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Finding, Cleaning, And Working With Reclaimed Wood

Reclaimed wood has become a major industry in the world of woodworking and DIY projects. It’s not surprising, given the fact that it’s cheap, it’s enviromentally friendly, and the wood itself just seems wise (you know, since it’s aged and has surely seen a lot in its day).

reclaimed wood

But finding and working with reclaimed old barn wood and the like is not necessarily the easy way of building things from wood. There are certain steps that need to be taken to prep the wood for use, to clean it up, and to properly join it together (where standard edge to edge glue-ups are just not an option).

So keep reading to find out where you can get reclaimed wood, and what steps to take when prepping your boards for your project.

Where To Find Reclaimed Wood

old barn

Your first option for locating a good reclaimed wood or barn wood dealer is to simply google it and add your city or region in the search phrase.

This is the best method to find a potential local dealer where you could browse their products to see before you buy.

But that may or may not turn up any results, so don’t get your hopes up just yet.

You can get reclaimed wood for your wood projects from a few big name stores, including Home Depot. Go see their selection here.

You can also search out barn wood and pallet dealers on Etsy. Check out this etsy search results page for bulk reclaimed wood.

You’ll also find dealers if you search on sites like Craigslist, Ebay, and even Amazon.

Here are some common phrases you may try when searching:

  • Reclaimed wood
  • Barn wood
  • Distressed wood
  • Pallet wood
  • Rustic wood
  • Weathered wood
  • Accent wood
  • Timbers

Give those a shot when searching the different stores and websites and you should get a decent amount of results.

How To Prep Reclaimed Wood For Your Project

old boards that can be reclaimed

Often, a piece of reclaimed barn wood or pallet boards will be rough, discolored, stained, and possibly full of nails.

So prepping this type of wood is a must, so at the very least you don’t have a piece of furniture or wall decor that can give someone tetanus!

The screws and nails are a no-brainer, use a drill and a hammer to remove as needed. It’s a tedious job, but ought to be done regardless.

And you can usually clean dirt and grime from a board pretty easily with a wire brush.

If you’ve got a lot of board to clean, you may consider investing in a handheld grinder and a wire wheel brush. This will make quick work of the cleanup process.

Just make sure you don’t press too hard using an angle grinder like that, or you can end up with swirl marks.

The beauty of using these wire-type tools for cleaning reclaimed wood is that it really does a great job of removing so much of the dirt and grime, while retaining the rustic, old-wood look and texture.

Finally, you probably want to do a little sanding so the boards are at least somewhat soft to the touch.

You can use a random orbital sander with some 120 grit sandpaper, and lightly go over the flat surfaces and the corners. 

Do this lightly enough so you’re not taking away the character of the board, while still removing sharp corners, splinters, and rough surfaces.

Special Note On Pallet Wood

pallet wood

If you’re using reclaimed pallet wood, you need to be aware of the potential dangers.

Some pallets are used in environments where toxic chemicals are possibly spilt on them. Or sometimes they’re treated in a way that makes them unsafe for inside use.

Inspect the pallet very closely to find identify a stamp. This will indicate what type of pallet it is, and what it could have been used for.

Not only that, pallets are used and reused by different companies all the time, so you may find multiple stamps on a single pallet.

There are many different possible stamps on your pallet, but most are harmless. The main stamp you want to watch for is ‘MB’. This stands for Methyl Bromide which is a very toxic pest treatment.

This pallet should be disposed of. You shouldn’t even burn it, as the smoke could be toxic. To get a complete breakdown of pallet safety, please check out this website.

How To Repair A Reclaimed Board That’s Been Split

You have a few options for repairing a split board, or a corner chunk that’s partially split away from a board.

For a fully split board, you can scab it back together by taking a piece of ¾” thick pine, placing it behind the board to be repaired, and nailing or screwing each piece to the pine.

Here’s a quick video on scabbing a board back together:

And if you have a partial split that will likely end up breaking off, you can squeeze glue in heavily behind the split piece, being careful not to pull it out so much it breaks off.

Once the glue is behind the chunk of wood, use masking tape to tightly hold the piece in place until the glue dries.

Here’s a quick video on gluing a partial split back in place:

How To Turn Reclaimed Wood Into a Usable Panel

In woodworking, a “panel” is basically a large, flat piece of wood, typically made by joining multiple boards together. Panels are used for building doors, table tops, cabinets, etc…

Typically with regular woodworking, we build a panel by jointing (flattening) the edges of multiple boards, then we glue and clamp them together, edge to edge.

Related: 12 Tips for building flatter panels

But with barn wood or distressed rustic wood projects, this is often not possible, as the edges are in no condition to support this kind of joint.

So a simple alternative is to use a pocket hole jig to drill pocket holes in the back side of the boards along the edges.

Then you’ll use pocket screws to screw the boards together.

You can keep adding more pocket holes and screws to attach as many boards as you need to build the width of panel you want.

Related: Getting started with pocket hold joinery

Another option may be to build a simple frame around the perimeter of the panel with some cross members between them. Each board for the door panel would be screwed or nailed to this frame.

This is a quick and easy method, and very common with barn-door projects.

reclaimed wood barn doors

And to make it really simple, you can screw a couple cross members along the back of the panel, like in this photo here of an old window.

old windows

These cross members do a great job of holding all the boards tightly together for a solid, and very rustic-looking panel.

How To Remove Old Finish Or Stains From Reclaimed Wood

reclaimed wood with old finish

Sometimes you’ll find the old wood has some pretty nasty stains or blotches, from who knows what.

If it’s a fairly normal piece of furniture that was stained, you’ll just want to sand it down to remove the previous finish.

But typically when we talk about old rustic boards like this, they’re not exactly smooth, or even properly finished to begin with. So the discoloration and the stains and blotches may be from the board’s previous environment.

If cleaning it with a wire brush just ain’t cuttin’ in, you may need to get out the bucket and scrub brush. Hose down the wood and you may find that’s all you need to break away all the nasty stains.

If more cleaning is needed, you can mix regular dish detergent with water and scrub on it a bit. For a stronger cleaner, mix in some bleach. This should remove most stubborn stains.

Once it’s clean, leave it out in the sun to dry.

How To Finish Your Reclaimed Wood Project

Many barn wood and rustic wood projects are left completely unfinished.

That’s fine, but even a distressed look can get finger marks and stains that just don’t look natural or appealing in any way.

I’m always a fan of a protective finish for any wood project, at least that way I don’t have to worry about spills and stains.

It’s a good idea to sand your project to at least 120 grit. This should remove most splinters and rough (too rough) surfaces.

Break the corners as well. This not only makes it softer to touch, but it protects the corner from getting splintered or broken.

When applying a protective finish, I recommend using a water based varnish or polyurethane.

Spraying on the finish is your best bet, as this will coat every single nook and cranny of the distressed wood.

If you’re not set up to spray, you can brush on the finish as well.

A foam brush should not be used with old rough wood, as it will likely get grabbed and torn as you’re using it.

A synthetic bristled brush is the perfect tool for the job. It can help get the finish in all the cracks, and since you’re using a water based finish, you’ll be able to easily clean the brush and reuse it on your next reclaimed wood project.

Be sure to sign up below to get email updates and offers all about woodworking and wood projects.

Choosing A Wood Finish For Your Projects
Types Of Wood Screws, And Pre-Drilling Explained
Pocket Hole Joinery – Here’s How To Do It

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About The Author
Adam has been woodworking for the last 10 years. He considers himself a 'Small Shop Woodworker' and practices his hobby in his garage. With the lack of time, space, and proper tools, he always finds ways to get great results without over-complicating or over-thinking the process. Various shop jigs, table saw sleds, and tricks of the trade have served him well. God has blessed him with a beautiful family, as well as a passion for teaching others about woodworking. You can read more about Adam here.

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