BuildingDesignGeneralHow toRetrofittingWaste Systems & Recycling

Repurposing Wood

Not so long ago, my wife Emma and I bought our property, a place for which we’d been looking for nearly four years. And, in doing so, the enormity of what we were about to undertake sunk in. I’d been gathering up wood in anticipation of us needing to build a home, but the pace had been leisurely and the collected resources a bit aimless in there (re)purpose.

Amazingly, the property came with a bonus: There was already a structure on it. A picnic shelter, that is our future home already had a slab and a roof. This was a major relief because we’d been contemplating how to balance foundations, ecology, and building codes for the floor of the house. Suddenly, that was done. We’d have never voluntarily poured concrete, but we are happy to (re)use a slab. As for the roof, it was an instant spot to keep materials out of the weather.

However, with the dimensions of our home now official and the plan roughed out in a real way, I started calculating the amount of wood we had versus what we needed. We were short. Very much so. Hoping to get started within the next year, I realized we were going to have to seriously up our efforts for squirreling away some wood for the project. We wanted to repurpose the bulk, if not all, of our lumber, so that added a challenge, amongst the many before us, that many builders don’t have to worry about.


What We Had Stacked

From the moment we’d decided we were going to live in North Carolina, I’d started looking out for lumber. I started with pallets. At our last home in Guatemala, I’d become quite the pallet enthusiast, particularly building tables, benches, and garden furnishings. So, I got a steady thing going with the local hardware store, which was providing one or two pallets a week. Then, on a visit to a local plant nursery, I’d ask about some piles they had in the back. I ended up with over 30 pallets all at once. It’s a hell of a lot of work dismantling pallets, but it was a great start.

The collection grew. Somewhere in the mix of disassembling pallets, I caught on that some reconstruction was going on near where I work. Several dumpster dives provided a couple dozen nice boards, many of which became a table. Additionally, the nursery had let Emma and I sort through a rubbish pile they’d amassed when remodeling some of their greenhouses. My step-father stepped up and rescued some large posts and beams his neighbor was throwing out. I thought things were humming along.

Then, on another visit to the nursery, the owner offered me a lot of plastic they’d salvaged when taking down a couple of hoop houses. When I said I was more looking for wood than plastic, he asked if I was interested in taking down an old shed behind his daughter’s new house, pointing next door at it. Over the next month, I took it down: thick, weathered planks from the walls, flooring, joists, rafters, studs, and a tin roof, under which it now all sits stacked neatly waiting to be repurposed. I thought we were well on our way to a home.



When Reality Sets In and Dreams Come True

However, I started doing basic figuring after our purchase was finished, and I realized we barely had enough wood for one eight-meter wall. And, in a mild panic, I knew that, while old sheds are occasionally available, it would be a long time coming for enough of those to give us sufficient lumber for a home. I knew we had to change our approach, become more active in our pursuit of old wood. We’d maybe even have to pay for some.

My first solution was to talk with a tree guy I knew. He was constantly cutting down quality wood trees, like oak and walnut and cherry. So, I thought I could offer him some cash here and there to carry trunks to a local sawmill to have them cut into boards. There are parts of this idea that I still like. The wood is basically wasted otherwise, dumped off in a hollow somewhere. However, while this would be cheaper than buying new lumber from a lumberyard, it would still be costly. More importantly, it would require a lot of waiting for the wood to cure. We’d be at least a year, if lucky, from the first of the lumber being ready to use.

I started looking on Craigslist for wood, individuals getting rid of leftovers or unused lots. Lo and behold, I scrolled across a listing for an old house — “You take it down. We clean it up.” — for just a couple hundred bucks. It was two-room house with a rock chimney and a porch. Most of the framing wood was oak, with the floor joists being black locust. The siding was heart pine. And, it had a lot of good tin as well. It would provide the bulk of what we needed!



Taking Down an Old House to Build a New House

The house was from 1918, right at 100 years old, and though the fire department was lobbying the owner to let them burn it for practice, he had too much adoration for the lumber in it. The problem was that he didn’t need it. He’d already built his home from other repurposed lumber, so he’d listed it, we think, in hopes of finding a young (we both just turned 40) couple who’d adore it the same way. He and his wife have enjoyed watching our progress.

We are about two months in to the process now, and taking down a house is no joke, especially when the ultimate goal is to reclaim the wood rather than simply destroy the building. We’ve been doing it by the truckload (a Ford Ranger), putting in three-to-four-hour days once or twice a week. It’s incredibly hard work but equally as rewarding. Salvaging a quality board feels amazing, doing several truckloads of them is inspiring.

The walls of the new house seem to be coming together, at least in theory. We should now have enough siding and likely extra stuff for shelving, doors, flooring, and a loft. We’ve enjoyed heading out to the “house” for our work days, sharing the time together and developing a feeling for the skin and bones and heart of our home. We love that the wood has a story, that we now get to be part of that story, and that likely much of it will love on from there.

Photo: Boards


Other Sources of Reclaimed Wood

 We are fortunate that North Carolina is a stocked source of reclaimed wood. The countryside is wrought with old barns and cabins on their last legs. “Barn” wood, unfortunately for us, has become a trendy thing in the last few years, so often these dilapidated buildings are sold for more than we expect to pay for our house in totalt. It seems that some people are willing to pay $10,000 to take down old barns for wood. We are really thankful to have found the deal we did.

With that in mind, and knowing not everyone will be as fortunate economically or with their timing, I thought I’d offer up some other sources of reclaimed wood for those interested in taking that route in their building and carpentry projects:

  • Pallets and crates are usually available at garden centers, hardware stores, and appliance centers. Some still give them away, though the popularity of pallet wood has now been realized. More and more, companies are selling them rather than giving them away. At least they are being reused one way or another.
  • Dumpsters at construction/demolition sites, whether new buildings or remodeling gigs, can be surprisingly rich sources of quality lumber. Modern building methods are ridiculously wasteful, and materials—particularly wood—from demolition is seldom repurposed.
  • Furniture builders require nearly flawless boards, so they eventually amass stacks of lumber that is less-than-perfect but still worthy of most projects the average person would do. They’ll often sell these stacks, the whole job lot, for a steal of a deal. This wood is usually good stuff like oak, cherry, maple, and poplar. Lumber mills and yards will do similar stuff when they get overstocked. Some places do annual clearance sales.
  • For those doing small projects and willing to spend a little money, salvage yards and reclaimed wood stores are becoming a common thing. These are great places to find live-edge slabs or a couple of nice planks for a project. However, they tend to sell by the board foot, and the price can build up fairly quickly.
  • Craigslist, Freecycle, and all the other various online outlets are fantastic sources for finding old lumber. These can be from people cleaning out their garages to something like we found. Sometimes it’s free, rarely is it overpriced. The point is that, for those who’ll take a look around, there’s no need to go out a buy new lumber.

So far, so good on us finding our wood, but I’d love to hear what others’ experiences have turned up. And, any other tips for picking up and using reclaimed wood would be much appreciated.


Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.

One Comment

  1. Don’t forget to casually ask women in hardware stores. Many of us have hubbies whose collections of wood we would gladly see go to someone who will use it! ;-)

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