From barns and rivers to floors: How the wood industry recycles

Home News From barns and rivers to floors: How the wood industry recycles

by Matthew Spieler

When most people think of wood flooring, images of freshly cut trees come to mind. But there is a whole other segment of the category, one that has never actually felled a tree. Welcome to the world of reclaiming or salvaging old lumber and trees—logs that either never actually made it to the sawmill when they were first sawed more than a century ago, some even hundreds of years ago or were used for other purposes besides flooring.

From dilapidated barns strewn across highways to abandoned warehouse and factories, and old wine caskets to railroad ties, or from the bottoms of rivers and swamps, companies are creating dramatic, eco-friendly flooring products with unique looks and equally unique stories. And consumers are eating it up as they seek products to reflect both their lifestyles and visions for their homes or businesses.

Ron Sauer, owner of Excel-sior Wood Products, explained among the compelling forces behind the increasing popularity of reclaimed vintage floors are the stories behind them. Some of the most beautiful and interesting wood is made from historic structures such as buildings from heroic Civil War venues and antiquated factories. Others are composed of restored lumber salvaged from sites in Europe and Asia, including an 800-year-old temple from the time of the Ming Dynasty in China.

“You could say all reclaimed wood has an intriguing history,” he said. “Whether it is removed from an old mansion, public building or even an old industrial facility, there is a story to it that adds an unexpected value to the wood when it’s reclaimed.”

Terrie Metz of Old Growth Riverwood, one of the few companies that gets its materials from both old structures and rivers, noted, “More and more our customers are requesting reclaimed wood because of the eco-friendly aspect of it and the history, although some people just like the look.”

Going mainstream

The aspect of reclaiming and reusing wood is nothing new as people have been doing it for centuries. But, the commercialization of turning the old wood into flooring is a relatively new concept, especially when it comes to salvaging logs from the bottom of rivers. Many of the companies repurposing wood to flooring on a commercial scale have been in existence less than 40 years. And, in most cases, the people who founded these companies got into the business by “accident.”

Aged Woods, explained Jeff-rey Horn, owner and president, was started in 1984 as First Capitol Wood Products by Donald Sprenkle Jr. after friends expressed interest in buying the same kind of cypress he used in restoring an old stone farmhouse in southern York County, Pa.

George Goodwin kept running into old growth longleaf pine and bald cypress logs durng fishing trips. Intrigued, he took some to an old sawmill and, as he told FCNews, fell in love with the wood. So, 35 years ago, he bought a sawmill and started to learn how to produce reclaimed wood under the name Goodwin Heart Pine Co.

The Woods Co., explained Pete Mazzone, marketing manager, was started by Barry Stup who saw barns going down in rural Maryland and “nothing good coming from it. It was his idea to take those completely usable boards and convert them for another life. In 1980, he established the company to meet the growing demand for antique wood flooring.”

While there are no official statistics on how large this segment is within the wood flooring category, there is little argument it is a viable, competitive business as companies scramble to secure relationships with demolition or di-ving companies and seek to find structures with enough wood to give them a worthwhile supply.

Horn noted, “There are a lot of companies now selling re-claimed wood. Some are more involved in the actual dismantling, but many operate like us purchasing from the grassroots network of individuals involved in salvaging building materials.”

Mazzone added, “The competition for reclaimed is stiff. We fight to win the best re-sources and we fight to attract the customers. The vendors know all the players and know if they have the right wood they can keep shopping until they get their price. Vendors are no different than any small business. They will show loyalty to firms that treat them well and pay on time. But ultimately price wins the day.”

As with any business developing relationships is key when it comes to everything from pricing to maintaining supplies to the quality of the material. Goodwin said the company has developed a “strong network of material suppliers and has been very fortunate to get high quality raw materials consistently when we need them.”

Numerous sources

While one can replace a felled tree with a sapling, such is not the case in the world of reclamation. Once a structure is torn down or a log brought up from underwater it can’t be replaced.

Nonetheless, Mezzone said, “A single industrial revolution era warehouse may yield hundreds of thousands of board feet of a given species.”

Horn added, “To a certain extent, it is a finite resource. But barns in use today not sufficiently weathered are likely to become available for salvage. As long as the roof is sound, the wood inside is probably good.”

For those who rely on submerged logs, “Our research shows it is plentiful at least for the foreseeable future,” noted Metz.

Goodwin explained, “Each rainy season the rivers uncover some more. In the 1800s, rivers were the safest and cheapest way to transport logs. Small lumber companies established their headquarters up and down the waterways to take advantage of their transportation and power benefits.

He added, “There were originally 85 million to 90 million acres of virgin-growth longleaf forest in the southeastern coastal plain. Today, there is about 5,000 acres of true old-growth longleaf forest remaining. All the virgin growth bald cypress are gone, many of which were 1,000 to 2,000 years old when they were cut over 100 years ago. There are a lot of logs on the river bottom.”

Better than new

At first thought, one may think wood coming from a dilapidated structure or the bottom of a swamp may not be as good as its virgin cousin, but executives note the opposite is true.

“Contrary to what some might expect,” Metz said, “most submerged lumber does not rot due to low levels of oxygen which slows decay. There is superior quality to Riverwood when compared to factory-processed new wood.”

River recovered logs, Good-win said, are high quality be-cause they are generally older, denser growth and have fewer and smaller knots. They are usually lower in moisture content than a freshly cut virgin growth longleaf heart pine tree. “The water preserves the logs and the dense heartwood does not take on any water.”

On land, Mezzone noted, reclaimed wood has stood the test of time. “Unlike new wood it has gone through endless cycles of moisture gain and loss. This has resulted in wood that has lost most of its hydroscopic qualities and is far less likely to bow or cup than its new counterpart. Reclaimed wood has also taken on a quality of color that only can be achieved over the course of a century or more.”

Horn added, “Having grown during a period of unique ecological balance, this wood has a tighter grain than the much more rapidly growing trees of today. From these recycled old woods emerges a precision-milled plank that retains the patina and character imparted by the signs of old-time craftsmen and decades of wind, rain and sun.”

Not cheap

When it comes to owning a reclaimed wood floor, don’t expect it to be cheap, regardless of where it comes from.

“Reclaimed antique wood, done right, is two to three times more expensive than new wood,” Horn said. “But then it really isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison. Still, our clientele tends to be high-end, or well-heeled retailers and restaurants.”

Added Mezzone, “Our wood arrives at the mill and must be fully de-nailed, cleaned and kiln dried. It is a painstaking process that is very time and labor intensive. [Plus] we are a custom mill. Each order is made to the customer’s needs and specifications. We do not run 600 board feet a minute all day everyday of the same width and length. We run 40 board feet a minute and are in a continual quality control mode to ensure our milling is accurate.”

Goodwin noted river logs can cost even more because of permit fees required to obtain the material. “We worked with government agencies and environmental groups to create an environmental permit for log recovery in Florida to ensure the river habitat is protected. River logger teams pay the state a fee, pass a river log recovery course and expect surprise site inspections to prove they are using appropriate equipment. They aren’t allowed to dig out buried logs or to drag the ends of the logs on the river bottom.”

Mezzone noted there is a significant difference in the mentality of a buyer who wants to spend $2 to $3 a board foot for flooring and one who will spend $17 to $20 a board foot. “These people have very specific tastes not just in their flooring but throughout their home,” he said. “Their flooring cannot be, quite literally, run of the mill. This is the customer that wants a one of a kind floor and we deliver them just that.”

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