Buying Reclaimed Wood Beams
Everybody loves the look of the rustic cabin with its hand hewn beams and rustic wood paneling. Buying reclaimed wood beams for this type of building can be challenging; you will need to know a few things before you start picking through a pile of beams for your next project. Hopefully this article will give you a good overview of what to look for when specifying solid reclaimed wood beams for your application.
The most common species available for large beams are Douglas Fir, Heart Pine, Redwood, and Oak. There are a few other types of wood that can make a good sized beams but these are the most common varieties. The reason you see these varieties most is because these tree species trees are able to grow to tremendous sizes. The tallest and widest tree in the world is the California Redwood but unfortunately it was over-harvested one hundred years ago and many of the big beams are rare these days. The Heart Pine suffered the same fate as the Redwood and is not grown to a large size anymore. The most common species to see large format beams in is Douglas Fir. This wood has been commercially harvested, replanted and has a wider range than the Redwood, so there is more opportunity to harvest large trees that will yield a beam of substantial size.
There are several textures and looks you can specify for your next beam project. The most common texture and look for structural applications is Fresh Sawn. This is the easiest to achieve and will allow for the greatest flexibility. In this process, a larger beam is sawn down into a common size to be uniform in size and texture. One of the problems with old reclaimed beams is that many mills originally cut the beams inaccurately, and as a result the width and thickness could vary by half an inch in either direction. You also have shrinkage and warping to contend with if the beam was sawn and installed while it was green. By cutting an old beam down to size, you can even out the imperfections and end up with a consistent, uniform, straight beam.
The reclaimed “as-is” look of the old rustic face is a popular look. It has its challenges though because of the reasons outlined above. The sizes can vary along with several other factors. The beams could have been painted at one time, hiding that gorgeous old rough cut patina. That paint could also be lead based which will require special handling by an expert. Viridian won’t even accept beams with paint on them. As-is patina on beams can have several types of blade marks on them. The most common type of blade mark was from a band mill, leaving straight marks across the beam face. The most desired look comes from a circular saw blade. Early mills used this circular blade technology because it was the easiest way to mill. Some of the circular saw blades stood over 8 feet tall. Now that is a big blade!
Hand hewn beams are gorgeous but becoming more of a rarity these days. The earliest way of making a square beam was to take a tool called an adze and start hacking away at one side of a log until it was square. The miller would then flip the log and repeat until he had a square. This tool left a signature marking similar to an axe. This characteristic patina and texture is a great conversation starter. There is no modern automated tool that can duplicate the look of an old hand hewn beam. Since the milling on these beams is imperfect and typically on smaller beam sizes, we mostly see this type of beam being used for mantles above fire places, not for structural uses.
Man made surface treatments can be added to the surface of your beam to give it a certain look. Some of these treatments include brushing, sand blasting, and various staining treatments. Brushing the face of the beam with a wire or nylon brush is done with a hand held machine. This is labor intensive but will eliminate most of the splinters and catches, creating a silky smooth wood surface. Sand blasting is usually done when a building is undergoing a renovation and is vacant. High pressure air is used to propel grains of sand through a hose pointed at the beams. This is typically done to strip old paint very quickly and restore the beam to its original look. Remember to always have the paint tested for lead before having this treatment done as lead paint requires handling by an expert. There are also various types of staining that can be done to achieve a desired look. Various stain colors can make a fresh sawn beam look weathered instead of waiting for Mother Nature to do her work and create that type of patina naturally. We have the ability to do that process overnight.
Beams that need to have a structural rating on them for load bearing must be certified by a third party vendor. Most reclaimed wood companies do not offer this service as it is highly specialized. All of the beams that we sell are not certified for any specific fitness of use.
There are several grades to beams that are used for different tasks. Depending on where the beam was cut from the tree, it could or could not contain heart wood. The best grade of beam does not contain heart wood and is called Free of Heart Center or FOHC for short. Most beams are cut the traditional way and carry the designation of being called Box Heart. This is because the beam’s center is the middle of the tree and contains the entire heart of the tree. This is the easiest and cheapest way of making beams. The cost of FOHC is much more than a typical Box Heart grade. We use FOHC for our commercial wood table tops for restaurants. FOHC wood is less prone to cracking or warping because it contains no heart wood.
If a beam isn’t too big to fit into a kiln, we recommend that they be heat treated before milling. By putting the beam through the kiln, we can remove some of the moisture content so it is less prone to movement once installed; most importantly the kiln cycle will kill any bugs living within the wood. Powderpost beetles are tiny creatures that like to live in old beams that need to be eliminated. Another thing the kiln will do is solidify any old sap pockets that might be present within the beam.
We have access to over 2 million board feet of Douglas fir beams in a variety of sizes, patina, lengths, and grades. Typical lead times for as-is beams is 4 weeks. If you need the beams to be kiln dried and milled, the time line can extend from there. Costs on buying reclaimed wood beams can always be shocking at first. The main reason the costs are so high on a beam is the amount of wood contained within the beam. A typical 12” x 12” beam that is 16 feet long has over 192 board feet of lumber in it. Since we charge by the board foot for our beams, this can add up quickly. A typical price for a board foot of 12×12 can range from $5.00/ bf to $10.00/ bf for FOHC grade depending on the dimensions you need. Please also keep in mind that Viridian has a $2000 minimum for all orders.