Old, Weathered and New Again

Virgin woods are re-invited into modern homes

Photography by Robert Clark

In 2009, Randy Hydrick needed to get creative with his career. As a trim contractor, the home building market simply dried up for him. 

“Across the field from my home sat a long-ago abandoned farm house I’d seen for years,” says Randy, owner of Forgotten South Reclaimed Woodwork in Prosperity. “But, this time, I viewed the rough structure with a different eye. That 1859 house was built of old growth wood. Since reclaimed wood flooring and furniture was gaining in popularity, I realized that I had a new job.” 

Before the American Revolution, the tall, longleaf pine grew wild and in abundance, with one vast forest stretching from Virginia to Florida to Texas. Homesteaders harvested the readily available trees, averaging 125 feet tall and 4 feet wide, to build nearby barns, homes, churches and stores. 

“The tall, sturdy pines were so popular for home construction and ship building that many were transported up the eastern seaboard into New England and to Europe,” says Vann Cochran, owner of Salt Wood Co. in Mt. Pleasant. 

Timber companies, seeing the potential for profit, began forming. In large numbers they swarmed across the region. As the giant trees fell, trains hauled them to saw mills or mules dragged them to nearby rivers, where they were floated downstream to mills. 

In transit, some waterborne trees surrendered to the grip of riverbeds, where murky silt held them captive for a century. Today, these treasured “sinkers” can be valued at up to several thousand dollars each. The riverbed actually helped preserve old growth pine. Vann explains, “The sap, or tar, kept the pine logs from becoming water logged. The best preserved logs are found mired in mud under the water.” The mud also prevented water mollusks, known to bore into pine ship hulls, from destroying this old growth treasure chest.

In the later part of the 20th century, artisans began reclaiming wood to preserve its history and beauty. Suddenly, sinkers and wood from old structures morphed into “almost new” flooring, wall claddings, furniture, counters, doors, railings, mouldings and other wooden amenities for homes and public spaces.

 “I prefer wood that was harvested in the late 1700s to early 1800s,” Randy says. “Sometimes, the nails that were used will help date the wood. Square, hand-forged nails usually indicate the wood is old growth. I once had some boards I couldn’t pry apart. When I looked closer, I found they had been joined by mortise and tenon!” 

Before Edwin Dowd dismantles an old barn, he inquires about its age. “As a practice, I ask the age of the structure,” says Edwin, co-owner with his son Lowell, of Dixie Heartpine in Prosperity. “It has to be constructed of wood harvested before the late 1800s. Ninety percent of our reclaimed wood is antique heart pine. We use it mostly for hand crafting furniture and flooring. And the patina is exceptional. This old growth wood has a warm feeling to it. When you see it, it’s irresistible –– most people feel they have to touch it.”

Pine, oak and cypress are the woods most in demand in the South. Because the longleaf pine grew plentifully, it was most often used then and still is now. As pines competed for sunlight through the thick tree canopy, they grew slowly, producing tight growth rings and strong, hard lumber. “The pine lumber we see in big box stores today is grown on tree farms. It lacks the tight growth rings, strength and character of antique heart pine,” explains Brian Johnson, sales executive for family-owned Old American Lumber in Union. 

Oak, tending to have a course texture, is durable and heavy. “Oak does not have the sap that pine does,” says Vann. “It survived simply because it was so hard. Our favorite characteristic of oak is revealed when planing uncovers a beautiful, amber colored wood, baked by years in the sun and snow.”

Cypress, cut from swamps and floated downstream in the late 1800s and early 1900s, has a loose grain. “Its beautiful imperfections are caused by bacteria, not insects, as some believe,” Vann explains. “Pecky cypress, as it is called, is actually a ‘B’ grade wood because of its imperfections.”

Each piece of wood acquired a unique patina as it aged — a natural process not replicated in any two pieces of wood. This unique quality is what people are willing to pay for. “People like the character marks — the nail holes, knots and other impurities,” Vann says. “Add the many bumps and bruises, and you have character. Each injury adds character and history to a piece.”

But, pricing is difficult to determine. “When people call and ask the price of our flooring or wall claddings, I can’t give them a quote on the spot. We have to discuss the quantity of wood, width of the boards and preferred wood and finish,” explains Brian Johnson. Old American Lumber specializes in flooring, barnwood (to include sliding barn doors), reclaimed beams, mantles, custom furniture and “farmwood.” Farmwood is new wood made to look old that can be easily cut to any size, aged and colored in any shade desired. Farmwood accounts for 90 percent of Old American Lumber’s sales and is becoming very popular as it is half the cost and easily customized. Being a custom sawmill, they can make just about anything out of reclaimed wood.

Jeremy Johnson, co-owner of Prestige Contracting in Spartanburg alongside Tony Horton, enjoys working with customers. “It takes time to understand what customers want and to determine how we can meet their expectations,” he explains. “Often, we will reference another job as a starting point for what we want the finished piece to look like. However, no two pieces ever look alike. To make sure my customer is with me all the way, I physically lay out the boards in the pattern on the floor. It is important they understand and approve the project.” 

The most difficult part of the job is selecting the right wood for the project. Edwin shares, “First, I have to build the piece in my mind. Once I envision the project, I can then select the wood.”

When the old growth wood has been rescued, woodworkers clean the wood, removing nails and hardware. Wood that has been used in a hay or cow barn can harbor decades of embedded debris. Vann then explains that the wood is kiln dried to reduce the moisture content to an acceptable 8 to 10 percent. If the wood ultimately will go to a drier or more humid climate, the moisture content will be adjusted accordingly.

The kiln drying process is slow. “River recovered woods, like pine and cypress, require a longer drying period — usually four to eight weeks,” Brian describes. “Speeding the process, can ‘cook’ the wood.” After drying, the wood is ready for planing. 

“We have developed a skip planing process,” says Brian. “By adjusting the saw, the blade skips over the wood, taking off mere millimeters in high spots. Thus, the wood is planed in some areas and left alone in others to reveal various colors in the wood.” 

Old American Lumber recently started producing a line of engineered reclaimed flooring. This flooring uses a reclaimed ware layer, or top layer, of oak or pine. It’s durable and easily installed by floating, nailing or gluing. Because it is delivered prefinished to the job site, there is no sanding or finishing after installation. 

Reclaimed wood is turning up in distinguished homes everywhere — even in offices and public spaces. Jeremy hones his skills on accent walls, focal points and bar tops. “We created a bar top and table and chairs at Brown Room Thrift, an upscale thrift and coffee shop in Spartanburg,” he says.

David Marshall, a furniture builder in Greenville with DM2furnishings, created an outdoor bar for Harley Davidson of Greenville. He used materials supplied by Old American Lumber to build a bar and liquor shelving at The Kitchen Sync, Greenville’s first eco-friendly restaurant. And Spartanburg Regional Hospital selected him to create and build industrial style tables for the creative breakout room in their new offices in a former textile mill. 

Sometimes, clients want an alternative to the natural color and texture of wood. “We often apply a lime wash to old barn wood,” says Vann. “We cover the piece in lime slurry and allow it to dry. We then remove the coating in varying degrees until we get the look we want. There’s nothing more beautiful than a hand rubbed wax over the lime washed pine.” 

While honing his new craft, Randy keeps his foot in the new home industry door. “I still build new homes. Just about every house I build calls for something reclaimed. I’m able to create the perfect mantle, shelving unit or counter that makes the homeowner happy,” he says.

Today, every antique railing, moulding and cladding connects modern home owners with their past. “This reclaimed wood offers us a glimpse into the lives of those gone before us — those who improved their own lives and the lives of others yet to come,” Vann says.

Ever mindful of the heritage with which they have been entrusted, today’s artisans continue to explore new techniques and applications to give new life to antique wood.

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