Reclaimed Wood Furniture: From Wood Waste Comes Beautiful, Sustainable Designs

reclaimed wood table
Image care of Parkman Woodworks

We talk a ton about food waste, but what about wood waste? About 35 percent of the wood cut for making products like tables, chairs, flooring, and stairs is wasted every year, according to the Forest History Society. We can be thankful, then, for the growing presence of raw or reclaimed wood furniture; this aesthetic trend may be just what we need to develop a more sustainably-minded attitude toward wood.

Sustainable Woodworking: Making the Most of the Raw Materials

In France, furniture-maker Jean-François Belk has noticed that in recent years, making more raw-looking products has two benefits: not only do they answer the demands of a trend, they also create less waste.

“Beautiful shapes are favored in art, and therefore in woodworking, and natural shapes, like that of wood, don’t need to be worked to become beautiful,” he explains. “You just need to transform them.”

In addition to keeping his wood as natural-looking as possible as he transforms it into furniture, Belk also creates smaller items with anything that has to be removed.

“For something big, like a staircase or a door, you’re going to want to use the beautiful part of the wood – the part without knots that’s nice, straight, square,” he says. “I use everything else to make little decorative objects, like a coatrack. That’s how you use as much wood as possible.”

But Belk goes a step further. With things that would have once been seen as faults or blemishes, like knots in the wood, he creates small objects like coasters and votive holders that display the natural beauty of these unique characteristics of the material.

reclaimed wood candle holder
Image by Jean-François Belk

“Before I started reusing these pieces, we estimated about a 30 percent of loss from the raw material,” he says. Now, he’s down to between 10 and 20 percent, and even these pieces he uses to heat his studio, to cut down on electric consumption and make sure that not even the sawdust goes to waste.

Finding a Home for “Waste” Wood

In England, meanwhile, Richard Mehmed is trying to keep what is usually seen as waste wood from being thrown into skips and buried, to the tune of 750,000 tons every year in the UK alone. Much of the remaining 4.6 million tons of unused wood is chipped and sent to biomass stations in Belgium and Germany.

Mehmed runs a wood recycling scheme to educate construction workers on how to sort wood on-site and protect solid, untreated wood from being destroyed. His project has launched 25 not-for-profit recycled timber enterprises throughout the UK, which supply wood for DIY projects and furniture makers like Chris Knipe, who uses pine pallet boards to make inexpensive kitchen tables.

“The pallet bearers are scored with grooves of between half an inch and an inch deep, to provide a structure for the pallets to rest on,” Knipe tells the Telegraph. “A lot of construction firms feel these grooves make the wood useless but I fill the grooves with another type of wood, like oak, and it creates a stripe all the way up the table leg, which really adds character to the piece.”

Reclaimed Wood: A Vintage Feel and A Sustainable Outlook

American furniture makers are also contributing to the trend. Parkman Woodworks is a Los Angeles-based collaboration between Graham Taglang and Jonathan Snyder that brings reclaimed wood back to life.

reclaimed wood
Image care of Parkman Woodworks

Turning to reclaimed wood as a medium happened almost by accident, according to Snyder: a purely aesthetic choice, at least at first.

“When you use reclaimed, there really is a life to it — each piece of wood has its own characteristics and each of those characteristics come from its previous life,” says Taglang.

“When you present it to somebody, when you bring it to their home, and they’re running their fingers over the little scrapes and nail holes and that sort of thing, and they really can appreciate those parts of it… it’s so unique.”

It’s perhaps no surprise that both men came from creative backgrounds: Taglang in acting and screenwriting, and Snyder in music. It was a desire to create something more concrete that brought both men to woodworking.

“When you’re playing music, the value is all very theoretical,” says Snyder. “Making furniture just seemed way more cut and dry and simple — you make something, it has apparent value, and it was just much more fulfilling to me.”

Of course, their choice also creates a more sustainable, more ecologically conscious product. Not only do they use wood from pre-existing sources, thus negating the need to cut new trees, but they are also careful with how they work with the pieces of reclaimed wood to avoid creating waste.

“We throw almost nothing away,” says Taglang. “There are small pieces that are cut off full blocks that have some kind of character too — we turn those into smaller items that we can then offer, like candleholders.”

“I would say we’re using between 95 and 98 percent of what we bring in,” adds Snyder.

The partners also decided to keep their sources local to Los Angeles, thus reducing their carbon footprint and working with a pre-existing cultural heritage in the region, adding even more life and spirit to each unique piece of furniture.

Jill Ettinger, EcoSalon’s senior editor and a Los Angeles resident, was on the lookout for a vintage table, but couldn’t find anything that fit the exact dimensions she needed for her space. When she discovered a table made by Parkman Woodworks, her mind was made up almost instantly. “It was so, so pretty!” she says.

“Even though I had my mind set on vintage, the idea of a custom-built table from sustainable wood really struck me as a workable solution to my problem,” she says.

“Every time my 3-year-old daughter sits down at the table to eat (which is like 90 times a day), I remember that no matter how small they seem, our choices do make a difference, and that we can make exciting, beautiful, and high-quality ‘new’ things with less of an impact on the planet when we choose reclaimed or upcylced products.”

The one-of-a-kind aspect is something so special and worthwhile, says Ettinger, and often just as affordable as mass-produced items, “but most of us forget about that possibility when shopping at big box stores (furniture or otherwise)–we choose convenience instead of character, and that choice often comes with a slew of side effects as well–from the damage to our planet to the poor quality products we have to keep purchasing over and over again,” she says.

“We’re happy to pop into a local bakery for a freshly-baked loaf of bread instead of the plastic-wrapped stuff at the supermarket, but we forget that we can make similar choices elsewhere in our homes and our lives.”

By supporting small local artisans, customers who choose reclaimed furniture also ensure that they’re getting the real deal. Especially given the growing trend for reclaimed wood, Snyder warns that many mass manufacturers of furniture add a reclaimed veneer to their products, hiding the compressed wood underneath.

“We like to kind of think we’re marrying the aesthetic trend of reclaimed furniture with kind of the maker movement trend of craftsmanship and building things by hand and things that last forever,” says Snyder.

And if there’s one choice that’s sustainable, it’s choosing a beautiful piece of furniture that you’ll never have to replace.

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Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American food and culture writer based in Paris. She loves uncovering the stories behind ingredients and exposing the face of our food system, so that consumers can make educated choices. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Vice Munchies, and Serious Eats.