The Pros and Cons of Using Reclaimed Materials

By Catherine Zola

If you are limited in time or money, waiting for the right materials to show up can be a problem. If you live near several re-use facilities (dump, Re-Store, Thrift stores, etc) then your chances improve, but you still need the luxury of time to visit them regularly in search of the treasures you need. The more flexible you have with your design the easier your search will be. You can also start collecting material before you finish your design so you can factor in the sizes and shapes of things you’ve found.

I bought the hard wood floor for my tiny house from a guy on Craigslist before I was even sure I had the courage and money to start build. The poetry of buying a floor for a house that didn’t exist was lost on me since I was busy having an anxiety attack. Being unemployed and dropping $150 for oak flooring seemed imprudent, impractical and absolutely crazy given my lack of building experience. I actually doubted my sanity for a few weeks after. The thought occurred to me I might be having some kind of late mid-life crises or nervous breakdown triggered by a bad economy.

A week later, I won the money back when my brother dragged me off to a casino to celebrate his birthday. My shouts of “come on hard wood floor” got me some strange looks, but in the end Lady Luck blessed me with a full refund for the 13 boxes of oak which I took as a sign of encouragement.

So off I went, slightly more confident in my sanity, in search of Re-Stores where I purchased a baby bay window (bay-be says my friend Perry) in Oakland. If it hadn’t been the exact window I had been pricing on line for thousands of dollars I would have walked away in fear. But instead I bought it for $350. In Pasadena, I found the perfect French door which was the exact size I needed and even the color I wanted, for only $100. No fear with this purchase, because I was in a state of incredulous bliss. I couldn’t get out of there with my new door fast enough. Because I kept finding the exact things I needed, I thought I might be dreaming and if I didn’t hurry I was going to wake up before I got the house built.

french door in the house

So there I was with a floor, a door, and a bay-be window and no house. So I stacked it near the rest of our stuff in a warehouse we were borrowing. Then it occurred to me that the warehouse was the place to build. I blame the Vegas heat for the slow uptake. And I took another huge leap of faith. I bought a custom built trailer.

A House is Only as Good as its Foundation:

Unless you know a whole lot about trailers, can weld, or you find a hefty used trailer please spend the extra bucks to get a good one to build your house on. Even if you plan on not moving your house much remember this is the foundation of your home. You will want it to be strong and sturdy for a long time. Travel trailers with the top removed are not strong enough to hold 2×4 framing. They are designed to be light weight and hold flimsy aluminum siding with virtually no insulation and very little weight. You will also want to take weight distribution into consideration, while designing your house. You don’t want your house to be heavier on one side than the other for example. Ask a trucker or search how to load a trailer to learn more about the importance of weight placement. Learning these things can save your house and possibly lives. If you are building over 20 feet long you should also consider a triple axle (6 wheels total). I went out of my way to get a custom trailer and I still had trouble. Make sure you have someone who knows axles look over your trailer and determine if it is road worthy and capable of holding heavy framing and siding. And of course, get good tires.


Why Used Wood Can Be a Problem:
Wood is porous. That means things get down in it, grow in it, live in it. Old wood is beautiful but can harbor mold, pesticides, bugs and general rot. If you are chemically sensitive that can be just as bad or worse than the VOCs of new wood. Since alternative, safe building materials barely exist and are extremely expensive the other option is regular lumber. Paying attention to these details can keep you from getting sick later on. Mold can kill. Termites can turn your house into Swiss cheese.

Take into consideration your practical and aesthetic needs, space constraints etc. Then research materials and their uses and limitations. You can of course get creative with things, but make sure you know what you are doing. I almost glued down my hardwood floor because I couldn’t get a nail through the boards. Then I realized that wood contracts and expands with the weather. Glue would probably not have worked well. Wood comes in a wide variety of types. Some are heavier, others lighter. Certain wood works better for exteriors and others better for interiors. There are wood varieties that repel bugs (Cedar) and some that work better than others near water.

window and bed

One thing I highly recommend buying used is cabinets. I bought 5 of them for my house from 2 restores and the dump for an approximate total of $150. That is less than any one of them would have cost new. I cleaned them well and painted them and they are my kitchen cabinets and counter top holders. One is in the bathroom for a kitchen closet/medicine chest. Because they are not made with press board or heavy wood they are lighter than anything I could have figured out how to build myself and they make my house both practical and beautiful.

Sometimes it makes sense to buy used and recycle and other times not. Consider how long you want your house to last realistically. Remember – using quality materials can make the difference between having a box on wheels when you finish or a cozy, healthy, beautiful, home.

Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful — William Morris

Be sure and read Catherine Zola blog here: CatsTinyHome

22 thoughts on “The Pros and Cons of Using Reclaimed Materials”

  1. The wood terminology used is a bit confusing.

    “Wood is porous”. Not all wood is porous but all wood will eventually rot. If kept dry, wood can last for centuries. So, for recycled wood, look especially for it having been kept in a dry place.

    “Since alternative, safe building materials barely exist and are extremely expensive the other option is regular lumber.” I can only guess what you mean by ‘regular lumber’? But why would wood be the choice of last resort if it is safe and relatively inexpensive? Most recycled wood which was used indoors is likely safe. You should know where it came from and how it was used and you should know how to distinguish treated timber from non-treated timber.

    And wood does not ‘come in a variety of types’! Different woods have different properties which are each best suited for specific purposes. You should know a bit about wood and their properties before shopping for recycled wood so that you can recognize the wood species, understand its uses and know good value and good quality.

    • “Not all wood is porous…”? How do you suppose wood feeds and grows? All wood IS porous. And, yes, there are “different types of wood”. While it is true that one should educate themselves about various woods, not everyone will understand just what to look for. The author was writing in laymen terms so that the average Joe will get past the confusing “wood terminology”. Sometimes it is best for the greenhorn to go for new rather than old.

    • To your comment that “Most recycled wood which was used indoors is likely safe”, we’ve noticed plenty of interior wood in our re-stores and reclaimed shops that has been painted (trim, doors, cabinets, window frames, etc.). These are typically from older homes and could easily have layers of lead-based paint. As soon as you cut or sand, you’re releasing dangerous lead particles into the air.

      My point is simply that you need to be careful even with interior wood. Just because the wood itself wasn’t chemically treated doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use caution.

    • Your comments are really incorrect and misleading. Like jajaaj stated, all wood is indeed porous and will absorb moisture, some just less than others. Plastic and glass are not porous, but all wood, hardwoods and softwoods are porous. Treated woods typically used outdoors can also be reclaimed, but could be hazardous to machine, sand, etc. Boards with loose knots or softwood with exposed sap could be difficult to paint without a lot of extra work. If you find doors, windows and other millwork that has been made commercially, it’s likely made from a species well suited to its purpose like clear Douglas fir or pine. A wood like teak would be great for windows, but would be very expensive purchase new, but reclaimed from an old bench or boat, could be very valuable in a home. Bottom line.. do some research, sometimes there is no free lunch.

  2. Awesome Information! I hope to build me own home in 2014 and wondered about the finer details with recycling things I find along the way to put into my own home. Can’t wait!!!! Thanks!

  3. Very true and possibly very overlooked, I’m glad you took the time to share. Well wishes to you and your new home and Godspeed.

  4. clean with a mild bleach and anti-bacterial soap solution… cup of bleach and a healthy squirt of soap per five gallons of water…… and clear coat with a non-toxic product such as shellac….shellac is food safe and easy to repair…it comes from an insect in India and you can literally use it on food utensils…and it’s a vapor barrier…vapor barriers prevent oxygen from feeding the mold…mold needs oxygen….they are aerobes……and the bleach does a “killer” job.

  5. Make sure you know the source of used lumber.

    When I built my Tiny House, most of the lumber for the framing came from remodel projects or from old roof trusses that were never used.

    Some of the lumber had to have rotten ends cut off. Once the end is cut off with a nice square cut, you’re ready to use it.

    Don’t let a board that is warped deter you from taking it. A few strategic cuts you have small pieces that will come in handy as window or door headers.

    If you have lumber that is dirty, don’t be afraid to get out the scrub brush, soap, and water. Wash it down outside and let it dry on a sunny day. I had some boards that were brown and looked really awful. After a double scrub down and drying in the sun, they looked like brand new. Also, heavy residue may contain odor that may migrate into your home, so keep it clean.

    Beside saving money and re-using resources, another benefit of used lumber is if it’s at least 6 months old, it will most likely be dried and shrunk to its final dimension. This means you will have fewer cracks in walls and general shrinkage that you have to expect and plan for with fresh lumber.

    Also, lumber like plywood, that contains glues give off a outgassing as they cure. And this is most pronounced the first 6 months. The gassing can be very annoying causing eye irritations and lung infections. Used lumber will most likely not have this issue.

    If you need to acquire new lumber, and you have the time. Let your lumber sit some place protected from rain and moisture for 6 months and allow it time to shrink and out-gas before building your home.

  6. Thank you for a wonderful post on reuse materials and the journey you took to build your wee house. I would add one more issue to the lead and pesticides to be careful of – the Silent Spring Institute did a study that found some residents’ high PCB levels were due to wood floors that had been treated with ‘Fabulon’ in the middle of the last century. So make sure the reuse wood you are getting for floors wasn’t finished around that time:

    • Thanks Laurel for your additional info. That is amazing. Never thought about PCBs in wood flooring. There is no end to the things you have to take into consideration. It would be nice if there were really clean and sustainable materials for tiny houses. I always wanted a cob house because I figure dirt would, ironically, build the cleanest home but when you don’t own land you have to build on wheels and dirt is heavy 🙁

  7. Thanks everyone for defending me. I appreciate it! Of course all wood is porous even hard wood. It just has tighter pores. There is a lot to know about wood if you want to do it right and I know very little. Then you have to know about how to take care of the wood you do end up using. It all pretty much has to be treated for it to last or not stain etc. And then there is a lot to know about treatments, their toxicity, how often to apply ad infinitum. At some point when you are NOT a carpenter and you are building a house, you just have to pick one thing and run with it and hope it works. I did gobs of research and still feel hopelessly ignorant but I have a house! Sometimes it all works out relatively well despite our lack of knowledge. Minor miracles maybe.

    • Catherine, you are a great example to us for being brave and resourceful enough to take action for yourself and for not succumbing to the “analysis to paralysis” that can happen when trying to figure everything out perfectly. In the end, it looks pretty perfect to me, and it’s all yours! 🙂

  8. My biggest problem was how to store and inventory stuff. I stored things inside because that was my only dry storage. I ended up moving materials several times to be able to work on the area where it was stacked.

  9. One option never mentioned is pallets. Some of them are chemically treated, but some are only kiln dried. The chemically treated could be used on the outside of a home, and the kiln dried could be used indoors. Either way, it is cheaper than buying lumber. Many places give away pallets. Just learn which code is the one you need. Each pallet is SUPPOSED to be stamped with how it was cured. The codes can be found online.

  10. That’s a good idea to pay attention to the wood that you use. I feel like using reclaimed wood would be good for the environment, but I also don’t want any mold or anything in my house. I’ll have to make sure to inspect any reclaimed wood that I use on my house.


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