The phrase reduce, reuse, recycle is purposely listed in order of sustainability. It is always better to reduce our consumption, then reuse products, and only then to recycle as much as we can.
As I mentioned last month, we have made a commitment to using reclaimed building materials as much as possible, and the centrepiece of this strategy is reclaimed Douglas-fir beams originally milled in British Columbia.
Although now fairly unique, Douglas-fir was the structural steel of a century ago when millions of board feet of fir were harvested and milled.
In the 1880s, the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway created a greater demand for B.C. lumber. With the railway’s completion in late 1885, lumber exports to eastern Canada and the world increased as railways were extended right into the logging camps. By 1912, there were 365 kilometres of logging track on the British Columbia coast.
Around 1897, the steam-powered donkey engine, introduced from the U.S., replaced oxen. The steam donkeys increased the speed of work and volume of timber that could be logged, but they also increased the danger to the workers. Another innovation was the “high lead system,” in which a line high over the skids pulled or lifted the logs over obstacles.
Today, the mill buildings themselves provide a primary source of reclaimed wood. Some of these buildings and complexes housed more than a million square feet of floor space and can yield three to five times that amount of board feet of flooring. One of the most famous is the Long-Bell Mill south of B.C. in Washington state.
In 1918, lumber baron Robert A. Long’s southern U.S. timber holdings were nearly depleted. He and a small crew went on a horseback exploration of the virgin forests in the Cascade Mountains in southwestern Washington, where it is estimated that the trees averaged nine feet in diameter and 150 feet in height. It must have been breathtaking, even for a man who had spent a lifetime logging ancient forests.
The Long-Bell Lumber Company purchased 70,000 acres that held about 3.8 billion board feet of lumber. Construction of the 72-acre mill complex and the town that would support 14,000 mill workers began in 1922. The mill reached full capacity in 1926, milling two million board feet of lumber a day.
The mill fell silent in 1956 because of the move to cheaper, less permanent construction, but left itself as a legacy: 30 mill buildings that averaged 700 feet in length, constructed with large, old-growth timbers of clear, straight-grained fir.
When it was decided to dismantle the buildings, word quickly spread among timber framers, but Bill Gates bought seven million board feet, quickly pricing the timbers beyond their reach. But even Gates couldn’t use it all, and over the next few years, five million board feet became available to timber framers across the continent, further fueling the timber frame revival.
While our timbers are among the biggest I’ve ever seen, they are babies compared to what was harvested and milled from the west coast of North America. The Long-Bell Mill produced the incredible lumber cants in the photo below in the early 1900s, but it was the salvaged timbers from the dismantled mill itself that contributed to many modern timber frame homes.
We sourced our beams privately so I cannot recommend any reclaimed lumber dealers. However, below are some places to start if you are looking for reclaimed lumber.
- Century Wood Products Offers reclaimed wood building supplies and provides custom cutting and milling services.
- Logs End Inc. Recovers and mills heritage Canadian old-growth wood to produce dimensional lumber, flooring, paneling, beams and more.
- Nostalgic Wood, Inc. Produces kiln dried custom milled flooring, trim and doors from reclaimed lumber.
- Timeless Material Company Offers salvaged lumber and timber, flooring, antiques and more.
- West Lincoln Barnboard & Beams Ltd. Offers aged antique wood flooring, panelling, and door and window trim recycled from old barn woods by barn salvage specialists.
Reclaimed wood is not only beautiful, it’s environmentally conscious as well. It is estimated that over three trillion board feet of lumber have been produced since the early 1900s, and much of that lumber is still in old buildings.
I like the idea of living under ceiling beams that are at least 300 years old. Finding and reclaiming some of that old lumber will give your building project a unique appearance as well as demonstrate a commitment to reusing our resources. After all, sustainability means meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.