Many lumberyards sell unusual products, from Boy Scout uniforms to boating supplies. In Columbus, Ind., Brands Inc. has taken in $3 million over the past six years offering something similarly offbeat. The yard is one of only a handful of traditional LBM dealers nationwide that sells reclaimed lumber, and it's the only one ProSales has found that sells both flooring–the product usually carried by those few dealers handling reclaimed wood–and reclaimed post and beam components.
"For us, it's been driven by the consumer market and the exposure [reclaimed wood has] gotten," says company vice president Ryan Brand. "It's become less of a specialty item and more of a product that we just need to stock regularly."
Reclaimed wood is definitely a niche business in the lumber industry, accounting for less than 1% of lumber sold in the United States, estimates Bob Falk of the Forest Service's Forest Products Lab in Madison, Wis.
Dealers actively "logging the urban forest," as some have put it, find their reclaimed wood stocks in unusual places. Goodwin Heart Pine Co. started business 32 years ago selling logs recovered from river bottoms. Trestlewood Lumber spent seven years of painstaking work deconstructing an obsolete, 12-mile train trestle across Utah's Great Salt Lake. Others pull their stock from old factories, warehouses, barns, and "even shipping crates, as long as the wood hasn't been chemically treated," says Jered Slusser of Pioneer Millworks in Farmington, N.Y.
But despite what you may have read, reclaimed wood doesn't typically come from houses, particularly any home built from wood logged since the 1950s. That's because one of reclaimed wood's key attractions is that it's the product of America's old-growth forests. With only 4% of these once-plentiful forests remaining–many of them federally protected and unavailable for logging–old-growth lumber is a scarce commodity, increasingly prized for its tight grain, long lengths, and wide widths.
And now, as customers demand more and more green products, reclaimed lumber's star shines even brighter. "As we continue to tear down buildings, there's a lot of lumber out there that has the potential to be used, and from a green standpoint, it's very attractive," says Falk. "If you spec reclaimed rather than new lumber in a new house, you can cut the carbon footprint for the lumber by 60% to 90%."
Special-Order Opportunities Given those trends, should lumberyards start offering reclaimed lumber? The answer is a qualified yes. It is highly unlikely a dealer will stock new and used lumber side by side, but it does behoove dealers to start looking now for sources that can provide the wood on a special-order basis. And the specialty suppliers want to hear from you.
"I am all about having less contact with civilians and more contact with professionals," says Pete Krieger, general manager of Duluth (Minn.) Timber Co. "Odds are, if I work with Mr. and Mrs. Smith, I will never work with them again. But if I work with John at Scherer Brothers Lumber in Minneapolis, then I will likely work with them again."
Slusser of Pioneer Lumber estimates that less than 5% of his company's sales are to dealers, and most of them trade solely in flooring products.
Even with rising demand, reclaimed lumber has to overcome both physical and procedural challenges for it to become more of a commodity. The first challenge is at the source. It takes a lot of hand labor to remove nails, bolts, and any other metal parts from the timbers after they've been pried from their former home. Then they have to be remilled and graded.
The issue of grading dimensional reclaimed lumber is a sticky one for dealers. Seven groups in North America are charged with setting grading standards for dimensional lumber, but only one of them–the West Coast Lumber Inspection Bureau in Portland, Ore.–will do so, according to Falk, who is also vice president of the Building Materials Reuse Association. He hopes that eventually all the groups will create standards for regrading reclaimed lumber.