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Woodworking Projects Using Reclaimed Wood: Worth the Effort!

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Using Reclaimed Wood for woodworking projects has been done for centuries--often as a matter of necessity. Currently, reclaimed wood is undergoing something of a resurgence. Current DIY shows have made recycling old barns, retrieving old logs that sat at the bottom of lakes and rivers, and intelligent reuse of vintage home timber as well. Upcycling wood offers many benefits for both the modern woodworker and the old-schoolers. But before you start ripping apart that old shed, you need to know what you’re getting yourself into!

How Does Reclaimed Wood Benefit My Woodworking Project?

If you're here, you're already interested in upcycling pallets, but there are more options out there. There are many notable benefits of recycling old wood for your woodworking projects, such as sustainability, aesthetic, and quality. Many of these attributes complement one another due to the demands of the timber industry.

Sustainability - The planet only has so many finite resources.

Sections of the Amazon forest the size of New York State get cut down every day. "Affordable lumber" at the cost of destroying our environment will catch up to us all. For those eco-conscious individuals, using upcycled wood can be one step in doing their part to living a more sustainable life and reducing one’s carbon footprint.

Woodworking Projects Using Reclaimed Wood: Worth the Effort! Other Pallet Projects
Cheap lumber costs more than you think.
Woodworking Projects Using Reclaimed Wood: Worth the Effort! Other Pallet Projects
The destruction of the rainforest.

Quality – Does Reclaimed Wood match the quality of new wood?

As demand for lumber continues to rise, numerous tree farms have sprouted up. Unfortunately, those commercial tree farms rarely allow the tree to mature before harvesting. This means that the wood isn’t as strong, nor can it be made into as large of pieces of lumber. Those impressive slabs from an old-growth tree that were taken for granted in previous generations are a rarity nowadays.

Woodworking Projects Using Reclaimed Wood: Worth the Effort! Other Pallet Projects
Some countries are issuing grants to encourage tree farming.

Aesthetic - Arguably one of the biggest reasons for renewed interest in Reclaimed Wood is due to its appearance.

The natural appeal of rustic wood is undeniable. However, old lumber transforms into modern art when sanded to a satin finish. Pre-stressed lumber cannot match the beauty of wood that has had one hundred or more years of wear and tear.

This piece of redwood with a stunning flaw and outstanding gold and red tones was found when demolishing a 1920's Southern California garden shed. The home is nearby local mountains that reportedly HAD Redwoods. It no longer does. The piece has been trimmed and framed with pine pallet wood, but the Redwood was initially 16" wide by 2" thick! It was the secondary wood!

Woodworking Projects Using Reclaimed Wood: Worth the Effort! Other Pallet Projects

Conformity - When is a 2x4” not a 2x4”? When it’s modern lumber, of course! Reclaimed Wood is a different size!

There are times that old lumber is better when doing a restoration, such as an old cabinet, wood floors, or an entire home. Modern timber isn’t indeed 2x4” anymore, and specific cuts for particular grains were wasteful and not seen much now. When the project is finished with a clear coat, such as an antique floor, matching the grain and thickness can be challenging with new lumber. New redwood and oak pale in comparison to those first wood projects using mature trees. The color and definition that old trees have with hundreds of tight growth rings can’t be replaced.

Woodworking Projects Using Reclaimed Wood: Worth the Effort! Other Pallet Projects

Are There Drawbacks When Using Reclaimed Wood?

Woodworking Projects Using Reclaimed Wood: Worth the Effort! Other Pallet Projects
Dry rot, old termite damage, weathering, splits, cupping & warping are some of the challenges when working with old wood.

Despite the many benefits of reclaimed wood, nothing is perfect. Even reclaimed wood comes with a few faults. Flaws may or may not be as important depending on your woodworking project and personal situation. The drawbacks of using recycled lumber often fall into a few categories: price, conformity, and quality.

Woodworking Projects Using Reclaimed Wood: Worth the Effort! Other Pallet Projects
Upcycling old wood can be challenging with inconsistencies caused by wear, hand-cutting, and more.

Price - Reclaimed lumber can be high-priced!

From recycled glass to paper to plastic, we often assume that recycled materials are just supposed to be less expensive than newly manufactured ones. Unfortunately, reclaimed wood requires a significant investment of time and labor. Unless you are reclaiming the wood yourself, it often ends up costing more to use reclaimed wood than virgin timber.

Conformity - Reclaimed Wood isn't ideal for all projects.

While reclaimed wood is ideal for specific rustic styles where imperfection is part of the design, it fares far worse for woodworking projects where consistency of the workpieces is paramount. If your woodworking project requires cutting precision beyond 1/16”, chances are reclaimed wood may cause more challenges than it is worth. New wood isn’t warped or irregularly cut.

Woodworking Projects Using Reclaimed Wood: Worth the Effort! Other Pallet Projects
Differences between old and new lumber require creative adjustments. Plane the wood to a consistent thickness, shims, or saw the lumber to match.

Quality - Old wood can have underlying issues with its quality.

In this regard, reclaimed wood can either be one of the best, most robust woods available or it can snap under pressure from years of damage when used in a new project. Striking old metal fasteners buried in the wood damages your tools!

Woodworking Projects Using Reclaimed Wood: Worth the Effort! Other Pallet Projects
The silvered, rustic charm of old wood presents challenges when there is damage present.

Take the challenge and use Reclaimed Wood in a project.

Don’t let the drawbacks keep you from giving the used wood a try, especially when you can get it for free! That old lumber holds some exciting possibilities for those woodworkers who are willing to learn and think creatively. Your project may take a bit more time, care, and investment (especially sweat equity). Upcycling wood gives a project a unique quality that can’t be replicated by created copies. Be prepared to deal with its various quirks and nuances ahead of time. That old wood has more lessons to teach hobbyists and expert woodworkers alike.

Woodworking Projects Using Reclaimed Wood: Worth the Effort! Other Pallet Projects
Old lumber has a charm that new timber can't match.

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James Niehaus

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