It’s a fact that reclaimed wood is usually dirty. Very dirty.
If you’re planning to use it in a project, the first step of that project will be to clean the old wood, assuming, of course that you’re like me, and you want to install clean reclaimed wood into your home.
This tutorial shows you how to do it.
Don’t worry. It’s not hard at all. It just takes a few supplies and a little bit of time, energy, and patience.
(By the way, you can use this same tutorial to clean just about any reclaimed material, including reclaimed tin.)
Assess your stack of old wood to see if the pieces have nails or old tacks in them. If you see just a few tacks here and there, I wouldn’t bother going through the entire stack and pulling out a few tacks per board. I’d just proceed to Step Two, and remove them right before I wash them.
However, if each piece of old wood is littered with old tacks, I’d suggest removing them before cleaning your old wood.
Now, before I say more, you know that removing tacks is completely optional, right? Some people like the character of the old tacks and some do not, but if you don’t care for them like I do, you’ll want to remove them.
It’s not difficult to remove old tacks using a tack puller. It just takes time and patience. You’ll find that when you get into a rhythm of removing them, you’ll get a lot more efficient at it.
Also, if you’re removing really old, rusty tacks, you may find that the head pops off sometimes, leaving the stub of the tack in the board. Sometimes I’ll try to get them out, especially if the stub can easily be grabbed and pulled out using a pair of nipper pliers. . . or dug out using an awl. However, I’ve been known to leave the stubs in the wood, especially if the wood will be installed on a wall.
That being said, if the wood you’re de-tacking and cleaning will be installed as flooring, you must remove all metal from the boards. No one wants to step on a nail!
Gather your supplies. You’ll need:
- A handled poly scrub brush like this one
- A toothbrush or grout brush (optional)
- A bucket
- Dishwashing detergent. One bottle is enough. Any brand will do. I personally use Dawn Platinum Bleach Alternative or Dawn Ultra, just because some old wood is salvaged from old kitchens, and I’ve found that they’re really effective in removing grease and grime. However, if you worry about the possible fumes, use a mild dishwashing detergent with no bleach, like Dawn Pure Esssentials.
- Latex gripping gloves like this pair. These are also called nitrile gripping gloves. These gloves are meant to get wet, and as the name suggests, the coating on the gloves will help you grip the wood. Trust me, you’ll want a pair of these gloves. They’ll save your hands from splinters. They’re really inexpensive — only about $3 a pair — and I’ve used one pair to clean over 1,000 square feet of wood, so one pair is fine.
- Garden hose fitted with a spray nozzle. I use a twist nozzle but any type of spray nozzle will work.
- A pair of sawhorses
- Level drying surfaces (See step 3.)
- Old work clothes that you can get filthy in. (You will get wet and dirty, I assure you. I keep old, stained clothes in my closet specifically for doing this work.)
As indicated above in step two, you’re going to need a pair of sawhorses. You will use them to support your reclaimed wood. You can buy them, but if you have basic carpentry skills, it’s easy (and cheaper) to build them.
You’ll also need to construct drying racks (or use some other type of convenient, semi-level drying surface) to dry your old wood. You can buy or build additional pairs of sawhorses for that. You can also use concrete blocks and wood to set up improvised drying racks. In the past, I’ve also used wheelbarrows to dry shorter pieces of wood and used our trailers or the bed of our pickup to dry longer pieces.
Finally, you’re ready to start cleaning! Well almost. Make sure the day is sunny and warm. The sun is your friend, my friend. It will do the drying work for you, and you do not want your wood to remain wet for too long because mold loves moist conditions. Also, you’re going to want to work in warm weather because, chances are, you’re going to get wet. I don’t know about you, but wet and cold is not pleasant. Wet and warm I can deal with.
OK, so assuming the day is sunny and warm, carry several pieces of reclaimed wood, in roughly the same length, from where you’ve been storing it to your sawhorse. When I wash old wood, I wash old sticks of lumber that are roughly the same length in batches. The reason for this is simple: for shorter pieces of wood, you’ll want your sawhorses closer together, and for longer pieces of wood, you’ll want to place the sawhorses further apart. You don’t want to have to move your sawhorses all the time, do you?
Mix your cleaning solution in your bucket. I usually mix about 1 cup of dishwashing detergent with water in a 5 gallon bucket. It doesn’t have to be exact, but I like the mixture to be soapy.
Spray the boards with water to remove any loose dirt and grime.
Then, dip your scrub brush into your cleaning solution as often as necessary, and scrub the top, bottom, and sides of your boards.
If the boards that you are cleaning have a tongue and a groove (such as reclaimed flooring or beadboard), make sure those areas are cleaned thoroughly. If you have stubborn dirt and grime within the groove or on the tongue, you may need to use a narrow brush, like a grout brush or a toothbrush to scrub away any stubborn dirt and grime. But, your regular scrub brush should do the trick most of the time.
As you scrub, you will see that some of the old paint on the boards (if any) will come off during the cleaning process, especially paint that is already starting to flake off on its own. Do not worry about this overmuch. As long as you don’t gorilla it (meaning, you don’t scrub as hard as you can for as long as you can), most of the old paint will remain.
Rinse the boards thoroughly after they have been scrubbed. I usually rinse my boards several times to make sure I get all (or most) of the soapy residue off of the boards.
Be sure to rinse your hands and the area where the boards rest on the sawhorses. If you pick up the boards with soapy hands or lay the rinsed boards on soapy, grimy sawhorses, you’ve kinda defeated the purpose of rinsing.
Place the boards on your drying rack to dry. I always place the underside of the boards up towards the sun because the raw, unpainted, underside part of the board will take longer to dry than the painted side (assuming there is paint on one side). If your boards are not painted at all, the rougher side of the board needs to be facing up. It will dry slower than a smoother side.
Also, if your boards have a groove, place the board so that the groove is pointed towards the sun.
Allow the boards time to dry in the sun. In my experience, it takes 2-6 hours for wood to dry completely. The time it takes will depend upon amount of sunlight and heat.
If you live in Texas like I do, it should only take a few hours in the summer for the boards to thoroughly dry.
Speaking of which, it’s very important that you do not allow the boards to bake too long in the sun, especially in harsh heat because the sun will literally bake the boards and cause them to eventually bow or curl.
To check for dryness, check the color. Notice in the photo below how some of the boards below are lighter than the others? The lighter ones are either dry or are nearing complete dryness. The darker ones are still wet.
Also, gently lay the palm of your hand on the top of each board and touch the end of each board with your fingertips. Don’t scoot your hand on the grain because you’ll get splinters! If you don’t feel any moisture to the touch, the board is dry.
Stack your clean and dry boards in a dry environment such as inside your home or garage until you’re ready to start your project. Honestly, I like to store dry lumber in our house whenever possible, but it drives my husband crazy. So, here lately, we’ve been storing the reclaimed lumber I clean in our garage. When I do store lumber in our garage, I stack the dry, clean wood on top of concrete blocks to keep it off the floor. The reason is because our area is very rainy at times, and even a concrete foundation will sweat to some degree, which will cause your dried wood to become damp again. We all know what grows on damp wood (mold), and you don’t want to be in a position to dry your reclaimed wood a second time!
And, that my friends, is how I clean reclaimed wood. If you have any questions, please let me know!