Twenty-six years ago George Goodwin didn’t know much about salvaging old-growth lumber. But he’d seen logs pulled up from the rivers of the South, and he knew they were unlike anything found in lumberyards or hardware stores.
George’s plan—to sell heart pine pulled from the rivers where it was lost more than 100 years ago in transport to mills—hit a nerve. “People would call us,” his wife, Carol, recalls, “and they were just ecstatic that they had found a source for material of this quality that was last available to their grandparents.”
The Goodwin Heart Pine Company started back in 1976. Today, demand for old-growth wood has never been greater.
Other firms such as Mountain Lumber in Virginia, Conklins in Pennsylvania, and The Joinery in North Carolina salvage wood from old barns and abandoned warehouses. Their customers use the reclaimed lumber for everything from window casings to front doors. A few have been known to construct entire houses from vintage wood, but most people use it for floors that some say will last another lifetime at least, while lending a measure of beauty nearly impossible to recreate.
“It’s the wood that built America,” George likes to say.
“It smells good,” Carol adds. “It feels good, and it’s beautiful to look at. And you’re preserving a bit of what was once the largest contiguous forest on the North American continent.” She’s referring to the forests of longleaf pine that once covered some 85 million acres. Today less than 10,000 acres of old-growth stands remain.
One hundred years ago, heart pine was used for everything from ship masts to bridges, warehouses, and wharves—not to mention houses. The wood was so abundant, Carol says, that “people stained it to look like walnut. They tried to make it look like something else. They just got tired of it.”
Not any more. These days, homeowners love heart pine for its aged red gold patina, intricate grain patterns, and durability. And, perhaps, for the fact that it takes thirty years for a longleaf pine to grow just one inch in diameter.
Salvagers are also making available old-growth ash, elm, hickory, hemlock, red oak, and walnut. And if you can get your hands on the rare American chestnut—decimated in a blight early in the twentieth century—you’ve got quite the prize.
Before they were cut down, says Pattie Boden of Mountain Lumber, “the old trees had been growing 400 years. Because of the age, the old growth is very densely grained with very, very tight growth rings—eight to fifteen per inch. Tightness equals durability and stability. The new wood, they just pop it in the field, and when it’s long enough, they cut it down. It has four growth rings per inch. It doesn’t have the maturity. The old trees have a lot more heartwood than sapwood. Sapwood is what we call the by-product. It’s softer.” (Heartwood is the part of the tree that was already dead when cut. The sapwood is the portion that was still living, and it is not nearly as dense.)
Reclaimed lumber also makes for a healthy living environment. “I have a lot of allergies myself,” Sandy Conklin says. “By using this wood, I don’t have to worry about formaldehyde or any of the chemicals used in processed wood. Old growth has been airing for 100 years, so you don’t have outgassing. With rebuilt wood, the only chemicals you get are what you put on to finish it, and you can finish it with water-based products.”
Because they give, wood floors are also gentler than tile and stone on the joints, and they’re far easier to clean than carpet. Then there’s the environmental aspect.
“If we didn’t use the old wood,” says Boden, “many old timbers would go to the landfill. Our product is totally reclaimed. We don’t ever cut down trees.”
However, not every company’s wood is purely salvaged. Boden cautions, “You need to ask how much new wood is mixed in” before you buy.
Prime cuts of old-growth wood can go for as much as three times that of new wood, with river-salvaged lumber averaging 15 percent more than that taken from a demolished structure.
“We have grades of heart pine that are as low as $3.50 per square foot,” Carol Goodwin says. “This grade comes with nail holes, stains, and knots, and it’s called our character floor. It’s what I would put in my mountain or beach cabin. But if you want the pristine no-knots, then you’re looking at $10 per square foot and up.”
“There’s really a labor and waste factor that makes the product more expensive,” says Jon Hubert, owner of Singing Saw in Nederland, Colorado. “When you cut down a tree, the lumber industry can guarantee you’re going to get so much use. But with vintage timber, you may have to go through ten barns to find enough good materials. Most things in the recycling world tend to be more expensive for the searching factor. But the unique look, the fact that your wood is old and being reused—those things help people justify the expense.” nNH