People love reclaimed wood. It has history. It has soul. It looks good. But that word—”reclaimed”— what does it even mean? Think about it. If a guy wanted to, he could take a crowbar into his backyard and, one by one, reclaim the floorboards from his family’s rotting shed. But just because a piece of wood has been reclaimed doesn’t necessarily mean it’s of any good use.
Bryant Dyess, owner of Encore Architectural Salvage, is an expert on antique reclaimed lumber. His storefront on upper King Street sells reclaimed wood of only the highest grade—old-growth heart pine and oak, nothing younger than 150 years. When it comes to reclaimed lumber, you want it that old.
The antique wood Encore sells is higher quality than modern wood because it was harvested long ago from trees that took hundreds of years to mature. Dyess explains that a pine tree grows tall when it’s young—it shoots straight up until it claims a patch of sunlight in the forest canopy. Then it stops growing upward and starts growing outward. The longer a tree lives, the stronger and tighter the trunk becomes. The richer its color. The better its lumber.
Modern-day lumber is harvested from soft young trees simply because there aren’t any old ones left. Loggers can’t wait 200 years for a tree to fully mature, so the only way to get that good, dense red-brown heart pine is to salvage it from barns and mills that were built in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Of course, most designers, contractors and architects already know this, and they prize old-growth lumber above all else. The trouble for them is finding antique wood that isn’t warped or infested with bugs.
“You see people selling it on Craigslist,” Dyess says, “but they’re not doing it right. They’re just tearing down a barn, stacking the wood and saying, ‘come get it.’ A lot more goes into making this product. My company sells wood that is 100 percent usable.”
Dyess owns a mill in Orangeburg, South Carolina, where he ships in salvaged material from almost everywhere— horse ranches, textile mills, tobacco barns, you name it. When a truckload comes in, the first thing his team does is cut away any wood with rot, usually about 30 percent of the original shipment. Next, they use chisels to carefully remove any nails buried inside the beams. Once the nails and rot are gone, they can finally look at the wood itself.
“Every board we get is warped,” Dyess says, “and we’ve got to straighten it out.” So they straighten it out. The team then disinfects the wood and stores it in a kiln, a type of oven that heats moisture out of wood. This step is important. If you put a piece of antique wood into a home without kiln-drying it first, the wood will begin to shift within a year. Floorboards will develop gaps. Rafters will bend.
Once the wood at the mill has finished drying, it becomes workable, and the Encore team can begin to cut. No matter how much wood a customer needs, from a single plank to 10,000 boards, everything is cut to order. Encore controls the milling process so it can match any specification a customer might have. And the company does it all: beams, boards, siding, flooring and shiplap.
The final product is something special. It has all those charming imperfections that make reclaimed wood so enchanting. And it’s more solid than anything available in a 21st-century store.
Jeramy Baker is a freelance writer living in Charleston. Read more at jeramybaker.com.