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What are barnboards?

Feature_barnboard_mar12.jpg

How can they be used?

Reclaimed lumber is processed wood taken from structures and used largely for decoration. Colloquially known as barnboards, this upcycled lumber is actually sourced from a variety of old structures. Barns, factories, power poles, fences and windmills are all viable sources for the antiqued wood, with price dependent upon the age, quality, and the dealer. Defunct factories and derelict buildings no longer useable as the structures they were built to be, actually end up being worth more torn apart. There was a time when the used timber would have been thrown in a chipper and sold for mulch, now however, the "green timber" is a growing trend. Barnboards are desirable for three main reasons: aesthetic designs, environmental concerns, and the diminishing quality of newer lumber.

Most commonly, barnboards are used for renovations and aesthetic pieces such as panelling, wainscoting, flooring, and other small rebuilds. Hank Vedder of The Wood Source in Manotick, Ontario speculates that it is the unique history of the reclaimed wood that people are after. "People want the history, the story of using a part of barn that was built in the 1800s." The Wood Source, established in 1953, began using reclaimed lumber in the late 1990s due to an increase in requests and recommendations made by clients and associates. The high consumer demand for antique lumber has few drawbacks, other than a finite supply. "It is certainly limited, that's why it's somewhat of a unique industry... but certainly in Canada we still have an abundant supply," says Hank.

While the recycling of resources in times of need has always been practiced, recycling decoratively is a relatively new trend, and one not devoid of merit. In the 1980s environmental concerns were growing. Talk of deforestation caused the West Coast lumber industry to begin reusing lumber on a large scale. As environmental measures fueled the reclaimed lumber availability, the newfound prevalence of the wood peaked consumer and designer interest. Now, a largely stylistic choice, barnboards retain their waste-reducing agenda.

The quality and strength of lumber is also thought to have changed since the Industrial Revolution. Species like the Longleaf pine, a resilient softwood highly resistant to mold and insects, was often used in building structures at the turn of the 20th century. Over-sourcing these ancient species has found some, like the Longleaf pine, to become less abundant and thus less used in building, hence the value of older woods. Also, simply put by Hank of The Wood Source: "New wood is from new growth, thus not as strong, not as proven."

Changes in wood quality from the late-1800s to now can be seen in the effect of pollution on new timber; it has been speculated that trees growing in a time without the same degree of pollution have a greater integrity of composition. As well, the sheer age of some the virgin growth timber, plucked after hundreds of years of growth from soil untouched has contributed to the legend of the strength of the recycled lumber.

The hardiness of the barnboards are part of their appeal. Pre-used wood doesn't suffer the growing and contracting pains of freshly cut lumber. Reclaimed wood has been exposed to the elements for so long, it's not about to warp. As our Wood Source expert Hank tells us: "Typically out of a barn you're not going to get 100 per cent yield. Any of the sill plates down at the ground will have decayed. But anything else, for example the grey barnboard that you see on the outside of a barn, has weathered for 100 years or more  and that's what people want because the weathering brings out the sort of veins in it, gives it that rough texture. So it rains and it dries out, and because it dries out, the lumber stays in tact. It weathers naturally but still stands up."

Barnboard is the choice lumber for those drawn to a cozy weathered look. Environmentally friendly, and with a strength virtually unmatched by newer lumber, reclaimed timber is a trend likely to last as long as the wood is available. The old wood is currently available in lumber stores and specialty stores. For the more enthusiastic renovator, approaching the owners of turn of the century structures which have lost their usefulness, and offering to remove the old barns, mills, fences, corrals, cattle chutes, etc., free of charge, is one of the many ways to lay hands on the past.

By Sarah Fahie

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