrecking ball. Deconstruction provides an excellent opportunity to maintain the recoverable quantity and quality of the wood. Opportunities for deconstruction are all around us. Old barns, grain elevators, and factories provide plenty of reclaimed wood raw materials. Larger buildings are more attractive to deconstruction companies given the larger volume and greater consistency of the reclaimed wood.

What are some of the other benefits of reclaimed wood? Reclaimed wood helps to reduce landfill waste; it has a lower carbon footprint than new lumber production; and commercially reclaimed lumber recovery generates more jobs than grinding or landfilling old wood. However, reclaimed wood takes significant effort to upgrade into useable products. The deconstructed raw material must be kiln dried to assure it has the proper moisture content for interior use. Kiln drying also eliminates any unwanted insects such as powder post beetles. Further processing is costly since metal fasteners such as nails, screws, and bolts must be removed by hand. If further milling of reclaimed wood is required, a metal detector must be used on each piece prior to processing to avoid damaging the milling tools. Reclaimed lumber may be upcycled into a range of products, including flooring, paneling, cabinets, furniture, mantels, and beams. This added labor and machining adds to the cost. On average, a reclaimed wood product typically costs twice as much as the same product made from virgin wood materials.

One cautionary note is that reclaimed wood must pass an engineering inspection before being reused for structural purposes in new construction or remodeling. Virgin structural lumber and beams are graded and receive a grade stamp at the manufacturing mill, so they are ready to use without added engineering. Engineering inspection is not necessary when reclaimed wood is used in non-structural applications such as furniture or millwork.

Reclaimed wood plays an important role in our local economy. Tom Ory, President of Enterprise Wood Products, a company in Rhinelander that manufactures and sells custom wood products, has worked with reclaimed wood since 2010. They started by using reclaimed wood from the deconstruction of a grain elevator in Superior. Their reclaimed wood is remanufactured into flooring, paneling, stair parts, timbers, and more. Currently, most of their reclaimed wood supply comes from the deconstruction of the Hamilton building in Two Rivers. Today, reclaimed wood represents up to half of their product sales. Mr. Ory says that, “Wood from the past preserved for the future,” is a company slogan, which holds true to the notion that nothing in Nature goes to waste.

For Field Notes, this is Scott Bowe from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Kemp Natural Resources Station.