The Benefits of Reclaimed Wood

At the recently relocated Whitney Museum in Manhattan, few visitors are aware that the boards beneath their feet have as much history as the art on the walls. Lauded as a major architectural achievement, the sleek structure incorporates over 60,000 square feet of long-planked, antique Heart Pine in its floors, the largest of its kind in the U.S. The effect is stunning, no doubt, but this significant design choice is indicative of a larger trend…one that’s extending beyond public spaces like galleries and restaurants into the homes of discerning consumers. Repurposed, antique wood flooring is de rigeur for haute homeowners seeking a custom look.

“Our business has grown tremendously in the past few years,” said Jamie Hammel, president of The Hudson Company, which produced the floors for the Whitney. “I think there has been a large push toward this artisanal, handmade aesthetic…the narrative or the provenance, the history or the story is important to people.” The Hudson Company sources wood from a variety of historical structures all over the New York Metro area. Boards may have had previous lives in factories or corncribs, even water tanks on the roofs of buildings. It is that character and backstory that makes each floor unique. And yet it’s what makes manufacturing the product such a painstaking endeavor.

Sourcing antique wood is a precarious process. “You can’t just demolish a building and collect the wood. You have to surgically remove the valuable pieces very delicately,” Hammel said, while explaining each step. Once the planks are extracted, they are transported to the mill where they are de-nailed and sawn into the required dimensions. Then the wood is graded based on the appearance of its “face” (does it look old or new?) and kiln-dried to remove moisture and kill any life-forms before being graded once again. Finally, defects are cut off. It’s a meticulous procedure, but one that ensures both the quality of the product and the eco-friendly aspect of its production.

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image: gentl & hyers

A large part of the wood’s popularity is because the trend towards small-batch and uniqueness is an antidote for the ever-increasing pace of our lifestyles. But consumers are also evolving environmental-consciousness into different areas. “People want to know how something was manufactured. Was it made sustainably and responsibly?” Hammel said. Recycling antique lumber lessens the amount of waste that ends up in landfills, but there’s more to it than that. New lumber is farmed like any other crop, harvested after 30 years of growth, wreaking havoc on the ecosystem and eating up energy. Reusing old lumber decreases the demand for new wood, lessening negative environmental influences.

Of course, reclaimed wood floors are prized for their beauty as much as for their eco-friendly production. Hammel outlined some of the design advantages when working with recycled lumber. Unlike mass- produced new hardwood, which typically comes in a standard size, antique planks can allow for grander widths and extended lengths, elongating narrow rooms or accentuating vast spaces. Plus, the varied surfaces and grains are ideal for distinctive patchwork patterns, such as Parquet de Versailles and Hungarian Point (a classic design that plays off today’s chevron trend). Even natural pits and imperfections are in demand. Mushroom wood, previously used for growing fungi, has a characteristic texture with a deep grain and caramel color, giving it an organic quality that fits in well in old homes.

But reclaimed wood isn’t just for rustic applications. Modern interpretations, like that at the Whitney, are on the rise. Hammel noted that since he started in the business five years ago, the trend has slowly edged toward a more clean and sleek appearance. “The finishes are evolving. We’re finishing reclaimed wood floors to be much lighter and whiter than in past years, to make it more contemporary and appeal to a younger demographic.” These softer tones of gray and blonde offer a sparser, Scandinavian aesthetic. Also trending are low-sheen and matte finishes, the opposite of the high-gloss floors of old.

Hammel said the care for reclaimed wood is exactly the same as any other hardwood flooring, but that aging is to be expected. “Keep in mind that the floor will have signs of history. There will be nail holes, cracks in the floor, all the signs of the historic prior use. I wish we could say we made the same floor twice; it would make our manufacturing process a lot easier. But every one is different.” And every one tells a story.