I have been intrigued by the possibilities of what can be constructed from reclaimed wood ever since seeing a pool table made out of juniper stumps. Joseph Campbell would have probably said this was my “call to adventure.”
An old stump seemed like such an unlikely candidate for the material of choice to make something so beautiful. The potential for functional and practical art seemed endless and the material required was readily available at little to no cost. All I needed was the desire to create and the drive to gather reclaimable wood.
So I embarked on my first endeavor full of grit and moxie with a truck bed full of rhododendron branches. The final result was a custom deck rail for a client in the mountains of North Carolina. This was the first of many creative woodworking projects involving reclaimed wood.
Most of the ones that followed would be small personal projects but little did I know that they were all just stepping stones leading me down the path of what would become a huge multiyear project of tearing down an old house and building back our new one.
Just to be clear, this huge project wasn’t planned and if I’m going to be totally honest, it wasn’t even something I wanted to do. Sticking with the Campbell analogy and the mythical hero’s journey, this was my refusal of the call. But alas, as those of you drawn to the allure of wood or the desire to reuse salvaged material will attest, ignoring the call is nearly impossible.
I mentioned above how I was called to adventure by the juniper stump pool table but my mentor for creative woodworking came in a much less dramatic and far more practical form…
It was around the same time I constructed the rhododendron deck that I was splitting logs I’d gathered off a construction site for firewood. One of the logs was a Liriodendron tulipifera which is commonly called a Tulip tree or Tulip poplar. Poplar is well known as an ideal species for many woodworking projects and is readily available at many big box home improvement stores.
It’s not an exotic species and in this instance wasn’t even considered worthy of anything other than being culled and left in the woods to rot. But splitting the bucked logs from that tree forever changed my perspective of what wood had to offer for it was within that log, laid bare before me, the most beautiful purple heart wood I’d ever seen. So purple and dramatic when compared to the creamy white sapwood directly beside it that I almost couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
And that was it… never again would I be able to see a simple, mundane log without wondering about the potential it held within. The first threshold had been crossed.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I cleaned off that first piece of flooring but I knew that I’d have to save it and reuse it somewhere in the new house I’d soon be constructing. I’m sure that at the time I was thinking, “Oh, this will actually save me some time and money”, seeing as how it’s still in good shape, and already milled into tongue and groove boards. Once I saw the richness and beauty of antique heart pine it was hard to imagine using anything else alongside it.
I was hopeful there would be enough to meet our needs but unfortunately the lack of a vapor barrier in the crawl space rendered nearly all the old boards on the first floor spongy and useless. If we were going to have reclaimed heart pine floors I’d need to mill them myself from the larger framing members.
The process I used to create the floors is a long story, maybe one I can share later, but the hidden gem amongst all the wood lost to moisture, mold, and rot was the hand hewn sill plates. When I first saw these I could barely believe my eyes… the axe marks, the hand cut mortise and tenons joined with massive pegs, all exposed to the same harsh, damp environment but barely showing any discernible signs of damage.
I imagine this has to be due to their impressive density and heavy sap concentration. I can’t say for sure how old these timbers are but from what research I’ve done and based on the techniques used I estimate they were cut close to the turn of the 19th century.
I’ve counted upwards of 80 growth rings on a roughly 5″ cross section from one of these timbers. I’m purely speculating here but if the tree this timber came from was similar in size to anyone of the dozen or more pine trees on our property (roughly 10′ circumference or ~38″ diameter) that would mean it was just over 300 years old when it was culled.
If that’s the case and it was indeed cut around 1900 that would mean it started growing around the turn of the 16th century! For historical perspective the first permanent English settlement occurred in Jamestown, VA in 1607.
It’s crazy to think that the tree holding up our kitchen island counter could have started life around that same time.
One of my hero’s, rock climber and world renowned soloist Alex Honnold once said,
“Nobody achieves anything great by being happy and cozy.”
Well, if that’s true, then I suppose I’ve done something great because those aren’t words I’d use to describe this journey. Challenging, satisfying, intriguing, beguiling, those would be more suitable descriptors but the end result, the hero’s reward, it surely makes me happy and it’s hard to not feel cozy amongst the warmth of heart pine tones. Here’s a look at some of what I created from reclaimed material.