Recycling Old Wood

Bill Sitkin says, "At the heart of recycling, for me, is a great love for this planet and the awesome natural systems that support life here. I have always been a 'dumpster diver' and developed a used building materials and deconstruction business known as The ReStore in Crestone, Colorado. I look forward to your questions on anything about recycling materials or deconstructing buildings."

Questions and Answers

Q: I am trying to look for prices on recycled wood. I have 10" lap board cedar on a dormer that was built in 1969. Granted it isn't that old but I sure hate to throw it out. Is there a price directory of all wood that I can log onto to see what current recycled lumber goes for? Also is there a price directory for recycled aluminum and that kind of materials?

A: Try www.resourceyard.org for pricing. You may want to think outside the box for the siding and think art and craft items. I use that same siding for picture frames, bird houses and bat houses. The price of aluminum seems to fluctuate. I did a google search for - Recycled Aluminum Prices - and came up with a good list of that has that information.

Q: I would like to know what types of things I can make from old barn wood and poles. I would like to just add cute little pieces to the landscape. Do you know of any free plans for this or websites with free pics and ideas. Any suggestion you can offer would be greatly appreciated. I have a lot of this type material that I would like to somehow use.

A: As an artist and craftsperson, I am constantly on the lookout for exactly what you have. I love creating little signposts for plantings to garden divas to chase away bad vibes. There is a book, Art from Found Materials (or something like that) that has wonderful ideas. I tend to just let my mind wander and let the environment I am designing for make suggestions.

Q: For reasons of environmental sensitivity, beauty, and history, I'm trying to use salvaged barn wood in a home renovation project that I'm doing. But I've started to become concerned that the wood might be treated with various chemicals and/or pesticides that would survive the re-milling process and be toxic to my family. Do you think this is a possibility? How could I go about determining if the wood is safe for my home.

A: (Jennifer Corson) You are approaching this reuse situation in the correct manor. Salvaged wood can be a wonderful material to work with, though also brings with it many potential irritants. Barn wood may be have been in contact with hazardous material such as oil, lead or pesticides. It can also harbor insects and carry mold spores. If you are able to mill the wood exposing four new surfaces (take great caution locating foreign metal object, ie. nails and spikes, with a metal detector!) then your only concern should be any moisture/mold or penetrated hazardous material. A good way to check is to isolate a sample of the wood in a plastic bag for a couple of weeks. Open the sample with family members there to see if there is any sensitivity to smelling the sample. A more thorough check would be to take a sample of the wood to a hazardous material removal company for testing.

Q: We are in the process of converting our garage into a family room. I have access to used cedar fence pickets. These are standard 1" x 4" x 6ft. We are wanting to take the pickets and convert them to use as the interior wall covering instead of paneling. Is this reasonable? The ceiling of one of the adjacent rooms is a tongue and groove pine. Something along that line is the look we are going for. What are the steps involved and the equipment necessary convert the fencing into slats for use as an interior wall covering?

A: (Jennifer Corson) - use a hand-held metal detector on pickets prior to any re-milling of pickets, rusted off nails can be dangerous during re-milling
- verify that no lead-based paint has been applied to pickets. LBP can be dangerous if it becomes airborne during sawing or sanding processes
- consider using pickets as a wainscot (vertically applied from floor up to 42" h, or full height of picket) with a drywall upper half
- use a horizontal wood strapping (1 x 3) at 6" off floor and 36" off floor for a continuous attachment point for the pickets
- test for the look of the picket in an unobtrusive area prior to starting entire project

Q: In the Austin metroplex area, there seems to be a proliferation of used wooden pallets. Is there any building style that incorporates this type of non-treated reclaimed wood? I'd love to be able to use this for something.

A: Pallet homes have been around for quite some time now. There are several techniques to using them. First one needs to rebuild them so that the slats are together. The best method I have found is to use a sawzall with a metal blade and cut the slats off at the nails then rebuild them. Next, start to frame your walls by overlapping the pallets to give you double thickness pallets. You can insulate with straw, plastic, paper or whatever else you prefer just by stuffing it into the pallets.

Pallets have also been used for walls by driving T-bar posts into the ground and sliding the pallets over the posts. You can stucco them when you are done. There should be more information on the web.

Q: I have searched the internet over and over for some type of plans for using wood pallets to build a small one room cabin. I have seen the pallet shed and chicken coup, and was wondering if someone has more? I have access to hundreds that will be filling the local landfill and this would also help with lumber cost.

A: I believe you have already found your answer in the pallet wood shed. By combining that information with how-to's on insulating and waterproofing you could have a great little one room cabin. That site is www.summerville-novascotia.com/PalletWoodShed.

Q: I have been given a tobacco barn that is approximately 15-20 years old. I would like to reuse as much of the materials from the barn as possible. The barn has been painted black within the last 5-7 years and was likely painted at least once before that. Are there health risks from reusing the barn siding in the construction of a cabin?

A: My first thoughts are: Will you be using the wood on the exterior or interior? I do not see a  problem with exterior use. I have heard of folks using wood from a tobacco barn for interior use but do not know if they treated the wood or not. I would assume that there would be no health risk as these barns were only used for drying purposes. You may want to do some research into the tobacco drying process to see if any insecticides are used. I cannot give you a definitive answer on this one but I hope it will help in your research.

Q: My original thoughts were that we would use the barn siding for both interior and exterior of our cabin. The lumber is only painted on one side so I thought: 1) for exterior & interior - we could put the painted side facing the interior of the cabin. The inside of this painted wood would be covered in black felt paper and insulation. Plus what ever new surface we put on the walls. 2) for flooring - we could turn the painted side down toward the ground with insulation on the ground side of the wood. Does any of that make sense? Any more thoughts?

A: Yes, this makes total sense.  If you were real ambitious the floors could be sanded and sealed with one of the great environmentally friendly sealants on the market today.

Q: I'm looking to build a retaining wall using railroad ties. The wall will be right at 3' high and about 75' long (along the side of my driveway). I am wondering about support for the wall. I have rebar that I am intending on using, but would that be enough? Any input would help!

A: (Kelly) People have successfully used railroad ties for retainers before. You can connect the ties together with rebar stakes, but that will not necessarily keep the wall from toppling over. You can also run the rebar down into the ground a ways, and this might do the trick, especially if you use very heavy duty rebar (greater than 1/2"). Another approach to make the wall more stable would be to lean it back into the area you are trying to retain. Or sometimes people will install perpendicular anchors from near the top of the wall that go into the bank some distance to help hold them in place.

Q: I was wondering if it OK to use wood pallets for projects, or are they toxic?

A: Pallets are great for any building project. If you need to pull them apart, use a sawzall (reciprocating saw) with a metal blade to cut the nails that attach the planks to the base wood. Trying to pull the nails with a nail puller does not work as the nails are made not to come out.

Q: My husband and I recently tore down an old barn and would really like to find a way to reuse the wood as flooring in our home, but after spending hours on the phone and internet we cannot find any resources that tell us IF it can be done or HOW to do it....any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. There are plenty of sites out there that offer to sell us a product that would accomplish the same thing, but we would like to use our own wood and do the work ourselves.

A: A lot depends on what you want the final floor to look like and what shape the wood is in as well as the thickness. Do you want a even shiny look or rough and worn? The thickness will determine how much of a subfloor you will need. If the planks are at least an inch thick there is the possibility of putting them directly onto the floor joists. I would use a good construction grade glue in addition to nails or screws. Square or star drive deck screws are best as they will not pull up over time and are easier to drive. If the
planks are less than an inch thick then a 3/4" - 1" subfloor is a good idea. If your planks have a consistent thickness and you want a polished look then get a floor sander otherwise using a wire brush on a drill works well to bring out the grain. It is best to do test planks first to see if you are getting what you want before jumping in and finding out that what you are doing is not what you want. Spend some time dialing in your technique and start in the corners or around the edges.

Should we put some kind of sealer on it after installation?

I suppose that is a personal choice.  There are many great sealers on the market that are environmentally friendly.  The advantage of a sealer is that it can protect you from splinters and protect the floor from stains and such.  You may want to test out some of the oils that are also available.

Q: I am looking to sell wooden pallets but I have not found any buyers in the border of south Texas. I work in construction and often I am given the pallets that are left behind. I like the idea of recycling.

A: (Kelly) You might contact:  infoATworldhandsproject.org or Alfred von Bachmayr at 505.989.7000 for information about their work with using used pallets to make roof trusses in areas around the Mexican border. I applaud your interest in keeping the trees!

Q: I have an old building  that is pretty old and almost ready to fall down on its own, but the lumber is all grayed and weathered but still strong. Maybe you could give me some ideas of who to contact in my area that might be interested.

A: Some ideas: List the building on craigslist.com ; put notices up at supermarkets; ask sales people at lumber yards.

Q: I am currently ripping out old oak wood flooring in our kitchen. Do you know anyone in the Chicago area that would want to take or want to purchase reclaimed oak flooring? I hate to just throw it out, but we can't reuse it.

A: There are several ways for a dedicated recycler to share building materials.  If there is a Habitat for Humanity ReStore in your area you can take the oak there and it will be well received.  Putting small notices on supermarket bulletin boards has worked for me as well as listing it on Craigslist.  If I lived near you I would jump at the chance to pick up old oak flooring.

Q: We live just outside of Fort Wayne, Indiana. In August we had a fire in our home and I am looking into rebuilding ecofriendly. My husband wants to save the framing since the house was built in 1889 but I am not sure. Can the framing be saved and still build an ecofriendly home with strawbale, cordwood or earthbags? The exterior is 100 yr old brick that is falling off now.

A: My first hit is to make sure the framing was not damaged or weakened in the fire.  I have deconstructed late 19th century log cabins where the logs have been preserved remarkably well and even in better condition than the new lumber being offered for sale these days.  Get a second opinion from someone who knows wood.  If the bricks are to be removed then think about alternative uses for them.  Trombe walls, flooring and garden paths are some good uses.  Maybe a patio barbecue could evolve.  Yes, the framing can be built into an ecofriendly home, as recycling building materials is one of the best ways to reuse these materials.

Q: I've recently used salvaged wood from a home built in the early 1800's. There is obvious pest damage. What can I use to kill any pests that might still be living in the wood. The wood was used to build furniture and a barn/cottage.

A: I have not run across this problem yet in my recycle work mainly because I avoid using wood that is infested.  Are you sure there are still critters in the wood?  If they are termites or some kind of beetle you can actually hear them.  Does sawdust come out of the holes?

Q: I work for a large corporation in CT which generates a lot of waste wood in the form of large crates, boxes and pallets. Unfortunately, it's uneconomical to return the boxes and crates to the shipper. I'm trying to find a green outlet for this wood. It's free for the taking as is. I'll greatly appreciate any ideas you may have how we can donate this wood for re-use.

A: (Kelly) There should be some good, local use for this wood! Are there any biomass energy plants in your area? See http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/solar.renewables/page/wood/wood.html Some of the wood might interest the recycled building materials outlets, like Habitat for Humanity's Restores. Or wood pellet manufacturers? Or even as fire wood for needy families...

Q: I found some pallets with really nice wood; they look "new". I'm interested in turning them into wood floors, but was wondering if you had any advice. They look to be about an inch thick (the pallets are heavy!) How would I prep the wood? I noticed that wood flooring has a type of "lip" that's connects the pieces together, is this important? Could I rent the tools needed from Home Depot, etc. in order to "prep" the wood? Am I biting off more then I can chew? I'm going to try this room by room. The house is older, probably around the 1920s (that's about the date the neighborhood where I live it was estimated.)

A: Are you planning on taking the pallets apart? I would think you would want to. They nail these together with a special nail that makes it hard to pull the nails. My technique is to get a sawzall (reciprocating saw) with a metal cutting blade and cut the top slats on the back of the slats. Then you will have to countersink the nails a bit so that you can sand them. I would not advise a planer as the nails might ruin the blades. I like a hand held grinder with a fiberglass sanding disk. Do a final sanding with a belt sander or some other sanding machine. To nail your wood to the subfloor you may want to try various methods from screws (for design appeal) to using a wood flooring nailer that drives nails at an angle on the edge of the boards. Finishing is up to you. Stains or clear. Before you invest a lot of time and energy though you may want to experiment on just one pallet.

Q: I have some old wooden painted fence panels that I was thinking of reusing to make a kitchen cabinet. Can I use that wood and is there anything I can do to somehow preserve the look and protect it?

A: First test for lead paint, especially if they are going in the kitchen. I am sure you will not want to sand them so as to retain the look you want but I am just warning you not to sand them due to lead particles getting in your lungs unless you wear a respirator or are using a chemical to strip them. If the paint is already peeling then any seal coat you put on them will likely peel off sooner than later. It is best to do a test with whatever you choose to seal with to see how it reacts to the paint that is on the cabinets. Other than that they should look great.

Q: Using old wood from corn crib that has character because it still has some paint on it. We want to make picture frames from them to hold a picture of the corn crib that has now been taken down. It has chips in the paint, but the paint is the part that makes it interesting. Is there a way to keep this affect without making this a totally hazardous piece of artwork. Can we seal it with something?

A: Use either a gloss, semi-gloss or matte art spray found in most craft supply stores.

Q: I want to recycle old fence boards for indoor uses/projects. Is there a good way to seal or treat the wood first to make sure I am not bringing bugs into my home?

A: I doubt there would be any bugs but if you want to be sure you can use a product called Lifetime Treatment. It is a powder that is mixed with water. We use it to protect wood in greenhouses.

Q: I would like to know if I need to treat old, dead grapevine from a vineyard for use in a home decor project in my home? I am concerned about termites or fungus or other insects infecting my house.

A: As far as I know old grapevine does not need to be treated.

Q: We have redwood fencing 3 and 4" wide and plan to use it as exterior siding for our tiny house. The house has tar paper on it. We'd like to bevel the edges (30-45 degrees) and place them horizontally on the house. We figure the water would drip away from the house instead of work its way behind the siding. But all those nail/screw holes through the tar paper can't be good. Any ideas how to attach this siding?

A: (Kelly) I have used recycled redwood siding for a tiny house before, and it worked out great. I oriented the redwood boards vertically with a board and batten pattern. They were old fence boards and weren't long enough to run the whole height of the house, so I beveled the butting ends to shed water, just as you are planning. This should be a rather effective way to keep water out of the wall. With the tar paper backing, it all should be just fine. I wouldn't worry about the nail or screw penetrations because they naturally seal up against the shank of the fastener, and there should be very little moisture to ever test it.

Q: We are replacing the siding on our 1956 house. I would like to recycle the wood, if possible. I believe it is cedar and quite thick (maybe 3/4” to 1”). Can I use it to make a fence? It is painted so I guess we would have to remove the paint and then stain it.

A: A lovely plan. There are several ways to proceed. Lightly sand (as if painting the siding on the house) then paint. Removing paint completely is quite the chore but very doable. The easiest and most ecologically friendly is to find someone with a wood planer and take off the paint and a small bit of wood beneath (maybe 1/32" to 1/16"). Or use an electric orbital sander with progressively finer grits of sand paper. Then again what the finished product looks like is up to you. Maybe you like a used worn look or maybe you like freshly painted or stained. It is your choice so maybe do a few test pieces then visualize what they would look like as a fence.

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