Why is Reclaimed Wood a Thing, and What Makes It So Special?
Reclaimed wood’s artisanal “cool factor” put it on the map as an interior design darling just a few years ago, but humans have been salvaging and repurposing wood for much, much longer.
The reason this trend has more staying power than some others goes way beyond the power of “cool.” It’s rooted (see what we did there?) in function, sustainability, and durability.
If you’re a little fuzzy on what actually constitutes “reclaimed wood,” we’ve got you covered.
In the simplest terms, reclaimed wood is repurposed from an old project (i.e., a wooden barn or bridge) into something new (flooring or a bar).
The obvious benefit of wood reclamation is its inherent eco-friendliness. Reusing or repurposing is good for the environment because buying new products can create waste and need for further production.
Beyond the negative effects of deforestation itself, the carbon pollution put off by the equipment used to level living trees is also troublesome.
When and Why Did We Start Repurposing Wood?
When the pilgrims reached the shores of America, they were greeted by completely uncharted, unkempt wilderness. Trees crowded the sprawling landscape with arms stretching endlessly toward the sky. The newcomers, no doubt, marveled at the unspoiled land--and with good reason! At the time, the Europe they were leaving behind was crowded, expensive, unhygienic, and fraught with political peril.
In relatively short order, coexistence with the natural world gave way to modernization, ultimately culminating in the American Industrial Revolution between 1820 and 1870. Coal became the preferred source of fuel, and new machinery encouraged environmentally dangerous manufacturing practices, as well as easier deforestation.
As time went on, American focus shifted exclusively to efficiency, speed, and profitability—no matter the cost. Often, it was Mother Nature who paid it.
One such example is the destruction of the “Mother of the Forest” tree in 1854. This giant is said to have been 2,520 years old when its bark was stripped and sent to exhibitions as proof of its existence. In 1904, without its fire-resistant bark to protect it, the Mother was destroyed in a blaze.
While there are plenty of examples of blatant destruction of our natural world, some environmental damages are a bit more indirect. One such example is the Cuyahoga River in Ohio, which has caught fire at least 14 times.
No, that is not a joke--or even a metaphor. Thanks to innumerable pollutants dumped into the river by nearby factories, the river caught fire multiple times between 1868 and 1969. Time Magazine described the Cuyahoga as the river that “oozes rather than flows” in their famous 1969 article containing photos of the fires (seen below).
(Side note: a bit of good news...the EPA declared fish from the Cuyahoga safe for consumption in March 2019.)
These events and hundreds of others like them inspired President Nixon to establish the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and over time, conservation—and a return to protecting America’s great natural treasures—gained support and momentum.
In recent years we’ve witnessed continued widespread concern from environmental experts as well as regular American citizens. Their activism has resulted in legislation limiting the emissions of cars and airplanes, a resurgence of organic farming, and support for eco-friendly initiatives across the board.
We’re also seeing adjustments to our everyday lives intended to lessen our environmental impact. For example, many grocery stores now eagerly encourage shoppers to bring reusable bags and some states, like California, even charge for single-use plastic bags to further discourage their use.
Similarly, many restaurants have curtailed provision of plastic straws and, in drought-prone areas, may only provide water to those who ask for it.
It may not seem like much, but little things like these can have a significant impact when you multiply the output across the population of a nation, continent, or planet—and we as a species still have a long way to go to reverse the damage we’ve done to our world.
OK, but What Does All of This Have to Do with Reclaimed Wood?
As the concept of environmental responsibility gains awareness and support, people have started looking for other ways (beyond abandoning plastic straws) to be a little kinder to our natural world.
Considering that deforestation puffs more CO2 into the air than the sum total of cars and trucks on the world’s road, there’s maybe no better way to care for our environment than to spare our friends in the forest (the trees and the critters that reside in them) by parlaying wood already in circulation into beautiful, functional furniture and architectural elements.
I Can Get On Board (Badum, Chhhh) With That. But Is the Quality of Reclaimed Wood the Same as New?
Nope--it’s often even better. On average, reclaimed wood is about 40 points harder on the Janka Hardness Test than its non-reclaimed counterpart.
We hear what you’re thinking: What in the heck is the Janka Hardness Test?
So glad you asked. Prepare for science.
The Janka Hardness Test evaluates a given wood species’ hardness and durability. To conduct the test, examiners take a 0.444-inch metal ball bearing and drive it halfway into the selected wood specimen. The purpose is to measure the amount of force it took to drive it in. Here’s what it looks like:
The measurement used is pounds-force (lbf). In other words, how many pounds of force must be applied to the metal ball to drive it halfway into the wood? The test is repeated on all kinds of different wood species, and the resulting data is compiled into a chart that looks something like this:
Generally, you’ll find that the value of wood increases in direct relation to its hardness rating. Harder wood is sturdier, more durable, and has more uses. It stands to reason, then, that if reclaimed wood is up to 40 points harder than non-reclaimed wood (or virgin wood), it’s inherently more valuable.
(Yes, that does mean it’s also typically more expensive, but you get what you pay for! In the case of reclaimed wood, you’re paying for quality, durability, and environmental sustainability.)
Why is Reclaimed Wood Harder than Virgin Wood?
Reclaimed wood generally comes from older structures (or “old growth”). These structures were made from wood harvested from older trees which, due to their age, were dense and strong—thus yielding a higher-quality product. Wood cut from newer growth hasn’t had the same length of time to mature and harden.
At this point you might be thinking, “Hold on…I’m with you on the green movement, and the hardness stuff makes sense…but I’ve seen some janky old wooden structures out there. They don’t look very sturdy to me. In fact, it looks like the wood is good for nothing more than a nice bonfire.”
Well, astute reader, that very well may be the case. Not every piece of old wood you see is going to make nice cabinets or new décor in your study. When wood is reclaimed, it’s triaged into three quality grades: low, mid, and high.
Low grade reclaimed wood goes right into the furnace. It might look something like this:
Mid-grade wood is a bit better, and is frequently used for making shipping crates or pallets.
High-grade reclaimed wood, on the other hand, goes to making stuff like this:
Other (More Sentimental) Considerations
Beyond environmental impact and quality, reclaimed wood also comes with a story. Subject to where you source your reclaimed wood (and you should be very careful with your sourcing process), you may be able to learn a bit about its history. Did it come from a church? A secret bar raided during Prohibition? A barn raised in the 1800s? At the very least, using reclaimed wood is a surefire conversation starter.
At Enticing Trees, we believe that using reclaimed wood is a great way to ground a space, infuse it with history, take care of the earth, and rest assured that you have a product that will last. Check out our lovingly crafted products (all made of repurposed wood) here!