The 5 Dangers of Reclaimed Wood and How to Avoid Them

Determining if reclaimed wood is safe involves looking for mold, animal waste, exposure to chemicals, and no insect infestations.

Browse Instagram or Pinterest for “DIY wood projects” or "reclaimed wood" and prepare to be amazed and impressed. There are thousands of different projects showcased that are made with barnwood, pallet wood, and reclaimed wood. But, there are some things you should know before starting out on a project of your own. The importance of knowing where your reclaimed wood comes from isn’t just about sustainability or being eco-conscious; it’s also about your health. Here are some things you might not have known about barnwood, pallet wood, or salvaged wood.

Mold and Mildew In and On Reclaimed Wood

Recently there was an issue with mold in Nova Scotia where reclaimed wood from downed timber due to hurricane Juan was used in a shopping market. This wood eventually had to be replaced because of health concerns. When using recycled wood it is best to use wood that had minimal exposure to water and moisture. Ideally, the recycled wood should have never been in contact with the ground where it could get wet due to rain. Mold and mildew will look white and fuzzy when growing on wood. It is possible to treat wood with a bleach or vinegar solution and then let it dry for a couple of weeks, but it's best to avoid using wood with signs of mold or mildew altogether.

Volatile Organic Compounds In Wood

For most of these recycled woods, the issue at hand is something called “off-gassing” or “out-gassing.” This is when gases — dubbed volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — that were once trapped inside a material are slowly released into a new environment. This isn’t too big of an issue for projects like exterior siding, but inside your home or in a raised vegetable garden made of recycled wood VOCs may be leached into the soil and can become health hazards to you and your family.

Termites and Other Insects in Reclaimed Wood

In addition to off-gassing, older wood has other unique issues to consider such as insects and in particular, termites. Wood with termites can bring an infestation into your home, something that is decidedly unwise. Specialists can easily tell you if the wood you’re interested in shows signs of termite damage or habitation. Be sure to investigate this if there is barn wood that you’re interested in purchasing or reclaiming.

It also helps to know the history of the barn you’re reclaiming from. A barn that housed animals will require additional consideration and treatment. Animal feces can contain any number of bacteria that reside in the wood itself, leading to things like bacterial pneumonia if you aren’t properly protected when working with the wood. Always wear work gloves and a respirator mask when handling, cutting, and sanding barnwood.

Old Lead Paint on Wood

Save a barn - use reclaimed wood from Wyoming snow fences.

Depending on the age of the home you’re reclaiming lumber from, a number of issues can be present. If the wood you are recycling is from 1978 or earlier beware of lead paint. Wood with lead paint can release dust when cut or sanded that will contain lead particles that will make it into the air and then your bloodstream. Additionally, when it comes to old houses, dust can be composed of any number of unpleasant substances like black mold, and animal dander or feces. These dust particles can be easily broken down and released into the environment if they haven’t been removed from whatever wood you’re working with.

Wood with Toxic Chemicals Like Creosote or Pentachlorophenol

Railroad Ties and Trestles are a gorgeous way to add character to a project, but their industrial origin presents a host of chemical hazards. In order to preserve the trestles, softwoods are often treated with creosote or pentachlorophenol. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has noted some especially nasty side effects for working with wood treated with creosote and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has labeled pentachlorophenol as a “probable human carcinogen.” Railway trestles are not required to have any markings as to whether or not they’ve been treated, so it’s safest to stay away from them for project use.

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Where Can I Find Safe Reclaimed Wood?

Reclaimed wood sourced from recycled Wyoming snow fences is as pure a reclaimed wood that you can find. The aged wood from 12 foot tall snow fences is naturally distressed by the intense Wyoming weather for 7 to 15 years. The fence slats are aged above the ground away from barnyard animals, chemicals, and moisture. These conditions create our clean, safe, and consistent reclaimed wood. Centennial Woods' provides guaranteed 100% recycled and chemical-free reclaimed wood planks.

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