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Keys to Identify and Work with Antique Lumber

An interview with Richard Woods, CEO of Albany Woodworks, expert on reclaiming old-growth Heart Pine and Cypress.

Richard, after consistently manufacturing high quality Antique Cypress and Longleaf Heart Pine for the last forty years, you must have a lot of insight into the antique lumber industry.  What is old-growth lumber and how difficult is it to find?

Richard: For the wood lover and for the craftsman whose products deserve the best materials, the process of finding quality old-growth heartwood is quite a journey. The old-growth forests where these materials were once found are rare.  The few remaining unharvested old-growth trees are protected in national forests. These forests once harvested, take between 500 and 1200 years to regenerate.

(Above):  Richard's company reclaims these well-seasoned beams from old wood buildings scheduled for demolition - saving this quality antique lumber from the landfill.

So, I can imagine that can make the process of finding old-growth wood difficult.  What is your secret to success in locating quality materials? 

Ever since the harvest of the the last big trees, craftsmen like us have turned to reclaiming lumber from buildings scheduled for demolition which were constructed from old-growth lumber. This began a movement in re-purposing ancient woods, known as "reclaimed." The skills we developed for reclaiming antique lumber are much more complicated than the old way of simply harvesting trees.

What do you look for in determining good antique lumber and what is your reclaiming process?

Old wooden buildings scheduled for demolition must be found and then analyzed to determine construction materials. Once we have identified the building contains the correct quality and species of wood, the building is then disassembled carefully and we ship it to our warehouse facility. To bring this process full circle, and to make the intensive and careful reclaiming process economical, other materials such as brick and steel are reclaimed and brought to market.

(Above): At Albany Woodworks' large lumber processing facility skilled craftsmen work with the reclaimed antique lumber to bring out rich natural characteristics only present in quality old-growth wood.

Just because a building was built one hundred and fifty years ago doesn't mean it contains quality materials. In the beginning, when we opened our doors, we found the learning curve on how to reclaim lumber as a business is steep to say the least. But after testing several methods pioneered by early southern craftsmen and working with my wife and business partner Judith on developing the business, we were able to streamline our process. We have maintained a steady supply of quality heart pine and cypress ever since, which I believe is the secret to Albany Woodworks long-term success.

After forty years what is your favorite part of the business - what inspires you? You seem to have dedicated a large portion of your life to innovating what has become the sustainable building industry—what do you want Albany Woodworks' legacy to be?

My favorite part of my business, is rediscovering the beauty of well crafted reclaimed lumber, and being able to share that historical element with my customers in their home. This material continues to become harder and harder to find—as will any real source of high quality wood. Farm-grown and Chinese imported timber will never give us the durability and lifetime of value available to us now in reclaimed antique lumber.

The process of converting old buildings into finely crafted antique building products has its own challenges—since it is very time consuming with a high percentage of waste - but it is also very rewarding. To see beautiful old timbers, once doomed to a landfill, given new life at our mill is magical and continues to amaze me. It is a very intensive, hands-on process that can seem thankless at times, but saving this beautiful wood and sharing our customers' excitement when they see the quality of our finished product is very worthwhile.

As to our legacy, when its all said and done, we hope that Albany Woodworks' craftsmanship will be remembered for doing justice to this historically-important and scarce resource. Perhaps remembered for being one of the original founders of the reclaimed building materials industry.

Richard Woods is a reclaimed lumber and sustainable building expert with 40 years’ experience in the industry. His family owned and operated business in Southern Louisiana was one of the first in the country to realize the incredible potential of reclaimed lumber. Visit the Albany Woodworks informative website