Part 1. Untangling the Terminology of Responsibly-Sourced Wood.
The world of sustainability is filled with nuanced and often head-spinning terminology. It’s all too common to look at a term and wonder, “What does this really mean and is it truly good for the planet?”
When we launched mebl | Transforming Furniture a few years ago, we began to notice ‘reclaimed’ used interchangeably, with terms such as ‘salvaged,’ ‘recycled,’ ‘sustainably sourced,’ and so on when it came to furniture. We started to dive deeper, talk shop with furniture-makers, and liaise with veterans in the field -- and learned just how rich and nuanced the world of sustainable wood furniture actually is.
In this piece, we’ll try to unpack some of the key terms for you:
Amoskeag Mill No. 12 Annex being dismantled in Manchester, NH (Longleaf Lumber)
Reclaimed wood is one of the most environmentally conscious and historically significant materials on the market. It is a key player in the furniture industry’s move towards a circular economy. However, the word “reclaimed” is often misinterpreted and confused with terms such as salvaged, recycled, and sustainably sourced. Yet all play important roles in furthering the tenets of the circular economy.
But before we dive into the other terms, let’s first understand ‘reclaimed wood’ in all its glory
In Working Reclaimed Wood, Yoav Liberman explains that reclaimed wood is a finite source that can only be taken from old structures being dismantled, such as barns, houses, or boats. It is part of the larger cycle of reuse within the furniture industry in that it promotes the reclamation of formerly discarded, secondhand lumber. This reclaimed wood is specifically from old growth (or antique) and second growth trees.
In Reclaimed Wood: A Field Guide, Klaas Armster and Alan Solomon explain that old growth wood in the United States was felled as early as the 17th century, when trees often grew for 500 years. Since then, newly planted trees have been given at most 100 years and as little as 15 years to mature, resulting in “plainer” wood.
The distinction between old growth reclaimed wood and the rest of the reclaimed lumber market is visible in human-made markings and natural patina of the wood. Armster and Solomon go into depth about the specific characteristics of ancient lumber. Old growth reclaimed wood often reveals distinct nail and rust marks depending on the year it was originally used to build. The same is true for saw patterns, which reflect the tools and machines of the era. Old growth wood also has a richer tone, more rings and less knots in its grain, and is much bigger and denser than younger wood.
Douglas fir lumber reclaimed from the Building Warehouse #19 in Hingham, MA
Second growth wood, or vintage, is markedly different from antique wood. A Field Guide explains that loggers replanted trees in the 19th and 20th centuries to make up for the decimated ancient forests, which were then logged at less-mature stages. The Audubon Society says that while old-growth forests naturally occurred, these second growth forests were created for enterprise and in response to the widespread harvesting of ancient wood. As such, the ecosystem surrounding old growth forests is diminished; instead of lush, biodiverse undergrowth, second growth trees are often planted in rows, left to grow short lives like beds of corn.
Liberman says that reclaimed wood can also just be generic, newer lumber taken from newer structures that are repurposed. While this wood is significantly less rich in color and texture than old or even second growth wood, it is nonetheless reclaimed. This fresher wood, though, is not as prized as ancient or vintage. For many, the most important reclaimed wood is old growth because of its unique qualities.
Old growth vs. second growth forests in Alaska
(John Schoen for Audubon’s Ecological Atlas of Southeast Alaska)
Onto the next term - ‘salvaged’
The term ‘salvaged’ is often confused with ‘reclaimed’. “To salvage wood” is often used in place of “reclaiming”-- Liberman uses the two verbs interchangeably -- however, salvaged wood is different. Zenporium Furnishings & Accessories explains that though it can be from old growth or second growth trees, salvaged wood does not originate in human-made structures.
Longleaf Lumber gives many examples of the origins of salvaged wood:
- freshly-cut wood otherwise to be wasted or tossed through a wood chipper
- untouched logs that sank and were naturally preserved at the bottom of rivers and lakes while being floated to lumber mills a hundred years ago
- street trees from cities and towns or,
- trees that are dead standing or naturally felled by such killers as beetles, fire, or storms.
Salvaged wood can be used in much the same way as reclaimed wood: Longleaf Lumber uses both types to make paneling and furniture. Another company, Maine Heritage Timber, hauls up untouched logs from the bottom of rivers to make tables, doors, countertops, and more.
A century’s old log driving operation (Maine Heritage Timber)
And then there’s ‘recycled’
Another word frequently used interchangeably with ‘reclaimed’ is ‘recycled’. Longleaf Lumber explains that recycled wood is synonymous with upcycled, scrapped, or repurposed wood: leftovers from the manufacturing process for another engineered wood product that are reused and made into something else. Liberman notes that recycled wood can come from woodworker shops, furniture manufactures, and lumber mills to create paneling, beams, blocks, and all manner of wood products.
Longleaf Lumber adds that recycling can also be used to describe left-over materials from manufacturing processes like scrap wood or wood pellets, and turning it into something else, like a bench.This type of repurposing is done exclusively from left-over materials from manufacturing processes, not structures. The leftover wood can come from multiple origins, but is not from old-growth wood.
And finally - ‘sustainably sourced wood’
Sustainably sourced is yet another facet of the circular economy and wood. This is a certification -- defined by the Forest Stewardship Council -- earned by wood products that comply with an extensive list of social and environmental standards. Sustainably sourced wood only comes from FSC-certified forests, which must enhance workers’ social and economic wellbeing, respect indigenous peoples’ rights, and mitigate environmental impact, on top of other criteria. The FSC also rewards organizations that use 100% recycled material, which is broadly defined by the FSC as pre-consumer or post-consumer “reclaimed materials.”
Though these varied terms represent different facets of wood usage in the furniture industry, they hold similar purposes in furthering the tenets of the circular economy. Reclaimed, salvaged, recycled, and sustainably sourced wood all play important roles in reuse, not to mention revelling in the beauty of old, patina-ed lumber.
If there are additional facets of sustainability and wood you would like to see us dive into, write us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your suggestions! Stay tuned for mebl | Transforming Furniture’s upcoming blog posts, exploring topics such as the history of reclaimed wood, its uses, and whether it’s truly sustainable.
By Danya Rubenstein-Markiewicz, mebl | Transforming Furniture
Albert, David, John Schoen, Melanie Smith, and Nathan Walker, “Old Growth and Second Growth Forests” Ecological Atlas of Southeast Alaska, Audubon, Aug. 2017, https://indd.adobe.com/view/bb243dff-5852-44c5-bdf5-4b1be96bdc53
Armster, Klaas, and Alan Solomon, Reclaimed Wood: A Field Guide, Abrams Books, 2019.
Forest Stewardship Council, 2020, https://fsc.org/en
Liberman, Yoav, Working Reclaimed Wood: A Guide for Woodworkers, Makers & Designers, Popular Woodworking Books, 2018.
Sustainable Furnishings Council, 2019, https://sustainablefurnishings.org/
“History of Maine Heritage Timber”, Maine Heritage Timber, https://maineheritagetimber.com/pages/history
“Our Scorecard Methodology”, Sustainable Furnishings Council, 2021, https://furniturescorecard.nwf.org/the-2020-scorecard-how-we-did-it/
“Reclaimed Wood Names: What Do They Mean?” Longleaf Lumber,https://www.longleaflumber.com/reclaimed-wood-names-what-do-they-mean/
“Salvage and Reclaimed Wood”, Zenporium Furnishings & Accessories, https://zenporium.com/salvage-and-reclaimed-wood/
Main photo credit: Lumber is reclaimed from the Robertson Paper Company plant in Bellows Falls, VT (Longleaf Lumber)