(This may be multiple related questions; assistance in breaking it up would be welcome if so.)

Many woodworkers have learned that a surprising amount of lumber, including some surprisingly good/interesting material, can be had cheap or free by deconstructing unwanted furniture and shipping pallets, rescuing it from house renovations, and the like. What are the best ways to prep this for reuse? What unusual sources are there? (I know some folks have gotten expensive woods cheap by spotting something on eBay worth more as wood than as constructed object.) What's the line between "worth repairing" and "worth scavenging" and "not worth the effort"?

I can start with a few observations/questions:

Obviously, going over it with a small metal detector to make sure there are no fasteners remaining to damage your tools is a good starting point. Lead paint is an obvious hazard to watch out for, as are termites. Pressure treatment can be a health risk. What else needs to be avoided?

Removing previous finish -- I've been told that paint is damaging to planer blades, and some folks just take a "veneer" layer off at the bandsaw to deal with it or keep an old set of planer blades around for this task. Do varnishes present the same risks? (I have a small stack of solid-oak flooring that could become picture frames or drawer components if I can clean it up without losing too much...)

What else does the aspiring upcycler need to know?


4 Answers 4


I used a belt sander to remove most of the finish of some old tiger oak flooring before running it through the planer. 80 grit sand paper is cheaper than blades. But I did keep a set of old blades to use for the first pass on all of them. A metal detector is a great investment if you'll be doing a lot of reclaiming.


Whether a peice of wood is worth it depends on how you are going to use it. If you want it for inlays then you don't need much viable wood. You just need enough to cut of the piece you want with a scroll- or band-saw. If you want to build a cabinet out of it then you will need a lot more.

You can scrape of the finish with a chisel. Sharpen it and hold it perpendicular to the surface. However depending on how you will use it you can leave it on.

  • In other words, you're using the chisel almost as a cabinet scraper, minus the burr that does the cutting for a scraper. Hmmmm. Not sure I'm convinced a real paint s raper wouldn't be better if you're taking that approach; kinder to the chisel, anyway.
    – keshlam
    Commented Jun 24, 2015 at 2:25

Sources: boat yards, Re-Store, yard/estate sales, furniture warehouse 'broken corner', curbs the night before trash day, rural antique stores, old condemned houses especially in historic areas, rural woodshops and lumber mills.

(Most important rule: keep eyes and ears open for opportunities.)

Tools: metal detectors to find nails, grinders (4.5" KwicCut 24 grit) and sanders, pressure washer and stainless steel brushes (welders' brushes).


On a different tack - antique restorers want old wood. This is because wood changes colors and sometimes other characteristics with time. For example exposure to UV light darkens light wood, and sort of bleaches dark woods. Pumpkin (orange-y) white pine gets that way from ageing. UV also can destroy lignin (the compound in wood that holds cellulose strands together), resulting in a rough surface, or one that is fuzzy looking with wisps of fibers waving in the breeze. Most people are also familiar with sunburned cherry. Place a small coin on a cherry scrap. Put the scrap + coin in direct sunlight for a few hours. Voila. The spot under the coin is lighter compared to the surrounding wood which is darker.

Long term ageing has effects deeper into the wood fibers than just sunburning.

Keeping that old look is important in this context. So restorers have stocks of old wood that they try to maintain most of existing the surface on, cleaned up by:

using finish removers
removing old glue with warm moist toweling
Using wood scrapers to remove fuzz

This all works because most older fine furniture used hide glue and shellac/copal/amber resins as a finish. All of which is easy to remove - resins with alcohol, hide glue with warmth and moisture.

Alkyd Varnishes and nitrocellulose lacquers took off as furniture finsih in the early 1900's. These require generally nastier and smellier chemicals to strip off the finish than alcohol. Craftsman furniture often used a stain made from petroleum distillate (aka tar), the modern version of this is roofing cement. After you get though the removing outer coat, you have flood the piece with mineral spirits and zap with a soft brass brush to evict the remaining "stain".

Framing wood and architectural wood has other problems - and require methods which the previous posters have covered. Methods that are very effective and that are more destructive than the stuff I've mentioned.

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