Forest and Wood Products Australia Limited (FWPA), a not-for-profit company that provides research and development services to the Australian forest and wood products industry, defines recycled timber as “timber that has been previously processed and used in a given application, then subsequently removed and made available for re-use in a similar or altered form.”
These pieces of timber are often salvaged from structures such as old barns, abandoned warehouses, dilapidated factories, and the like. Specialist companies then recycle the timber by grading it, detecting and removing old nails and bolts, dislodging damaged sections, and re-milling it for re-use.
Advantages of recycled timber
The most obvious advantage of recycled timber is that it is more environmentally efficient, since it reduces the demand for new lumber and the corresponding transport costs (especially if originally imported from another country) while also lowering the unnecessary wastage of old, disused, but still useful timber.
In Australia, forest services were established early in the 20th century to manage and protect the remaining forest on public lands. For nearly a hundred years, therefore, a majority of timber production has been sourced from legal quotas apportioned to public forests.
If the recycled timber was originally utilized before the implementation of this controlled logging system, it’s possible it came from old-growth trees, whose denser grain is superior to those of trees now mostly grown in tree farms or sustainably managed forests, which are cut before having reached full maturity.
Many, moreover, are partial to the rustic and vintage look of recycled timber, which is not generally manifested in new timber grading.
Advantages of new timber
New timber can be responsibly sourced with the following accreditations, making it almost as eco-friendly as recycled timber:
- FSC-certified (a Forest Stewardship Council certification is internationally recognised as the most rigorous environmental and social standard for responsible forest management)
- PEFC-accredited (the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification is the world's largest forest certification system)
- Australian Forestry Standard’s COC-certified (Chain of Custody tracks a wood or forest product from its origin in a certified forest through it its end use by the consumer)
New timber is easier to machine into preferred specifications than recycled timber. The latter originates from disparate sources and will reflect its previous usage in different geographical areas that experience a wide range of environmental exposures. Recycled timber also inevitably comes in varying dimensions, aside from originally receiving assorted treatments and surface finishes.
Consistent availability is another advantage of using new timber because the supply of specific recycled timber species can be erratic. Even when readily available, recycled timber’s visual grading can be unpredictable given possible imperfections that may result from nail and bolt holes, as well as its pre-treatment and exposure history. FWPA issued its “Interim Industry Standard: Recycled Timber—Visually Graded Recycled Decorative Products” to guide recycled timber manufacturers, suppliers, and users. While exhaustive with its suggested visual grading requirements, it cautions: “Detailed discussions between purchasers and suppliers prior to specifying or ordering recycled timber is the key to a successful commercial transaction.”
New timber also allows more uniform moisture content control. While it is true that recycled timber can sometimes be considered sturdier than new timber because its older age means it has had more time to rid itself of moisture content than kiln-dried new timber, there are caveats. For example, recycled timber often comes from large logs and posts; once split, they could bow due to trapped core moisture. Also, recycled timber of mixed species may expand and contract at different rates that may not be foreseen as easily as with new timber.
Regarding moisture content in recycled timber, FWPA’s Interim Industry Standard advises: “Critical changes may arise due to moisture content change. For example, the formation of large checks affecting the structural adequacy of the piece or excessive twist affecting the utility of the piece. Such changes in a piece may be cause for rejection of the piece with respect to its final application.”
New and recycled timber each have their distinctive attributes. Explain your project-dependent aesthetic and functional requirements to specialists who can help you discern which of these two timber options best suits your needs. In the end, whatever the decision, your choice will result in a design distinguished by the timeless appeal of timber.