Thoughts On Working With Reclaimed Wood


Working with reclaimed wood can be very rewarding once the final product comes together. Unless you are purchasing it from someone who has already pulled the nails and cleaned the surface be prepared to put some effort into preparing it for projects. Collecting and preparing the raw materials often requires a lot of hard work. Having worked with a lot of reclaimed wood over the past several years more and more projects are demanding it especially since completing a barn tear down over the past winter. I thought I would share some of the things I have learned and the things that have really helped me along the way for anyone that might want to do the same.

Cleaning – reclaimed wood can be extremely filthy, especially wood pulled from old barns that have housed livestock and random critters over the years. Here are a few things that have proven effective.

  • Wire brush (brass), brass wires are softer and will be less likely to damage jointer and planer knives if any are left on the surface of the wood.
  • Grinder with brush attachment (brass), a grinder is quicker when there is a lot of surface area to cover. This is best done outside because it’s super filthy work.
  • Belt Sander with 80 or 120 grit sanding belts. Make sure at the very least that breathing and eye protection is worn. Hooking up to a dust collection system or shop vac attachment is also recommended. I use one often to quickly clean the surface after cleaning larger chunks of dirt or whatever off with a scraper or wire brush. This allows me to bring out the color of the wood slightly without removing the rough saw marks if that happens to be the look I want at the time.
  • Paint scraper or putty knife, for loosening thicker deposits of mud or muck. I won’t get graphic so use your own imagination when it comes to farm animals.
  • Power washing, I have actually taken some reclaimed materials to the car wash to clean the grime off. This is a great way to quickly clean multiple pieces. Avoid soaking thoroughly and allow the wood to air dry for a few days before using in a project.

Nail Removal – this is highly critical to avoid damage to power tools and potential injury.

  • Metal detector for wood, investing in a good metal detector specifically for lumber is a must if you are going to be working with reclaimed wood on a regular basis.
  • Nail pulling pliers, the nails will be rusted and bent or broken off. Good nail pulling pliers will be a huge help.
  • Claw hammer, when pulling use on the shaft of the nail, pulling in a sideways direction, not the head as it will most likely pop off. A nail punch combined with the hammer will also help drive out any nails that are broken off within the wood.

Protection – health and safety is essential

  • Eyes, safety goggles, preferably goggles that are ventilated and designed to work in conjunction with a respirator so they do not get fogged up while working.
  • Lungs, a good respirator is essential, this is where is pays to invest in something other than the cheap dust masks. An air purification system also helps; a ceiling mounted unit is nice, as it doesn’t take up valuable floor space in smaller shops.
  • Ears, hearing protection is critical when using power tools especially during any milling operations that require a jointer or planer.
  • Hands, gloves will protect your hands from splinters mainly but they also serve to keep your hands clean from all the filth. Handling all the dry wood will also cause your hands to dry out as well which can be painful when the skin starts to crack.

Once all the cleaning and milling is complete there is one final note to add on using reclaimed wood. Make sure to take time to drill pilot holes for screws as the wood can split easily especially near the ends of the boards. Once a board starts to split it will continue to split unless it can be repaired, typically with some wood glue. If possible pause and correct, and continue on once the glue has dried.

Feel free to add your own experiences in the comments.


thanks for the information . Leaned a couple of things this morning


You’re welcome. Good to know you learned something. Thanks.

There is a great deal of work to reclaimed barn wood. Your article covers it well.


“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Benjamin Franklin

Great artical. i love working with reclaimed wood. it can create a challenge at times.

Jeff Vandenberg aka "Woodsconsin"

So much work…. Ugh. I did recently acquire a nice pallet that contains some oak. Came with a delivery from Lowe’s. Maybe today I’ll get around to busting it up.

Losing fingers since 1969

Very nicely put. One really can’t skip anything either. I have worked with mainly pallets, which adds a drying time to some of the wood. Nothing ruins a piece than wood that shrinks.


Great advice. It is very important to use proper eye and breathing protection. You never know what is hiding in the dirt and dust from old barn wood.

Greg Holden

Yes as Boon said you never know what is lerking. Here I scratch my leg on the bark of a log and ended up with a very serious infection. It just kept getting worse. It took almost 4 months to clear up.

Jeff Vandenberg aka "Woodsconsin"

Ouch, that is nasty. What was it?