Using Recycled Wood

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Blog entry by Ethan Sincox posted 12-28-2006 11:20 PM 2112 reads 1 time favorited 7 comments Add to Favorites Watch

WARNING – This is journal writing at its best; blog writing at its worst… When I’m truly in my journal-writing mode, length is unimportant to me. This is not really good “blog” material – but it is how I write and how I unwind. I needed a bit of writing to destress today.

The project last posted by Frank touched on a subject I’ve been warming up to for some time now – the use of reclaimed and recycled wood. With his artistic vision and creative techniques, he brought life back into something which most people wouldn’t even burn in a bon fire.

My parents have two farms in mid-Missouri. They live on the first farm and share crop the second. On the second farm was a house that had been there for over 100 years. I remember several trips out to that farm as a child. We used to explore it with some trepidation, as the back porch had collapsed several years earlier, some of the floors were not totally sound, and the attic was home to a family of raccoons. At one point, when we were a bit older and more adventurous, my younger brother and I took up some of the floor boards in one or two rooms. We didn’t find the buried treasure we were hoping for, but we did find some unusual structural elements beneath the floor. As it turns out, part of the house had started off as a log cabin. Further inquiries dated the cabin to about the time of Daniel Boone (indeed, the Daniel Boone home is located just three miles from this farm!).

A few years ago, my older brother moved onto the second farm. They have two children, so unfortunately the house had to go. It was not even the slightly-safe structure it used to be when I was a kid. Twenty more years of neglect had made it a dangerous place, especially for two small children. My brother is much like me; we’ve always had a respect for and an appreciation of the past. So he donated the cabin to a guy who dismantles log cabins and reassembles them on some property of his where he restores them and turns them into cabins used for camping.

Because the house had been added on to so much over the years, the removal of the log cabin portion still left more than half the structure intact. So my brother and I began down the long road of dismantling a house. My initial comment about the house being unsound was actually quite wrong. It was still unsafe – don’t get me wrong – there was broken glass everywhere, a water-filled partial basement used for mosquito breeding, sharp nails, broken bottles, and the usual detritus found in such places. But aside from a few rotten boards here and there, structurally it was quite sound and solid and it took us a long, long time to bring it down to the ground.

I learned a lot about structures built 100 years ago, and it is interesting to compare them to the structural techniques used today. Once I removed the wallpaper and the small-piece patchwork of wood sheathing from the inside walls, I could see how the house was framed up, many times with double jack studs and additional cross-bracing. It was all full-dimensional lumber (a 2×4 was really 2” by 4”) and all of the lumber used was probably cut and nailed up green that day. 99% of the nails were driven through the connecting boards then hammered over for additional steadfastness, and 10% of those nails might be better classified as “spikes”...

Once I had that sheathing removed, I stood back in awe and wonder. The other side of the framing was a goldmine of white oak lumber. After the framing was erected, the entire outside of the house was sheathed in 10’ long, 1” thick, oak boards that ranged from 6” to 14” in width. Aside from the nail holes and a few splits in some of the wider boards (which you’ll find in most any recycled wood), they were pristine. You couldn’t see these boards from the outside of the house, however, as they were covered in clapboard siding and two or three layers of (probably lead) paint. They had been protected from the elements for a hundred years.

After removing a few boards in sizes smaller than I was happy with (i.e. broken), I figured out the best technique for removing them from the framing. Of course, the first step was to remove the clap board siding. The second step involved straightening all of the bent-over nails. (whew!) Finally, I could slowly pry each board away from the frame, inch by inch, until it came free in (most often) one piece.

After two summers of this slow and tedious work, I had as much of the board lumber removed from the house as I was able to salvage. Some parts of the framing came down easily enough, as well, but… well, let’s say we had to do some rather creative thinking to level the rest of the two-story frame and roof safely.

Even then, I was able to salvage quite a bit of the 2×4, 2×6, 4×4, and 6×6 framing lumber from the rubble. As an additional surprise, we found out that the original roof was cedar shake shingled with hand-made square nails. So I spent quite a few weekends that second fall decisively dissecting the roof, saving as many of the square nails as I could in six large plastic Folgers Coffee containers.

Because the lumber was so “clean”, a friend of mine who owns a cabinet shop was willing to joint and plane the lumber for me for a very modest fee. Normally, he doesn’t work with barn wood, as the paint and silica is hard on planer blades. But, as he put it, “this is just old wood!” as straight and as flat as the day it was nailed up.

My younger brother and I have made a few things from this recycled wood. He started off by making me a coffee table and a book case – that was before I got into woodworking (I understood the value of the lumber, even before I got bit by the bug). Since then, I’ve made a few things here and there with it – I always find myself thinking I need to save it for “special” projects when, in truth, I probably have enough to last me quite a while, even if I were to use it on every single project.

So I’m trying to break myself of that limitation – indeed, I’ve had some of it planed down to 3/4” and 1/2” thicknesses and I’m starting to use it on some of my smaller projects. But I’ve quickly jumped to ideas of taking the recycled “theme” through an entire piece. Through some expense, I have a nice bit of smaller pieces of bog oak from the U.K. and I recently received some Kauri wood from a company based out of Wisconsin, called They pull these gigantic trees from bogs in New Zealand and transform them into usable lumber. A few months ago, I made a box for my best man in my wedding – it was a sgian dubh presentation box – using some of the bog oak and the white oak.

I have some other ideas for where to find reclaimed and recycled wood – one of my woodworking goals this year is to track these ideas down and find out how feasible it will be to pursue them. In the mean time, I have most of eight hundred board feet of white oak to keep me busy.

-- Ethan,

7 comments so far

View Don's profile


2603 posts in 4171 days

#1 posted 12-29-2006 04:04 AM

I would say that you are a lucky man, but this wasn’t luck, it was sweat and hard work

-- CanuckDon "I just love small wooden boxes!"

View scottb's profile


3648 posts in 4321 days

#2 posted 12-29-2006 06:23 AM

Yes, but very lucky just the same – to have seen the value in all that lumber in your pre-woodworking days….

Oh, and for your writing… I’d say the off the cuff free-writing style suits you just fine. Very readable indeed!

-- I am always doing what I cannot do yet, in order to learn how to do it. - Van Gogh -- --

View Ethan Sincox's profile

Ethan Sincox

767 posts in 4168 days

#3 posted 12-29-2006 07:07 AM

I was a technical writer for six years; two years at MCI and four years at my current place of employment. One of my main functions at MCI was to take major policy changes and rewrite them for distribution to the “common folk” working the phones in a way they could understand. I also excel at writing step process and “How To” documentation, which is something I actually get to do in my current support role. I love technical writing… I didn’t really want to leave it, but they thought I would be very effective in Quality Assurance and offered a small raise if I gave it a try. I tried it for a year and wasn’t terribly happy; I saw an opportunity in one of our “rising star” departments and I went for it. Again, better pay, but… I enjoyed technical writing more.

So thanks for the compliment. I’ll take that one sans humility! :)

-- Ethan,

View dennis mitchell's profile

dennis mitchell

3994 posts in 4308 days

#4 posted 04-02-2007 09:26 PM

How did I miss this one? Great blog! I really enjoyed the whole thing. Here in Idaho all the old wood is pine or fir. I’m a little jealous of all that hard barn wood you guys find. I liked the history of your story. Thanks….so when are you going to start writing woodworking books?

View Ethan Sincox's profile

Ethan Sincox

767 posts in 4168 days

#5 posted 04-02-2007 09:36 PM

I posted it more than three months ago, Dennis. I guess that’s why. I should probably go through and group my blogs into some organizational categories in the near future.

Hmmm… writing a book. I would like to do something in book form eventually, Dennis, but I don’t think it would be a technique book. Maybe more like a book of stories? Woodworking and how it relates to my life? I heard some interesting stuff on book writing and who writes woodworking books at the seminar this weekend, and it’s given me a lot to think about.

Right now, though, I’m pretty happy writing up documentation and the occasional blog and trying to fit some woodworking in here and there.

Thanks for the compliments, though, Dennis!

In my house, I have a coffee table and a book case made out of some of the reclaimed white oak from a shed on that farm. My little brother made them for me as birthday and Christmas presents. The bookcase is totally packed in under the stairs in the basement, but I can easily get a picture or two of the coffee table and post it.

-- Ethan,

View dennis mitchell's profile

dennis mitchell

3994 posts in 4308 days

#6 posted 04-02-2007 10:38 PM

I’d like to see the coffee table. I like the idea about woodworking stories. I get one woodworking magazine (Woodshop News) and about all I read in it is monthly bio of some woodworker.

View Karson's profile


35120 posts in 4394 days

#7 posted 04-03-2007 03:25 AM

Ethan: That is a great story. One that was missed in its first life. Having something from the old homestead is a priceless thing.

-- I've been blessed with a father who liked to tinker in wood, and a wife who lets me tinker in wood. Southern Delaware soon moving to Virginia †

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