Inspector’s Report: Reclaimed Wood Expectations

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Reclaimed wood is not a new phenomenon, but in recent years, we have seen a resurgence of its use in design that is fresh and exciting. Some common reclaimed products include reclaimed barn siding, beams, mantles, and, yes, flooring. In application, we see these materials applied to ceilings, walls, exterior/interior siding or beams, flooring, and even furniture. Reclaimed wood products lend themselves to many styles of décor, including mountain lodge, rustic, traditional, industrial, and even contemporary design. 

These products also are very practical, especially here in Colorado, where the temperature and relative humidity can have huge fluctuations between seasons. Where newer wood might display gaps and warping, the use of reclaimed wood gives added stability in its use. This is due to the wood having been harvested and seasoned in its original application, and having been exposed to many seasons of expansion and contraction before settling into a final, more stable form. The process is akin to stretching out rubber bands.

When exposed to heat and humidity, the wood fibers swell and expand, and when exposed to cold and dry conditions, they shrink or contract. Just like a rubber band will stretch and contract back to its original form at first, but then tend to stay stretched out after repeated occurrences, wood fibers can act similarly. After many seasons of expanding and contracting, the wood fibers tend to become less reactive and stay in a more-stable form.

Setting Expectations

I have inspected a few reclaimed wood floors over the years. Most are so rustic that picking out “flaws” is not really a concern, as the flooring product itself is rustic compared to a perfectly sanded floor. That said, setting expectations prior to installation is the number one rule when dealing with reclaimed flooring. 

An example of this is the end-user not being happy with the color or that “one plank” in the middle of the floor. Reclaimed flooring often can be a mix of species, and the floor installer often may not know what species he or she is dealing with. 

Inspecting for moisture content can be a challenge as species may be mixed or simply unknown. Ensuring moisture meters are set to the correct species also is important. If unknown, default to red oak or white oak, take readings for both species, and average them. Of course, if known, set accordingly.

When setting those all-important expectations, the floor’s finish is a key part of the conversation. I once inspected an antique European reclaimed floor that had been coated with an oil poly finish, in full sun, which had ambered significantly. The homeowner had two 100-pound dogs that severely scratched the floor. The only remedy would have been a total re-sand, but by doing so, all of the color variation, fine aging, and foot-worn texture would have been sanded off too. It should have been coated in a natural oil or hard wax finish, thus being able to dress up the dog scratches and re-oil/wax the floor without having to lose the unique features of the reclaimed wood.  

Sustainability of Reclaimed Wood

Today’s wood products come from trees that are harvested from managed farms or forests where the trees are not allowed to linger in a juvenile state, but encouraged to grow quickly by the method of planting, or strategic culling of the forest canopy to allow for maximum light and growth. This produces a looser grain pattern from the artificially accelerated growth, and thus a less- stable lumber product. 

No matter if it is newly harvested, reclaimed, or antique, reclaimed wood is one of the most-sustainable building materials on earth. This is because wood can live many lives from its original use to its reclaimed re-use in our structures and finishes. Because it takes fewer resources to grow, harvest, and manufacture than other products, and even is considered to be carbon neutral or negative, it also will continue to be a favorite among those in the building material industry. 

Additionally, we are seeing a new explosion of sustainability initiatives within our industry. More and more architects and designers are striving to design structures that adhere to strict guidelines for healthier indoor environments and have less impact on the world’s resources. Reclaimed wood will continue to be an important part of these initiatives.  

The True Value of Wood

I have spent my entire career in the wood flooring industry and spent most of my childhood building forts and hideouts on my own family’s forested land. I never knew the full depth of my appreciation for the trees, forests, and lumber until I read a book called “The Hidden Life of Trees” by German forester, Peter Wohlleben. This book should be a must-read for anyone in our industry, and I promise it will give you a new-found appreciation of our forests and the lumber we buy and sell every day – especially the incredible value that the use of reclaimed wood offers our industry.  

Lavinia Rathbun, an NWFA CWFI, CSF, and CSA, is the Owner of On the Level Floor Inspections in Parker, Colorado. She can be reached at info@onthelevelfloorinspections.com.

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