Sustainably Elegant

Reclaimed, certified wood provides value-added allure

by Mike Matthews, Editor

Most people are happy to buy recycled products so long as they don't actually look recycled. But sometimes it's better to let old wood that's been reclaimed from a 19th century warehouse look like… well, old wood, with all its surprising variations. “These days, the rustic looking floor is more popular by far,” says Jered Slusser of Pioneer Millworks. A growing number of commercial and residential end-users prefer flooring that doesn't resemble an artificial mass-produced composite. So a product that looks like genuine wood – with all its grain, color variations, and textural variety – has become fashionable.

So fashionable, in fact, that some manufacturers are trying to mass-produce it. “What we see with a lot of the other woods that aren't reclaimed but supposedly have ‘character,' is that companies are trying to make their woods look recycled,” said Slusser. “They'll try to add texturing or use some distressing techniques – stains, colorants, and other things that don't do a very good job of conveying what an old piece of wood really looks like.”

Ironically, most efforts to fake the effect of wood's natural aging create a consistency that you don't see in genuine recycled wood. “One of the ways that hand scraping is done, especially in mass quantities, is by embossing the wood,” Slusser described. “That's done with a giant press, which means that about every tenth plank looks just like the first one. You start to lose the benefit very quickly and a trained eye will spot that.”

Jered points to another attractive quality unique to genuinely aged wood. “The color is something that can't be faked,” he declares. “There are some different processes people use, like fuming and aniline dyes, but nothing can match the natural patina that a wood develops as it ages through oxidation, exposure to UV, and exposure to getting battered on by a horse in a barn for a hundred years,” he believes. “You can't duplicate those things, and they all lend them themselves to the color of the wood.”

There's one other important difference that can't be faked. According to Slusser, a 19th century wood itself is different. “Reclaimed wood was taken from old virgin forests, whereas all the new stuff was taken just six months ago,” he said. That shows up in terms of grain density. “Those nice, tight growing trees will show the type of grain you won't get any other way.”

The names of some Pioneer Millwork flooring suggest their history and character: Settler's Plank, Foundry Maple, the Attic Collection. “We take great care in preparing the surfaces of those woods so that the original texture and the original patina is left intact. But we also make sure it is milled and produced using modern technologies so that it will fit together like a modern hardwood floor would. We want to make it easy for installers and contractors to work with.”

End-users who'd like to brag that their lobby flooring was once part of the Delaware & Hudson Railroad facility can receive a suitable for framing certificate. Slusser has visited a restaurant which proudly displays a metal plaque bragging that its floor came from canal timbers.

Much of today's reclaimed flooring is in species that are now somewhat rare. D&H railroad facility was heavy in long-leaf southern yellow pine, which was very available in the mid-1800s. Now only 2 percent of those forests remain in the United States, because it was used so much during the industrial revolution, almost to the point of extinction. “That's a species that's very hard to get in the same quality in new material,” said Slusser. “You can find it plantation grown these days, but it doesn't hold a candle to the reclaimed variety.”

Pioneer Millworks is an FSC certified facility, and it's powered completely by its own renewable energy. The products qualify for LEED credits in several categories.

The company sells to independently owned lumber yards and dealers who sell flooring materials. Key merchandising aids include a showroom display tower with room for 16 different 2 foot by 2 foot panels. Potential customers can get dealer information directly from Pioneer's website.

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