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How to Clean and Prepare Reclaimed Barnwood – 7 Methods

MAIN REASONS TO CLEAN RECLAIMED BARNWOOD

It is important to look at all options when determining how to clean and prepare reclaimed barnwood to find the right method for your project. The main reasons why woodworkers want to clean reclaimed barn wood prior to bringing it into the home or office is to rid it of dirt, potential insects and reveal the rural resources’ natural beauty. As an added bonus your workspace will be a little cleaner resulting in less clean once the project is complete.

The process of preparing wood for re-use in our living spaces is a step-by-step process that ensures safe use and greatly reduces the chances of unwanted visitors (pests), unpleasant odors, and undesirable debris. There are many options for cleaning reclaimed wood with the majority of the processes involving common everyday supplies and time. In this article, we highlight some options you can use when setting out to prepare reclaimed wood for a rewarding DIY project.



WHAT EXACTLY IS RECLAIMED BARNWOOD?

This is an excellent question to ask right off the hop and deserves further clarification as common knowledge of this topic is still relatively narrow despite its popularity. The term reclaimed barn wood is often used when referencing weathered grey planks found on the exterior of old buildings that dot our rural landscape. This is a common misconception and really only scratches the surface.


Yes, beautiful and naturally weathered wood collected from an old barn or grainary is considered to be barn wood but what if the material had been salvaged from an old farmhouse, is it then called house wood? Hmmm.


To put everything into perspective, Barnwood is a broad term used to classify a category of wood that is repurposed from old buildings often dating back 100 years or more if authentic. Does this include dimensional lumber like 2×4’s or beams, loft flooring, brown boards, nail-ridden roof planks, and everything else in-between? Absolutely. Barnwood is simply a term used to describe EVERYTHING wood that has been salvaged from old buildings for repurposing into our everyday lives.

VALUE OF RECLAIMED BARNWOOD

Aside from all the details that must be taken into consideration, you may think that your sitting on a gold mine as you load your trailer with precious barnwood… think again. If you want to unlock the value of barnwood then you may want to consider the following methods on how to clean and prepare your wood to get the most out of our beautiful rural resource.


 

HOW TO CLEAN AND PREPARE RECLAIMED BARNWOOD – 7 METHODS


1. MILLING EFFECTIVELY CLEANS AND PREPARES RECLAIMED WOOD FOR WOODWORKING PROJECTS

Milling is when the wood is cut to suit the needs of the project for which it is being used. In some cases, the wood might be milled to remove rot or rough edges and embedded debris as well. If you’re not using all sides of the wood, you can either mill it yourself or have someone mill it for you depending on your preference. Another reason to mill is if you’re concerned about the weight of the wood. Milling can help you cut down excess wood in order to save on weight and can be a great option. Here is an article that provides an in-depth look at the milling process for small shops in detail.


Milling is not rocket science but it is an involved process that will require the proper equipment to get the job done right. Access to a thickness planner and tools required to straight-line cut the sides with either a jointer or table saw in conjunction with a straight line jig will be required at the very minimum. Surface sanding is an additional step to consider when milling however it may not be necessary depending on the intended use of your project wood. It is important to keep in mind that all metal either embedded or on the surface must be removed prior to milling. Safety is important for both the person(s) milling and to avoid unnecessary equipment damage.


Keep in mind that Barnwood has a bad rap for metal and debris lodged in the wood among the community of woodworkers that have the capability of milling. In fact, the majority of businesses will not mill reclaimed wood for this reason and understandably so considering the costs associated with the tools and blades alone. If you’re going this route, ensure to clearly state that the wood has been reclaimed and you will be required to 100% de-nail the material. To ensure the wood is free of metal you will need a quality handheld metal detector (Amazon Link) to get the job done right including a visual inspection for embedded stones or other foreign objects. If you are doing a small project like a feature wall for your island or a coffee table and other small builds of this nature then milling the wood yourself or teaming up with a friend that has the equipment is your best bet, once again, just remember to eliminate all metal, embedded stones, and other unwanted objects prior to milling.

2. REMOVING DEBRIS WITH POWER TOOLS (WIRE/STIFF NYLON WHEEL)

Depending on the type of wood you are cleaning for example planks, beams, or dimensional lumber this can be a really effective method if you don’t mind kicking up a lot of dust. It is for this reason that we recommend using this method outside with a dust mask or in conjunction with a shop vac (Amazon Link) when indoors. Once you get past the uncomforting aspect of wearing a dust mask things are about to get real. It’s like magic before your eyes after you run a wire wheel hooked up to your handheld drill over the workpiece and blast it clean with air.


If you choose this method then your about to find out what I mean. This works well for small quantities of barn wood but if you intend on cleaning a volume of wood in a reasonable time frame you may want to consider a tool upgrade.


There are specific tools that can be found online and in stores that can greatly increase production time and even cleaning results when finished. We use the Restorer (Amazon Link) which is the cheapest option compared to the Makita Wheel Sander. (Amazon Link) If you are cleaning a lot of barn wood or doing it regularly then upgrading is your best bet. These power tools have lots of attachment options to explore and will provide you with an excellent result.

3. SCRUBBING WITH SOAP, WATER, AND A BRUSH

On a nice summer day, you might consider cleaning your reclaimed wood with soap, water, and a soft to medium bristle brush. This is an effective option but like pressure washing, you will need to ensure that the wood is dried out well (after washing) preferably in direct sunlight and slightly off the ground.




Nothing fancy about this method just roll your sleeves up, turn on the tunes and get scrubbing. It’s exactly like doing the dishes without the dishes. This method will work for lightly soiled wood but is not the best option in our opinion.

One thing to keep in mind is the splinter factor. If you haven’t worked with barn wood let us give you a fair warning now, slivers happen! It is for this reason that we suggest using a handle that provides distance between the wood and hand. Having said that find either a hand scrub brush that provides plenty of clearance from your hands contacting the wood or use a long-handled brush so you can apply generous pressure while in a standing position.

4. SURFACE CLEANING WITH A HIGH-SPEED NYLON BUSH

For lightly soiled and dusty surfaces this is an excellent option for cleaning barn wood. For this method, you will need a handheld drill and nylon brushes (Amazon Link) that connect to the drill. For most surfaces, a med/coarse brush will work best but it is nice to have a variety.


The nylon brush will pull out the dust and eat away light surface rot while the pressured air clears the debris from the workpiece. The important thing to consider is applying even pressure with the nylon bush and focusing on areas that need a little extra cleaning.


Crank the air compressor pressure between 100 – 110 PSI and attach an air gun to clear the loosened debris. The gun is nice because it allows you to get into all the cracks and otherwise hard-to-clean areas with ease. If this is the method you decide to try then ensure to track down some safety glasses and a dust mask as things are about to get dirty.


5. POTENTIAL PEST REMOVAL: BORAX AND WATER VS. CHEMICAL PESTICIDE

Depending on the thickness of the wood either Borax dissolved in water or a chemical pesticide can be used when treating bugs. When using this method to safeguarding your project material from unwanted bugs both options work well on 2” material or less. Anything thicker you chance driving the bugs in deeper where the treatment has zero effect on them. This is something to consider although one option is a little nicer to work with than the other.


We recommend Borax because it is safe, versatile, and a good pest deterrent. When dissolved in water it can be easily sprayed on the surface of reclaimed wood. Don’t be shy, apply a heavy coat to ensure sufficient coverage. This is the safest option to use as the wood that is being cleaned and prepared will be handle continuously during the building process. Mix one powdered laundry scoop per 4L (1 gallon).


Chemical pesticide is the alternative although it does have a major disadvantage with that being not friendly to the touch. It is chemical and may cause skin irritation or other undesired health-related consciences. We use a pesticide that works exceptionally well in our warehouse. We don’t spray directly on the wood rather cover the storage area around all of our stacks of reclaimed wood and any space unwanted bugs may hide like corners, around the perimeter of our warehouse (inside/outside) and in the hard get at places. This helps us control undesired pests entering the wood while in storage and is the precursor to actually treating the wood for potential bugs prior to using it in a project.

6. PRESSURE WASHING EFFICIENTLY DEEP CLEANS

Pressure washing (Amazon Link) barnwood is an option you might want to consider and does work well to get rid of the 100 years of dirt. Although this is not our favorite option it definitely works well to clean the wood for the simple fact of cleaning with mechanical pressure resulting in ease of use. However, the desired end goal is to ensure that the wood has a moisture content between 8-12% if using it for projects for the home or office.


This method introduces moisture by pressure which penetrates the wood. If you do use this method then be sure to lay out the material once cleaned in the sun up off the ground slightly ensuring airflow while flipping the material over often.


Sufficient dry time is pretty much case by case as many variables must be considered to determine how long the wood will take to completely dry. These variables include ambient moisture level in the air, the intensity of direct sunlight, and if any airflow is present (wind). As a general rule, we set our wood out for a complete day on a nice hot/warm summer day with a slight breeze being ideal. Depending on the thickness of the wood the drying process may take a couple of days but can be monitored with a moisture meter to ensure the ideal moisture level is attended.


Another option is to dry the wood inside your workshop or other climate-controlled space with equal spacing between the rows of stacked boards, use a fan positioned to blow across the wood to speed up the drying process. Once again us a moisture meter to monitor progress.

7. KILN DRYING RECLAIMED WOOD: BENEFITS TO CONSIDER

Kiln drying reclaimed barn wood is simply using heat and airflow to expedite the drying process safely and serves two main purposes. The first being that it rids the wood of any insects that may be present and second it brings the moisture level to the desired range for woodworking. The one thing kiln drying won’t do is clean the physical debris from the wood itself. Wood Mizer has a great read with plenty of detail for those interested in learning about kiln drying.


In short, any insects or pest is eliminated from the wood by the use of a spike in heat during the dying process. More importantly, is that it brings the moisture level in the wood down to the desired range resulting in a stable workpiece for woodworking projects. Kiln-dried wood will resist cracking, twisting, and shrinking among other negative effects associated with uncontrolled drying. Granted barnwood is naturally dried over the years but keep in mind that it will not be drier than the ambient moisture level. To put that into perspective think of a hot muggy week experienced in summer, this moisture is in the air and barn wood has no choice but to absorb moisture to stabilize. Without ensuring the wood is in the 12% moisture range with the use of a moisture meter you are increasing the chance of potential negative effects. This generally won’t happen right away it happens over time when your finished project is inside acclimatizing to the home or office. Kiln drying wood will cost a little money and time but can be well worth it in the end.

CONCLUSION:

In conclusion, there are so many ways to clean barn wood effectively and this article highlights some of our go-to methods. Working with reclaimed wood is very enjoyable and cleaning the wood prior to the building makes it that much sweeter.

As always, we encourage you to engage with us and comment below sharing your experience when cleaning reclaimed barnwood. I will reply to each message and appreciate your contribution.

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