When done properly and safely, reclaiming old boards can be a cost effective way to get materials for home projects. Credit: Sam Schipani / BDN

For home do-it-yourselfers, nothing beats the smell of new lumber. But these days that scent can come at a pretty hefty price.

With lumber prices hovering around three-times above pre-pandemic levels, it can make good sense to use reclaimed materials instead of new boards for home projects. But there are some essential steps you can’t forget to make sure you’re working with the old wood safely.

That’s something Car Archer knows a thing or two about. He’s been reclaiming old lumber, boards, beams and wood ever since he took apart an 1825 colonial home with an attached barn back in 1984. Today he runs Archer’s Lumber in Troy where he specializes in recycled lumber.

Archer is all for reusing old lumber, but says there is a right way and a wrong way to go about it, especially when it comes to safety.

“I’ve seen in the news recently folks tearing down buildings from the bottom up and the roof fell on their heads,” Archer said. “You always want to start from the top down.”

It’s all too common, he said, for people to try to keep the roof up for as long as possible while they dismantle the interior of a structure to provide rain cover or shade. Either way, he said it’s a bad idea and it’s crucial to take it off first.

That means either climbing up and dismantling the roof piece by piece, according to Archer, or pulling the entire structure down with some mechanical help.

“Don’t be afraid to hook a strap to the ball on your car or truck and pull the whole thing down,” Archer said. “You can save a lot of time and it’s awfully easy to get at the lumber — plus it’s much safer — when it’s all lying on the ground.”

Once you have a pile of lumber, the next thing to think about are your feet.

“Go to a [store] and get a pair of stainless steel insoles and put them in your shoes,” Archer said. “I stood on a spike once, did my version of a pirouette and never even got a dent in that insole.”

Wearing any soft-soled shoe around old lumber is an accident waiting to happen, Archer said. Old wood is often full of rusted nails or sharp splinters that can easily pierce leather and skin.

“You can get hurt real fast,” he said. “If you are not going to use solid insoles, stay on clean ground on the outer edges of the pile and work your way through it.”

Before you reuse your old boards, you need to inspect each one for old nails and remove them. Most nails can be removed using a simple hammer with a claw end. Simply grab the head of the nail with the claw of the hammer and either twist or rock it back and forth to yank it out. If the nail is poking out the other side, you can also hammer it to loosen it up and make it easier to grab by the head.

If the nail is too embedded to grab with a claw hammer, you may need to use what’s called a nail kicker that allows you to dig into the wood and grab the nail head. These can be a simple grasping tool with a notched end, or you can get a more powerful version that runs off of compressed air.

On very old boards, Archer said you can employ a sweeping technique.

“You can knock the old nails to the left and then knock them to the right and they snap right off,” he said. “But keep in mind a piece of the nail will remain embedded in the wood and you’ll need to watch for it if you are going to run the board through a planer.”

It’s a good idea to remove all the nails you can before you pile up your reclaimed boards since the sharp ends of the nails can scratch or damage other pieces. Not to mention causing personal injury. Nails left in boards can also damage other tools like table saws or planers if the blades catch an unseen nail.

Once the boards are safely de-nailed and organized, you can use them on your project right away — or you may want to first clean them.

If you think there may be insects in the wood, you can spray the boards with a mixture of one tablespoon of Borax to eight ounces of warm water. Pour it into a spray bottle and spray the boards down. Then let the wood dry in the sun for a couple of days.

To get any dirt or grime off the wood, all it takes is first going over it with a wire brush to loosen any dirt and then repeating with sandpaper. Not only does this clean the boards, you are not going to lose any of the interesting designs or patina that comes with its age.

“Just be smart and be safe about it,” Archer said. “Old lumber is great to use.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.