What’s hiding in that pallet wall?
Another embarrassing but true story:
Once upon a time in New Orleans, I rehabbed a house that was gutted post-Katrina. In a neighborhood built in the 1950’s, I took down a few walls and set about making this little 1500 square foot home into my Pinterest dream. No matter that the sloping floors would make a soup can roll from front door to back with no effort and amazing speed; all of the reclaimed furniture and materials available at that time were more than sufficient to supply the ideas that came into my head. Some of my favorite places to go were the local “Green Project” or Habitat for Humanity stores. Green Project had a small lumber yard of reclaimed wood and salvaged architectural pieces. I don’t know whether I found this particular piece of wood there, or from the side of the road, but it looked perfect.
My carpenter had framed in split-level bar countertops on either side of the newly opened-up kitchen, and to keep the cost of countertops low, I decided that the top of the bar would be reclaimed wood. The chunk of wood I found was long enough for both tops, and the color of dark chocolate, a perfect contrast to the cream-colored kitchen. I cut the pieces, sanded the edges, coated them with a few layers of varnish and set them outside to dry for a week or so. Time to install! They looked beautiful.
Throughout processing this wood, I did notice a “smell”. It didn’t seem too strong, probably because I was doing the cutting, sanding and painting outside. But soon after I installed it inside, the headaches started. I had a constant strong headache most days for a week, until I made the connection and removed the wood. Bingo! Problem solved. This was probably a decade before home VOC-testing equipment was available, but my brain and respiratory system was telling me that this wood was poisonous. Looking back, it was probably treated with creosote, which gave it the (beautiful!) dark brown color. Creosote is derived from the distillation of tar from wood or coal and is used as a wood preservative. Pesticide products containing creosote as the active ingredient are used to protect wood used outdoors (such as railroad ties and utility poles) against termites, fungi, mites and other pests. (epa.gov) The EPA has also determined that coal tar creosote is a probable human carcinogen (over longer exposure periods). Thankfully, I was the only one in the household who seemed to be affected.
I’m still a fan of reclaiming wood and other materials, but I’m a little more cautious nowadays. That’s the major drawback to most reclaimed wood: you just don’t know its history. Whether it’s been soaked in smelly chemicals like creosote, or sprayed with non-odorous pesticides, or just sitting outside accumulating mold and insect droppings, it has a mysterious history that you may or may not be able to neutralize when you “reclaim” it. Following are the main dangers of using some (not all) reclaimed wood (cdawood.com) indoors.
Like my experience above, reclaimed wood that has been treated with harsh chemicals, like paints or stains, or contains VOCs (volatile organic compounds), can release toxins into the air. Unlike my experience, you may not always smell these VOCs or toxins, which is a “silent” risk.
Wood is quite a porous material. Mold and mildew can be hiding in the crevices of the wood, especially reclaimed wood that has a lot of “character” (read: cracks, knots and grains). Mold and its toxic byproducts, mycotoxins and MVOCs, can make you quite sick and even spread to other parts of your home via dust and spores.
You could bring pests inside. Anyone who’s lived in the southeastern US would be familiar with termites, possibly carpenter bees, and maybe carpenter ants. These are all wood-loving pests that can hitch a ride into your home inside of the lovely reclaimed wood. They generally exit or die when the wood is agitated or dried out. But have you heard of powder-post beetles? These tiny pests can spread to other wood furniture and even the framing of your home, reducing the wood to “powder”. Imagine losing your grandma’s precious antique dresser, or your kitchen floor joists, to these destructive pests because you decided to “reclaim” some wood for a table top: not a good trade-off!
If part of the reason to use reclaimed wood is “saving money” (one of my original reasons for creating those bar tops), are you really saving if one or more of these problems surfaces because of using it? Here are a few ways to be more cautious with reclaimed wood: (Brunsell.com)
Consider the source: Grocery store palettes are likely to have been in close contact with food, so they run a higher risk of having bacteria (from spills), so don’t use them indoors.
Check for signs of how the wood has been treated: Know if and how the wood’s been treated. Heat-treated wood, also known as kiln-dried wood, is generally marked with an “HT.” In terms of your health, HT wood is preferable to chemically treated wood. You forgo the chemicals, and the heating kills off bugs.
Consider the end-use of the wood: If it will be in close contact with children, pets or food, it’s best to use new, untreated wood and opt for non-toxic finishes (like the paints and stains we mention in this article).
If your gut says, I don’t know about this piece of wood, it might be best to listen to your gut! Manufacturers have honed in on the reclaimed trend and created vintage looking wood and furniture from new materials.
CdA Wood in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho is one such company that has the slogan “Barn wood but better”. They take new untreated wood and make it look like old barn wood without paints or stains, using a patented “Xcelerated” process. In the words of the VP, they “age wood indoors without using paints or stains”.
Another company that values indoor air quality is EarthPaint.net. All of their coatings are non-toxic, so you can start with new wood and get a fabulous aged finish without VOCs, mold, toxins or pests.
Here’s a slew of ways you can add “character” to new wood with tools and a little elbow grease; just substitute non-toxic finishes for the stains used in the last few slides.
Did you know that charred wood naturally resists water, pests and further aging? Developed by the Japanese, Shou sugi ban is the art of preserving and finishing wood using fire. Cedar wood works best for shou sugi ban because of its natural chemical properties, but you can also use shou sugi ban on pine, hemlock, maple, or oak. This article tells you a little about the history and how to DIY your own burnt wood! EarthPaint.net also has “Special Linseed Oil” similar to what is used in the article. I’ve personally used shou sugi ban on some wood supports for my shower curtain, as well as an outdoor table.
At HypoAir, we aim to bring the best of the outdoors inside. We’re very selective, though, to make sure that hidden pollutants or pests don’t slip in with the good stuff…and with vigilance you can be too. It’s time to raise the bar on reclaimed wood, to make it as healthy as it is beautiful!