Canadian Woodworking

Upcycling: How and Why You Should Start Looking for Century-Old Lumber

Author: Dave Rogers
Photos: Dave Rogers (Lead Photo by Rob Brown)
Published: October November 2016

There are many buildings in Canada that were built in the 1800s and are now being demolished. Instead of having all the beautiful and functional lumber added to a landfill site, we should be using it to build new products. The new piece will not only be functional for many years to come; it will also have an interesting story with it.


It has been nearly four years to the day since I walked out of that tech company office one final time. The vague, uncharted future that I had convinced myself to believe in was suddenly in jeopardy. My days of being underworked and overpaid would inevitably come to an end. From business casual to work boots and a tee, my transition into the shop was almost seamless. And while it may present itself as a step backwards to some, it has proven to be the best decision I have ever made.

Fast forward to July 2016, and I find myself a little more than a year into my own woodworking venture, at least as a registered business is concerned anyway. My monthly income has been both unpredictable, and significantly reduced. Work–life balance is almost non-existent, and my muscles are continuously sore. All of that said, I have never been happier. What was once just a hobby is now a significant part of my daily life.

Lots of Character
This is the material from Rogers’ first decent dumpster find. The wood is full of square nail holes and one piece even has a signature in calligraphy from back in the 1880s. It’s hard to find wood with more character.

A Reno Find
These 2x4s were removed from a local century home renovation. Rogers cleaned the wood up, milled it to size, then made a kitchen counter top from them for the owners.

Barn Beams
Though he tends to avoid barn beams, as they are very common, Rogers still has a hard time saying no when they’re offered. A few have since been cut into mantles, while the rest will be milled into generic dimensions for future use.

Save the Small Pieces
Proving that every little piece can have a use, Rogers makes lamp bases from the offcuts of larger pieces.

Make the old new again

Whether through good luck, or good management, my interest in salvaging materials from 19th-century structures meshes well with the worlds growing interest in living “green”.

Possessing degrees in both history and business, perhaps I’m a bit of an anomaly amongst small-shop owners. Beyond a simple “interest” in history, however, I consider neither to be an advantage. Instead, it is the joy and comfort I derive from time spent in the shop, along with a self-assigned task of preserving pieces of our past, which motivates me to continue.

Admittedly, there is no magic formula to be followed when it comes to building a successful business. What works for you may have no effect on the next person. That said, I believe it to be within our own best interests to share our experiences, as some degree of commonalities are sure to exist.

Where are upcycled materials?

To some, it is reclaimed; to others, it is salvaged. Some may refer to my creations as either upcycled or repurposed, but I see them as fragments of the past, reborn for the modern world. Regardless of the verbiage, my business would be nothing without an ongoing supply of appropriate materials.

Even when my shop was little more than idea, material sourcing was always a primary concern. Not because there is any shortage of century old structures being demolished; rather, it’s the difficulty in trying to work with the involved parties, and the red tape that will often prevent a contractor from simply passing things along. Instead, leaving the demolished remains of preconfederation era structures to be destined for a landfill, while like-minded individuals look on in both anger and frustration.

Having made a rapid transition from not having enough materials to being nearly out of storage space, I offer up a few tips on how to both collect, and maximize the utility of, reclaimed timber. Appearing in abundance today, the high-quality stuff from the 1800s is a finite resource. Let’s not see it go to waste.


As is often the case, word of mouth has proven incredibly valuable. Tell everyone you know. Tell them about what you do, why you do it, and the materials you use. Before I even had a business number, a friend of my dad was out for lunch one day when he was introduced to another individual. This person just happened to have an entire barn’s worth of hand hewn timber he was looking to get rid of. Two 15-foot trailers worth to be exact.


Open the newspaper, or check it out online. Generally speaking, when there is construction/demolition work being done on a historic building, somebody is going to write about it. Take note, and pass by at some point. You never know who you might run into.


Perhaps this is starting to sound like Business 101, but the need for networking applies to nearly every business in the world. Get to know some local contractors, and introduce yourself to the demolition guy as well. The best materials I have worked with to date were brought to my attention by a contractor contact. Refer back to tip #1 if you need help with the dialogue when introducing yourself.


Having been preached this idea for years, it seems as though it has finally started to resonate. If you see something that you want, ask for it! Provided that there’s no concerns over liability – and assuming they don’t have other plans for it – there is really no reason for anyone to deny an opportunity to reduce demolition waste. After all, they have to pay for its disposal. In some cases, it is next to impossible to meet with the decision maker in person. Take the time to leave a voicemail, send an e-mail and even drop off a letter. You have to get the ball rolling somehow, so be persistent.


Having spent the first day of the July long weekend collecting icedamaged dock boards from the rocky shorelines of Ontario cottage country, and my last picking through a privately run wood disposal site for discarded dock cribs, I firmly believe that every little piece has a use. And even though they don’t fit my 19th-century criteria, they still come with a story. In this case, it’s a story that helped generate 40-plus sales of a particular product last summer.


Though I will stop short of recommending the practice to others, it would be a lie to suggest that I haven’t found myself in the depths of a dumpster on more than one occasion. My only defense is that such actions are just another part of my contribution in helping to divert waste from our landfills. When all else fails, you just have to do what feels right.


Having put in both time and energy to acquire your materials, why would you then turn around and throw some of it out? While I have multiple dustbins, and one for “garbage” wood, the biggest ones are for my end cuts. Once again, I believe that every last piece has a use. Only time and persistence will help you determine what that is. For me, it’s lamps: a product that I never dreamt I would make, and yet it is amongst those that I am most proud of.

While its historical value is subjective, I have been both incredibly happy, and even surprised, by the quality of materials that have been collected to date. With few exceptions, much of my lumber has been salvaged from mid-to-late 1800s construction. From structures including a county jail, a church, and a beautiful stone house that was knocked down to make way for the eastern extension of Ontario highway 407.

When it comes down to it, there is clearly no shortage of materials out there. And for those who will continue to pursue a more sustainable approach to design, this will forever be the case. It is entirely possible that there may never be a substitute as enjoyable to work with as first-growth timbers, but there will always be something else.

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