The ultimate expression in recycling, reclaimed wood flooring is enjoying a huge surge in popularity. This recent popularity is fueled by several factors, not the least of which is the warm, aged, mellow tones of this flooring. There’s also the history which is written large in the lumber itself, since it may have been a barn beam or siding in a previous use. Nail holes, insect borings, dents and dings, and stains all create a rich pastiche that speaks of the past
Reclaimed wood flooring comes from old barns, homes, and factories that are being dismantled or remodeled. Thick, heavy old wooden beams are a prime source for this wood, but also old factory floors were often thick-cut slabs of oak, chestnut, hemlock and heart pine – some species which are no longer available today. Barn siding is also reclaimed provided it has the depth, and isn’t too badly compromised by the sun.
Specialized reclamation and milling facilities have sprung up in recent years to meet the growing demand for antique flooring. These mills dedicate themselves to locating, procuring, treating and milling this old lumber into useable flooring. All rough lumber that they purchase must be thoroughly checked by the seller and de-nailed prior to sale. Then the lumber is scanned for the presence of metal objects such as screws or nails that could damage a saw. Once cleared, the lumber is then heated to arrest any insect problems, and to stabilize the moisture content at an industry recommended 6-8%.
Sorted by species, the lumber is then ready to be milled – either rough-sawn or smooth – to final flooring specifications. Because this wood is antique, there may be unseen blemishes or problems that make a board sub-standard, so each piece is painstakingly inspected at the initial slab-cut. Planed to the appropriate thickness, these boards are then given relief cuts along their backside to allow for expansion and contraction. From there the boards receive the “finishing touches” such as hand scraping, hand planning, eased edges, rough or smooth finishing, and finally, given a tongue and groove edge.
Many firms specializing in reclaimed wood flooring take custom orders, so you have the ability to select species, width, depth, length, and finish. The mills will also be glad to provide complementary products from the same antique sources to match your flooring. These can include casings, shoe moulds, and even stair treads. Be prepared to dig a little deeper however, as all this work is labor-intensive, and supplies are strictly limited. But for a warm, antique look, there’s nothing to compare with a reclaimed wooden floor. Look for suppliers who are Forest Stewardship Certified (FSC), which certifies that the wood meets their stringent demands for sustainability. Buying FSC wood can help you attain LEED green building certification for your project.
What’s Available in Reclaimed Wood Flooring?
Eastern White Pine Highly regarded for clean and simple graining, subtle knots and mellow warm tone. White Pine can also made into very wide planks (up to 20 inches!) for floors, recreating the old-style wide-plank floors of yesteryear. Many prefer to feature a more rustic surface treatment such as saw kerfs, or hand-scraped, and these wider planks lend themselves to face nailing or top nailing with reproduction antique nails
Heart Pine These huge timbers were nearly over harvested one hundred years ago, due to their popularity as framing timbers for barns in the South to factories in the North. Heart pine offers one of the warmest, golden/umber/orange colorations of any antique wood, and is perfect for cabins, lodges, camps and hearth rooms.
Oak Known for it’s density and strength, oak has long been a favorite flooring material for its ability to resist wear. With fine grain and distinctive features, oak features warm golden tones with amber and coffee accents. Oak is a natural for Mission homes, bungalows, and Victorian homes.
American Chestnut They just don’t make them like this anymore… In fact, American Chestnut was nearly lost in the 1905 blight. This rare, beautiful wood is an American classic that’s loaded with character; from light to dark tones, holes from worms and nails, and the occasional knot. Chestnut gives you a floor with lots of interest
American Elm Another “gone but not forgotten” wood that once was the most popular shade tree in the country. Wiped out by Dutch Elm Disease, Elm is now only available through reclaimed lumber found in old barns and rural homes. Showing a long, straight grain and few knots, elm is particularly attractive in tones from light blond to soft reddish brown.
Hickory Andrew Jackson’s nickname was Old Hickory due to his iron will and strength of character. Indeed hickory is harder than oak, ash and maple – some of the hardest woods we know. What’s more, hickory has an amazing grain that ranges from light to dark for an intensely beautiful – almost mesmerizing –pattern. For hard-wearing floors with the “Wow!” factor, you can’t do better than reclaimed hickory.
Poplar Used frequently for barn boards, poplar tends to feature rough sawn marks, nail holes, stress cracks knots and lots of character. Polar also displays a wide color palette from warm, sunny yellow, to honey amber, all the way to dark green. Polar is a softer wood that dings and dents easily, so it’s usually pre-distressed before you install it, giving you a warm, lived-in look.
Surface Barnwood This was once barn siding, and is now repurposed into flooring rich with nail holes, water stains, knots and splits as you might expect. With the gray surface layer milled down, however, it exposes a warm, rich amber to umber coloration of the heartwood itself. Usually a mix of softwoods including hemlock, spruce, white pine and red pine, with loads of character.
Ash Once the leading wood for axe handles, tools handles and even baseball bats, ash has a long useful history. Because of its tight grain and strength it was also used in support beams in barns, homes and factories throughout the northeast. More formal than some of the reclaimed woods, ash lends a sense of history in a refined, dignified golden brown grain. Ash is more humidity tolerant – even elastic – so a perfect choice over radiant heat.