Japanese carpenters say wood has several lives. The first is as a living tree, the second is in the form into which it first is made, and subsequent lives depend on the forms in which it is reclaimed for other uses.
In recent years, reclaiming, salvaging and repurposing wood and other used items has become such a pervasive home decor trend that some companies age new wood products to make them look reclaimed. While some interior trend specialists believe that this mass-produced weathered look is on the wane, reclaimed wood as a building material and design element is likely here to stay. The reason is that there are sound environmental and design reasons to use reclaimed wood in some applications.
Reclaimed wood is a renewable resource that otherwise would go to waste. It enables us to preserve more of the forests that clean and filter our air, provide us with nature retreats, help filter our water supply and provide wildlife habitat.
Old wood is harder and more durable than newly harvested wood, because it was harvested from old growth wood sources that are no longer available to woodworkers because they have vanished or are now protected. Anyone who has worked with both old growth reclaimed wood and newly harvested softer wood knows that the level of craftsmanship that can be achieved with old growth wood can be significantly better.
Old wood has stories, character and a connection with the past that many people value highly. Incorporating reclaimed wood into a modern build or furniture project can give it a crafted one-of-a-kind quality that is lacking in most modern architecture and furniture. This approach is popular in Europe, Japan, Australia and the United States in particular, driven by thoughtful artisan carpenters who want to pursue their craft while preserving history and being kind to the environment.
Reclaimed wood has some disadvantages that limit its practical use. It is less likely to be standard sizes, so carpenters who use it need to have the equipment, skills and time to cut it into the sizes they need. Some old lumber was treated with chemicals that may not be safe for use in a home, so it’s important to be judicious about what types of reclaimed wood are used. Reclaimed wood typically has nails that need to be removed, driving up the price of labor. Wood needs to be carefully inspected for pests such as termites, so you don’t bring them into your home. Typically, there is a fair amount of waste from rotted sections that has to be discarded. Old wood isn’t necessarily structurally sound, so it often makes more sense to use it in smaller amounts as an architectural accent or in furniture than as a structural component.
Some well-known architects, notable among them Kengo Kuma and Maya Lin, have taken the blending of reclaimed wood, traditional artisanship, modern function and cutting-edge building materials and techniques to a high art form in their work. Having by happy chance acquired a large amount of old lumber from an old pioneer log cabin that was in my family, we have long worked with reclaimed wood, trying to take the approach of blending the use of it into our modern lifestyle. Here are some examples of ways we have used reclaimed wood:
Reclaimed wood doesn't have to be particularly old. We have made a number of pieces of furniture with pieces of children's furniture that our children grew out of.