Reclaiming the Past with Repurposed Wood in Today’s New Homes
By Kelly McCall Branson
The old-growth forests that once blanketed the Southeast are very nearly gone, but the beautiful wood milled from these majestic trees lives on, in the beams and floors, framing and siding of old schoolhouses and cabins, railroad depots, cotton mills and warehouses. And now, reclamation specialists are seeking out these old boards, painstakingly extracting them before they are lost forever to demolition, and making them available to builders and homeowners for a reincarnation in homes throughout the Triangle.
“As a builder in the Carolinas, we love the idea of using repurposed wood,” says Grant Do, marketing coordinator for Saussy Burbank. “This is a true staple of the South. It represents a real sense of place.”
There is almost nothing better for adding warmth to a room than wood, and reclaimed wood adds another dimension of texture and character — a kind of visual history. The wood found in many surviving buildings of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was often milled from old-growth trees, some hundreds of years old. These slow-growing trees produced a wood of tight, dense grain that is exceedingly durable and exceptionally beautiful. Decades of slow air drying have hardened the resins so that these woods accept oils and stains much differently than lumber freshly milled from younger, fast-growing trees.
Old-growth Longleaf Pines once stood some 150 feet tall and measured four feet in diameter in virgin forests all along the Atlantic seaboard. Taking 400 to 500 years to mature, the lumber from the Longleaf was prized for its strength and integrity and used extensively as the structural timber in commercial and industrial buildings, bridges and docks.
Fortunately, there are area companies who have made it their business to rescue heartwood pine from these old structures, slated for demolition. Their painstaking deconstruction has yielded a treasure trove of heartwood beams and boards, ready to be repurposed for some of the Triangle’s most upscale homes.
Myriad Woods for Many Uses
But flooring isn’t the only use for reclaimed wood. And heartwood pine isn’t the only species available for reuse in Triangle homes. Oak and cedar, poplar and other species can be found in old cow barns and tobacco warehouses, plantation manors and log cabins throughout the area from which everything from cabinets to doors to windows to structural beams can be salvaged.
Saussy Burbank used an old pine beam for a massive mantle in their Project X home. “This is a design using heavier industrial accents,” says Grant Do, “and this repurposed beam, with just a natural sealer, was the perfect, rugged focal point for the fireplace.”
Saussy Burbank is also using reclaimed maple to craft open shelving in the office nook of select models in the Briar Chapel community in Chapel Hill. “It’s a little bit of a twist,” says Do. “The uniqueness of the wood adds flair and brings some local culture into the décor.” Customers of Saussy Burbank can even select the perfect piece of reclaimed wood themselves to accent their new home. And they can usually learn a little about the provenance of their chosen specimen, taking home a little history with their mantle.
A Piece of History, a Work of Art
In addition to the warmth factor that any wood can add to a room, reclaimed wood is prized for its special wow factor; the uniqueness of the color and grain of these old-growth, slow dried woods and the singular patina they take on when oiled or stained render them a natural focal point to any room. Most people prefer to preserve the imperfections revealed in the wood. The scars and worm tracks and oxidation from hardware and nails serve as a visual history and render the surface almost a work of art.
An especially popular use of reclaimed wood is for an accent wall — behind a bed, in a dining room, in the bathroom showcasing a soaking tub or in the kitchen as a backsplash or an island back. Even weathered gray, rough-hewn barn siding can pair with the most sleek interiors for an eye-catching jolt of texture, pattern and depth of color. The key is to not overwhelm. The wall should be an accent, a pop of something intriguing and unexpected. In fact, repurposed wood accents are probably most effective when contrasted with crisp white walls or sleek stainless steel, marble or glass.
But walls aren’t the only place for reclaimed wood installations. Old planks can be milled for one-of-a-kind kitchen cabinets, heartwood pine beams can be joined for a stunning butcher block island, vaulted ceilings can be paneled with 100-year-old poplar, textile mill floor boards of oak can be refashioned into “barn” doors for closets and barnwood can be lapped outside as siding. Faux beams can be created in new homes by deconstructing and reconstructing old beams.
Reclaimed wood is available in a wide array of species and can be finished to a polished sheen or rough-sawn and rustic. Each and every piece carries a history of its years and decades, or longer, in a long-gone forest or as an eighteenth-century train station timber or a 1700s plantation-house floorboard. And by reclaiming, repurposing, and reusing these old boards in new homes today, we can both preserve this history and maybe spare a tree or two or ten for future generations.