Home & Garden

Rescuing rustic old wood

J.C. Callam, in front, used reclaimed wood to make the door for the first-floor bathroom in the renovated Washington rowhouse he shares with partner David Soo.
J.C. Callam, in front, used reclaimed wood to make the door for the first-floor bathroom in the renovated Washington rowhouse he shares with partner David Soo. WASHINGTON POST

It’s the most prominent thing in the room. The wood table is sturdy and spacious – 8 by 3 feet – built of rustic old lumber with a grain that shines through. The best thing about it? All of its wood came from the rowhouse where it sits.

“They’re old hand-milled two-by-fours,” says Mike Iacavone, an artist who owns the 1920 house in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Ali Jost.

When they bought the house, they knew it needed renovations, but they were determined to hold onto some of its old structural timber. Iacavone, 40, built the table with discarded lumber that the couple’s contractor set aside for them.

The wood in many of Washington’s rowhouses, particularly those built before the 1930s, is high-quality lumber cut from old-growth or even virgin forests that no longer exist in this country. That includes not only the flooring and trim, but also the internal framing wood, such as studs, rafters, and floor and ceiling joists.

It’s often the same kind of wood that was used to build barns in rural areas around Washington. But unlike reclaimed barn wood, which became popular more than a decade ago, the value of this wood isn’t widely recognized among homeowners and developers. And as the city experiences a remodeling boom, builders say, most of it is going into landfills.

Unlike recently cut lumber, which generally has been grown over 10 to 30 years, the old trees had very tight growth rings, lending the wood strength and hardness – even in so-called softwoods such as pine and fir.

Max Pollock is materials manager with Details, a firm that deconstructs buildings in Baltimore and Washington to salvage their components. He says that although most old lumber can be restored to good condition, one type of wood is particularly sought-after: old longleaf pine, also known as heart pine. “It has a rich color, nice smell, and the grain is much, much tighter than other softwood species,” Pollock says. “That’s the holy grail; it’s what we’re always looking for.”

Like many others in the building field, Pollock says much of that old wood – both longleaf pine and other varieties – is getting lost.

In renovations, as much as 80 percent of reclaimable wood might be discarded, says Don Malnati, a general contractor and president of Renovations Unlimited. “If you’re going to do extensive work in a house, tearing out walls and floors, it’s easiest to call a dumpster company and have them take it all,” he says.

That’s particularly true when a house is renovated and resold, or flipped. Flippers usually remodel houses to appeal to the widest possible audience, and a not-quite-level floor or quirky old door probably won’t fit the bill. Tearing everything out and starting over often makes more sense.

Because so much old lumber is being discarded, some homeowners have learned to look closely when they see a house being redeveloped. J.C. Callam and David Soo, residents of Washington, became interested in old wood while renovating their house, which was built in 1905 by Harry Wardman. Callam soon noticed that a nearby Wardman house was being gutted. He gathered 16-foot timbers from the attic that he thinks are old-growth Douglas fir and built a door for his house.

Now he’s got the wood bug. At another nearby house that’s being gutted, Callam asked the workers to save joists; he plans to use the beams for a bed frame.

Some companies will create custom furniture for homeowners who provide the wood.