If Wood Could Talk: Installing Reclaimed Flooring

As the “Green Movement” of today’s world, where using, reusing, and recycling products has become commonplace, the wood flooring industry sits in a very strong position to share the age-old story of what a truly, naturally sustainable product is all about. 

Of all the flooring options available in today’s market, wood is the only renewable flooring option. That’s because trees naturally regenerate when mature trees are harvested, and saplings can be replanted time and time again. While it is true that it takes hardwood trees 40 to 60 years to mature (depending on the species), the raw materials needed to replace a properly installed and maintained wood floor won’t be needed for much longer than that. A typical wood floor has a service life of hundreds of years. As a matter-of-fact, there are many floors in North America that are well over 300 years old, and floors in older parts of the world, such as Europe, that are well over 700 years old. 

Wood flooring even can be reused, recycled, or “reclaimed.” Reclaimed wood flooring extends the service-life of any wood product almost indefinitely. Reclaimed wood has a story; it holds a historic significance from a specific location, and during a specific period in time, sharing its unique patina, texture, and character that no other can replicate. Reclaimed wood is much more than just a design trend; it is a preservation of historical artifacts.   

Useful tip:
Even when a real wood floor needs to be removed for whatever the reason, and is brought to the landfill, it is a biodegradable material, meaning, it will decompose under certain weather, water, and oxygen conditions over a relatively short period of time.

What is Reclaimed?

There are three definitions generally accepted through the National Green Building Standard (NGBS) and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) that have been published in the NWFA Installation Guidelines in an effort to help identify what types of “reclaimed” materials are being put to use:

  1. Post-Consumer Recycled/Antique Reclaimed Wood: Wood or wood fiber that has been reclaimed from an end-user after being used for its original intended purpose. End-users may include individuals, households, or industrial users of the product.
  2. Salvaged Wood: Wood or wood fiber that comes from logs that have been salvaged from the following sources: post-agricultural (e.g., fruit and nut orchards); urban forests (street trees); waterways (sunken logs raised from rivers, reservoirs, and lake bottoms); and other sources that are otherwise not intended to be harvested.
  3. Pre-Consumer Recycled Wood: Wood or wood fiber that is created as a by-product of a secondary manufacturing process and typically is not reused on-site in the same process that generated it (also called post-industrial recycled wood).

This article focuses on installing reclaimed wood that already served a purpose in a previous life, and is now being put to use in a new life. This material commonly is acquired from sources such as buildings, old barns, textile factories and warehouses, boxcars, snow fences, old trestle bridges, railroad ties, or even mines that are able to be dismantled and their wood turned into recycled wood flooring. 

Wood species salvaged from many of these old structures varies and commonly is native to the area it was used in, but it’s the age, average lengths, growth ring patterns, colors, and patina, that gives it the ability to be considered buried treasure when we discover and repurpose them. Some of the species reclaimed today include American chestnut, oak, elm, maple, long leaf heart pine, Douglas fir, cypress, and even walnut.

A wood product sourced from old buildings has a story to tell. Irresponsible sellers who have jumped into the business of repurposing old wood that contains lead paint, have reintroduced a very old problem to our industry.

Sourcing Reclaimed Products

A wood product sourced from old buildings has a story to tell. Some of these stories date back centuries. However, some precautions must be taken into account when specifying reclaimed materials in someone’s home. First and foremost, know from whom you are buying. End-users are capable of buying “reclaimed” flooring from all kinds of places, such as eBay, Craigslist, Etsy, and even through social media. Many of these sources are from hobbyists or DIYers, looking to re-sell something they acquired as a reclaimed product.

It behooves the installer and end-user to know what the reclaimed wood’s past life entailed. There are some potential concerns with where some of these products have been sourced that should be highlighted before buying, selling, or installing any reclaimed wood floor. 

A responsible reclaimed flooring manufacturer knows how to safely identify and prepare these products so the installer and the end-user have minimal health risks when working with, and living on, these floors. The following  are some of the potential safety concerns that irresponsible sellers commonly ignore or overlook. 

KILN-DRIED: Almost all wood flooring is kiln-dried. Reclaimed wood is no different. Kiln drying reclaimed lumber ensures it is dried down to the proper moisture content intended for interior use. Properly kiln-dried lumber also will kill any insects and larvae that may be in the wood. Wood is prone to insect infestation if it has been improperly kiln-dried, has been exposed to moisture, or if exposed to other, non-treated lumber. When shopping for reclaimed material, it is imperative to ask the seller if the material has been kiln-dried. 

LEAD: It was only 43 years ago that lead-based paint became outlawed in the construction industry due to the health ramifications it poses with exposure. The red barn paint, so commonly used for decades, was notorious for being made of lead-based paint, due to how well the paint maintained its deep red color. Some older gym floors may also have been painted with, or coated with products that contain lead. Irresponsible sellers who have jumped into the business of repurposing old wood that contains lead paint, have reintroduced a very old problem to our industry. 

CHEMICALS: Wood often is treated for the purpose of preserving the wood. Wood from old trestle bridges (such as the wood salvaged from the Great Salt Lake) and railroad ties, offer some amazing timbers that often are used in the flooring industry. Commonly known as “pressure treated wood,” the process involves saturating the wood in chemicals such as pentachlorophenol and creosote, which are known carcinogens and can have negative health side-effects when working with them. Recycled wood from textile factories and warehouses, boxcars, or mines also has the potential of having been exposed to toxic chemicals that were used in the facility. These chemicals can permeate into the wood from centuries of use. Only experienced reclaimed manufacturers know how to identify and address these relics from harming the installers or end-users. 

MOLD SPORES: Mold can grow in places with lots of moisture. The truth is there is always a little mold everywhere – in the air and on many surfaces. With water, molds grow. Without water, molds die, but the spores do not. If water returns, the spores regenerate growing colonies of mold. Studies have shown that mold growth can occur on wood at moisture content levels above 15 percent. Proper treatment of the materials can alleviate any concerns with pre-existing mold spores as well.

Installing Reclaimed

Every floor and every board is completely unique. There is no grading standard for reclaimed wood. This is due to the wide array of locations from which the products have been reclaimed. This open-grading definition is where the conversation with the manufacturer of the product and the customer must align. Color variations, knots, nail holes, stains, and even milling variations from one board to the next, likely will be present with any reclaimed material. Customer expectations must be laid out and clearly identified prior to selling or installing any reclaimed wood floor. Proper installation may differ from product to product, but the following always will apply to a successful installation of any wood floor. (Refer to NWFA Installation Guidelines for more detail.)

Just as with any wooden floor, the home and the environment in which the reclaimed flooring is being installed in must be capable of sustaining a consistent year-round temperature and relative humidity that coincides with the flooring. Check with the manufacturer of the flooring to validate what target MC should be for the facility and their product. Prior to delivery of the wood flooring, check and record the jobsite ambient conditions and the subfloor moisture to ensure they coincide. Upon delivery of the flooring to the jobsite, recheck and record the MC of multiple boards of flooring from a variety of bundles. 

Every floor and every board is completely unique. Color variations, knots, nail holes, stains, and even milling variations from one board to the next, will likely be present with any reclaimed material. 

Whether the flooring is capable of being nailed or glued will be entirely up to the manufacturer of the flooring and the type of subfloor it will be installed over. If the manufacturer instructs to follow NWFA Guidelines, you then would follow the specific installation method from NWFA Installation Guidelines. All reclaimed floors are different. Some reclaimed floors may be so hard and brittle that they may not be able to be nailed without splitting the wood. Other materials may be incompatible with many of the common wood flooring adhesives. 

A few unique issues that can affect the installation of reclaimed materials include material milled without tongue and groove, material milled without end-matching, warped material, or milling discrepancies/tolerances. Dealing with these discrepancies can be a part of working with reclaimed materials. Again, knowing where your product is coming from will help alleviate many of these milling concerns with reclaimed products.  

Once the floor has been installed, it may need to be lightly sanded and abraded. It is also a common recommendation to go over the floor with your buffer using a Tampico brush. This process can help remove loose splinters and fibers from the surface. In some cases, finish also may need to be applied. This is a part of the process that must be taken into account with the end-user to allow them to help make an educated decision on what and how the floor will not only be finished, but also maintained. The end-user also must be made aware that reclaimed wood potentially will splinter. Their maintenance practices will be crucial to how many more years the floor will be in service.  

The proper sourcing of reclaimed materials is an important factor that will impact the longevity and performance of the flooring purchase. It is the installer’s responsibility to know what the product is and how it will be installed. The end-user then has the most rewarding task on-hand, enjoying and maintaining that floor to give it many more centuries of life. 

Brett Miller is the VP of Technical Standards, Training, and Certification for the National Wood Flooring Association. He can be reached at brett.miller@nwfa.org

Check out the 2019 NWFA Installation Guidelines for more detailed installation methods, and check out the NWFA Industry Guide to find some quality Reclaimed Wood Flooring Manufacturers. NWFA.org

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