In case you haven't heard, reclaimed lumber is a hot commodity. Really hot. Only a few years ago, people did not give reclaimed wood a second look. Today, if you have an old barn or wooden structure on your property, you are probably eyeing it and wondering how much money it might be worth if it was torn down and sold as lumber?
Tearing down buildings is one of the things we do at North Cal, so we get lots of calls from folks looking to sell their old barn wood. Not to diminish the value of antique lumber, but just because it is old does not necessarily make it valuable. Some reclaimed woods are worth the time and money to prepare it for reuse, while others are not. How do you know the difference? To help sort out the confusion, let's start with some basic questions.
1. What is the type of wood, and how old is it?
Knowing a few basic facts about the lumber can help you determine if it is worth reclaiming. Certain wood species simply aren't available in today's market, for example, American Chestnut, which was nearly wiped out in the early 20th century by blight. Generally speaking, the rarer the wood, the more valuable it is.
Even common wood varieties can be more valuable when they come from an antique source. Douglas Fir, for example, has always been in plentiful supply in the U.S. However, the fir trees harvested a century ago were considerably larger and older than the trees coming from managed forests today. The Doug fir in an old Craftsman home is more dense and has a tighter grain pattern than the fir you might be able to pick up at your local lumberyard. So, if you know that your wood is of a variety or quality that is currently unavailable, it's more likely that your building may be worth something.
2. How stable is the wood?
Wood is a sturdy material that can withstand the test of time. That is precisely why the reclaimed market exists - because the old wood still has a useful life beyond the life of the building in which it was installed.
Beyond normal wear and tear, is there any rot in the wood? Is the condition so poor that the material won't stand up to being dismantled, shipped, or possibly re-milled? Many beams, for example, when they are reclaimed are not strong enough to be used for structural support. They could be reused in a decorative way, such as a fireplace mantle, however.
Has the wood been exposed outside for an extended period of time? The long-term effects of rain, wind, sun and snow will degrade some woods to a point that they are unusable. The old beams may be checked or twisted, those are cracks or splits in the wood that arise from age.
You should also consider what might be lurking inside the wood, either on the surface, in the case of old paint, or under the surface, in the case of bugs or hidden nails or screws. If there is lead paint or asbestos on the wood, that will make it extremely difficult to reuse.
We are able to mitigate such material hazards by kiln drying the wood and/or treating it for insects. We can also remove any old nails if it's going to be re-sawn as well. All of these processes, however, add time and cost money.
3. How much wood do you have?
You should know that much of your lumber will be lost during deconstruction and re-manufacture. In some cases, as much as 2/3 of it will go to waste. You will find that many boards are simply too damaged to reuse. The lesson here is this - Purchasing lumber for use in remanufacture requires a sophisticated buyer to minimize up-front costs. So please keep this in mind when you are considering whether it might be worth your time to tear down that building after all.
Finally, your old barn might very well be worth something, especially if it is in good condition and the wood is hard to come by. But don't count on getting rich or winning the lottery. You should calculate the amount of usable wood you might get and factor that against how much work it is going to take to process the wood into lumber, before knocking that old barn down.