One of the most frequent questions I get asked in regards to building things out of reclaimed materials is "where's a good place to find reclaimed wood?". The answer I give usually varies depending on:
If a person isn't looking to break the bank, then local options can vary depending on where a person happens to live. Here in St. Louis, we're pretty lucky in that we've got - in a good portion of the city - a relatively intact housing stock inside the city limits that dates back to the late 19th and early 20th century. Every now and then a house will get demo'd or, which is more typically the case, rehabbed and there are opportunities to pick up some old, turn-of-the-century lumber that would otherwise head to the landfill. This can be a great source for fairly solid 1x, 2x and even 3x pine material. It's cost-friendly, although there's a fair amount of elbow grease required to harvest, haul and clean up the material. Similarly, if getting dirty isn't a person's idea of a great time, architectural salvage operations can be a great source for reclaimed materials. The price is a little higher than if you went and personally salvaged the material, but not by much.
Sticking with the St. Louis example, if a person is willing to travel a little outside the city - like I did today - or if a person just lives in a very, very rural area, there are still a decent number of old barns and log cabins that, if one knows where to look and who to talk to (or can access something like craigslist, as sketchy as craigslist can be), get taken down every now and then and provide opportunities for reclaiming predominantly pine or oak material. That said, if the barn is still pretty solid and/or has a lot of very desirable or relatively uncommon material (like hand hewn beams), the owner will sometimes try to sell the barn outright to an outfit that'll come deconstruct the barn and then sell off the materials, so these opportunities sometimes come and go pretty quickly.
Either way, rural or urban, there's usually somebody, somewhere, taking down on old building or is willing to let an old structure get taken down...you just have to do a little hunting and reach out to the building owners. More times than not, when I cold call somebody about what I think might be an opportunity to get my hands on some lumber, the person on the other end is pretty receptive and accommodating.
But enough about that.
Today I went and checked out a place a little northwest of the city with an old friend. She and her husband are in a situation where they've come into some (family) land and are planning on building a house on it, but they first need to clean up the property a little bit. Part of cleaning up the property, involves taking down a house - built in the late 19th or very early 20th century - on the property (the property also has a barn and the remnants of a few smaller structures). The house is way, way past the point of being fixed up and Mother Nature has slowly been doing some reclaiming of her own, but the house has a lot of sentimental value to some of the family members (the family has owned the land since the mid 19th century) so it can't just be flat out demo'd, which I can totally appreciate. The goal is to ultimately salvage as much (re)usable material from the existing house as possible and put it to decorative use in the new house, and build furniture with the reclaimed lumber for various family members. As a guy that deals with reclaimed wood quite a bit, I was called in to put some eyes on the structure(s) and give everybody my $.02. Needless to say, I was pretty excited about the opportunity.
I was not disappointed. In fact, I geeked out enough that I'm sure I kept everybody there - giving me a tour of the property and various dilapidated structures - longer than they planned on being there. Part of my fascination with old buildings, rural or urban, is seeing the craftsmanship that went into them, learning about their history and hearing some of the stories tied to the structures. The other part of my fascination is that I simply get to be a little kid again and go "exploring": vacant houses...beat up barns...buildings with histories no living person knows of...romping through fields and creeks and trees...pretty cool stuff.
The first leg of the tour took me through the house. It's got a stone foundation and was originally a 2-story, fairly rectangular building, although a few additions were seemingly put on over the years. There were too many trees in the way to get a decent pic of the front of the house, but this is the back side, with what had once been a long porch stretching across this face of the building already demo'd:
The next pic is a little more of a close-up shot of the back side of the house. With some of the siding off the house, you can definitely see some of the really amazing, old-world construction techniques that have kept this build standing as long as it has, even while exposed to the elements. This is something I nerd out to.
One such example is - if you follow the big horizontal beam all the way to the left, where it meets up with a beefy vertical post - the mortise and tenon joint. But, it's not JUST a simple mortise and tenon joint, it's also a dado'd joint, with the horizontal beam resting in a little notch (the "dado") cut into the vertical post. Those two little circular dots, those are pegs that hold the mortise and tenon joint together, which keeps the beam from moving horizontally. The notch in the vertical post keeps the horizontal beam from moving vertically. The end result is a rock solid joint, sturdy in multiple directions, all built into 1 simple connection...and it was all done with hand tools! Pretty amazing stuff.
I don't know how much - if any - of that big beam is salvageable, but I bet there's at least one or two in the house just like it that are.
The basement - or cellar - under the original part of the house is pretty wild. There's old mason jars scattered throughout the house, the contents of which wildlife has helped themselves to over the years, but the basement is mason jar headquarters. Shelves apparently lined the cellar walls at one time and were filled with food being preserved in the jars, and it's easy to envision how much hard work went into that way of life a century ago.
It seemed like a lot of the wood we could view from the cellar was pretty rotten, but we identified some definite salvage opportunities. It's hard to completely give up on a beam as big as the one in the following pic until you can say for certain that it's 100% rotten; hand hewn beams that big don't come along every day, and they're big enough that even if there's some rot here and there, sometimes it can be worked around if enough healthy meat is left..
The unfortunate thing about this house is that it's been exposed to rain for quite some time, and there is a LOT of rotten stuff. The plaster just crumbles off the wall, and anything that's been exposed to rain has been exposed for a long enough time that it's pretty well shot.
That said, there's a healthy number of interior wall studs, and probably some of the floor joists - which are massive - that can be salvaged if demo goes the way we all hope it does. We tiptoed through the entire place and I didn't feel like I was going to fall through anything (it helped that we all avoided the few spongy spots in the floors), but it becomes a different story once things start getting dismantled. With a building this far gone, the best course of action is usually to try to pull parts of the building down and sort through the rubble on the ground.
Amazingly, one feature of the house that seems to be almost untouched by water damage or years of vacancy is the stair case.
Aside from being crazy stout, it's pretty rad that it's got that little 90-degree bend at the top. Again...hand tools, or at the most, very, very primitive mechanical tools. That's the good news: it's intact and solid. That's also bad news, in that this thing was so well put together, it was essentially made to not be taken apart. Trying to salvage the thing will be an exercise in patience, problem-solving skills and, inevitably, the operation of any number of saws with borderline surgical precision. I've seen these salvaged before, but I've never seen one removed without some collateral damage.
When we got done walking through the house, I learned that there was another small structure on the property off in the distance. I was intrigued, and the more questions I asked the more intrigued I became. I think my hosts picked up on my interest in checking the thing out, so they graciously drove me back to the little building.
While driving through fields and across creeks, I kept asking questions. As it turns out, the building we were driving to check out, referred to as the schoolhouse, had possibly been where "the help" lived. I don't know that my hosts had ever gotten the full, 100% accurate story behind "the help" (you can probably ballpark it, but nobody really knows for sure) or that particular building, but still...it's a structure, and it's apparently got some pretty fascinating history. In later years, or more recently, it had been used as a corn crib and a place to store hay.
I couldn't wait to see it.
The funny thing about this structure is that, due to its tin roof, the interior is in exponentially better shape than the house. Sure, it's got a bit of a lean, but aside from that, it's got a lot of solid material. I don't know that there are any immediate plans to deconstruct the thing, but it's definitely a neat little building with a potentially very storied past.
After checking out that little structure, we headed towards the barn. She's seen better days for sure, but she may have a little life left in her. That's the owners' hope, anyhow.
I'm by no means any kind of barn expert, but I think this particular barn is what's known as a double-pen barn, meaning it's a barn consisting of two "pens" on either end and a space to drive something - wagon, truck, whatever - between the two of them, all under one big roof. It's in rough shape, but it's still got some pretty cool features, like the track for a hay trolley and all the various types of joinery, like this half-lap joint:
Of course, no barn is really complete without barn doors, right? That space to drive something between each pen that I mentioned previously, it's accessed through these two doors:
It's tough to get a sense of scale from the pic, but those doors are BIG.
There's a lot of good material in that barn, but the barn is also still halfway solid. More importantly, leaving the barn upright and trying to rebuild some of it seems to be the ticket to getting the blessing from the family to remove the house, so...the barn stays as is.
Like I said before, she's seen better days. But whether they're brand new, gently used or past their prime, the ol' barn is an American icon, especially in the rural parts of the country. As much as I'd love to build some stuff with the lumber in the ol' girl, I can 100% stand behind the idea of trying to squeeze a few more years out of 'er.
Some day (soon, hopefully), some of the stuff you saw in these pics will become furniture, and decorative items in a new house. It's going to take a silly amount of work, and probably a little luck, but that's part of the draw (for me, anyhow) to working with reclaimed materials...taking as much pride in the construction of solid, well-built new stuff as the craftsmen that originally used this lumber so obviously took in their work over a century ago.