Sunday, March 2, 2014

Helping Wood Reclaim Its Former Glory

Some weekends, The Lab is a little bit like a firehouse.  We wake up on a Saturday morning, lounge around the kitchen making crepes or putting extra raisins on our oatmeal (because, hey, it's Saturday!).  Then all of a sudden, the call will come in.  Not a 'call' call, but an e-mail from IFTTT that reads something like 'Free wood!  60 feet of weathered cedar fencing, stacked in driveway at [address two miles away].  Will take down posting when gone.'

The kitchen erupts with activity.  Pancakes and oatmeal start flying around; some even lands in our mouths if we're lucky.  We throw the crosscut saw, drill, hatchet, and crowbar in the station wagon, make sure the ratchet straps are still in there from last time, and peel out of the driveway prepared to do battle with enormous fence sections and other zealots of the Craigslist 'free' section.  (It's close to, but not quite, the level of activity that ensues when Katie finds a large spider in a cupboard.)

The only catch is that the wood usually looks like an 85-year-old former boxer.  Jagged, beat up, dirty, limbs falling get the idea.  And who would want to make a shelf or a table out of an 85-year-old former boxer?  Well, we would!  All it takes is a little elbow grease and/or some specific tools, and that old wood will be back in shape in no time.  It might even have some extra character scars to serve as an artistic reminder of its former life.

In case you have the same vehicle for hauling reclaimed wood as we do, 60 feet of dismantled cedar fencing is about the maximum that a Saturn SW2 can hold.

Our first step is to dismantle the wood down to the raw boards.  Pull nails, remove screws, toss scraps into the burn pile.  The bent, rusty nails and screws will add up quickly, but can be taken to a scrapyard to recover some of the cost of your effort if they're not reusable.  Other folks say that burying them around fruit trees will help replenish iron in the soil, but beware of anything that's not rusty-looking, since it probably has some kind of corrosion inhibitor added, such as a zinc- or polymer-based coating (or both), which will keep the iron from getting into the soil while adding toxic (zinc) or plastic junk to your dirt.

Then, the boards.  Occasionally, a board will be fit for use as-is.  If it's not too splintery or dirty and the intended application isn't too cuddly, the board can go directly to any number of reclaimed wood projects.  But what if we need a closet shelf that won't snag sweaters, a nightstand that doesn't go bump in the night, or counter top to use as a kitchen workspace?

Enter the bench top planer.  (It works just as well on a garage floor or in an apartment living room as on a bench top.)  We got it for $50 on Craigslist, and it's the key to getting the wood from something someone would leave in their driveway for free to something Katie would allow in the house.  This particular planer can handle boards up to 5" thick.  For boards that are thicker than that (e.g., a 1 x >5), we set up our router table to be a jointer or just use a hand plane.

Usually a single pass will take off all the surface splinters and dirt.  A second or third pass takes out most of the remaining dings, leaving just a few artistic nail holes.  (Top = before, bottom = after.)  It's important to measure the new dimensions of the boards once they look nice, since the planer can remove anywhere from 1/32" up to 1/8" per pass.  Projects don't fit together nearly as nicely with an extra 1/8" on the end of every board, even if you do cut the wood square!

For Jake's projects, everything at this point gets screwed, glued, and called 'done!'   The shelf boards in this closet shelf are sections of old cedar fence planks that are probably too thin for almost any other application. (Maybe shimming door jambs would be ok.)

For Katie's projects there are a few extra steps like sanding and/or staining.

This is Katie's end table before sanding.  What a beaut'!

2 x 4s seem to be the most readily available form of free wood, which is great if you want to build a butcher block-style counter top or something similarly sturdy.  This thing will be heavy as heck, but able to withstand plenty of pounding!   In the background, a pile of unusable wood is visible.  Those are boards that are too warped, too short (i.e., scraps), or occasionally, too punky.  But for us, it's a beneficial side effect of collecting free boards because it provides a continuous supply of bone-dry firewood for heating the workspace.

What steps do you take when working with abandoned wood?  What are your favorite reclaimed wood projects?  Let us know in the comments section below!


  1. so, do you have a cedar smelling closet?

  2. It's not as cedary-smelling as you might expect, but it doesn't smell bad, that's for sure!