Good Wood: Upcycling Finds Its Way into Building

See how Maine homeowners, designers, and builders are incorporating sustainability one board at a time
Words By Penny Guisinger
Photos By Darren Setlow, Hannah Hoggatt, Francois Gagne

The built spaces in which we spend our lives embody many things: warmth, memories, and family. They also embody energy—the kind of energy that affects the environment and has an impact on climate change. Incorporating reclaimed wood into projects of all sizes is an excellent way to leverage the energy embodied in existing building materials—and it’s beautiful! Reclaimed wood, whether it’s rescued from an old barn or pulled from a deep, cold lake, offers luminous color, patina, and scars that cannot be duplicated with virgin wood.

The delicacy of this 19th-century French chaise lounge balances the flooring’s natural look. The painting is an 1845 Clémence Fernel. Interior design by DH Design Group and The Art of Antiquing. Photo by Darren Setlow.

Maine is home to a community of producers, designers, and builders who offer reclaimed wood products, materials, furniture, and other design elements that can make homeowners feel good about the aesthetics and sustainability of their choices.

South Portland’s Rousseau Reclaimed Lumber & Flooring, a custom reclaimed millwork shop, processes salvaged and reclaimed material into new, application-ready products that tell a story. “This wood,” says owner John Rousseau, “has a unique look that softens spaces. It can change a modern build by providing warm, historic elements.”

Nobody knows the truth of this more than Margaret Brown, whose Pemaquid home, built by Knickerbocker Group, showcases the beauty of reclaimed wood flooring sourced by John. “When people walk through the door, even though the structure is new, they often say, ‘Wow, ho w old is this home?’” explains Margaret. “Because subconsciously the flooring is visually registering the house as an old home, and I love that!” Built on a former saltwater farm, Margaret’s house features patinaed flooring John salvaged from a cotton storage facility in Tennessee. The wood’s incredible color is the echo of its former life. “During the cotton era, they pushed bales of cotton across the floors of warehouses,” he explains. The cotton not only polished the boards but also left behind some of its oils. “It was a rare find. I haven’t come across anything comparable since.”

Nineteenth-century Louis XVI leather armchairs, paired with warm lighting, bookshelves, and exposed timbers, create a cozy nook. Photo by Darren Setlow.
Repurposed timber frames this British Charles II chest and unsigned French painting. Photo by Darren Setlow.
The pedestal table is made from the same material as the refrigerator cabinet in this Southport kitchen. Photo by Hannah Hoggatt.

Maine Heritage Timber has been reclaiming wood from the bottom of a 1,000-acre lake in Millinocket for a decade. Quakish Lake, part of the Penobscot River chain of waterways, was formerly a holding area for Great Northern Paper, and logs that sank there have been preserved for more than 100 years. Tom Shafer, his partners, and employees are proud of the unique colors and beauty of the wood they bring back to life as countertops, furniture, flooring, and other products. “This reclaimed wood,” says employee Sandra Burns, “has an amazing color and character that you simply cannot get from new wood.” This reclaimed river wood is also available as peel-and-stick tiles under the name Timberchíc for use on walls or kitchen islands.

Maine builder Bob McGrath, whose business is Rustique LLC in Arundel, has been working with reclaimed wood for almost three decades, and he approaches it as a form of art. “No two boards look alike,” he says. “I approach each of them like a canvas.” The boards Bob uses in his projects feature divots, pockmarks, and scars left behind by boots or horse hooves.

Glass and spaciousness create a perfect setting for this French dining set. Photo by Darren Setlow.

One of Bob’s projects, the Southport home of Thomas and Kristi Shannon, serves as a great example of how a commitment to sustainable building and smart, attractive design can come together. “This practice is environmentally responsible, and we love the story told by this wood,” says Thomas. “It’s important to us to hire Maine craftspeople and to sustain the trades.” Wood used in the Shannons’ home was reclaimed from the South Meetinghouse in Andover, Massachusetts. “I love to think about who might have touched these boards in that church.”

At another home, in the center of the kitchen sits a gleaming island top made of wood reclaimed from an old carriage house in Kennebunkport. The post and beam, Westport Island home was designed by Rockport Post & Beam, and the homeowners wanted something beautiful, durable, and different to tie the room together while continuing to feature the warmth of wood. The island top was built by Mike Thompson, owner of The Old House Parts Company, who also built them a coffee table from the scraps. “We love the island for its marks, grooves, and knots,” explains the client. “It reminds me of a table from my childhood that was made from an old ship.” She describes the age and history of these reclaimed pieces as “very special.”

Reducing our collective carbon footprint is everyone’s job, and the construction and building sector is no exception. According to Architecture 2030, a 20-year-old nonprofit dedicated to transforming the built environment from a major emitter of greenhouse gases into a central solution, building materials and construction account for about 13% of global carbon emissions. Further, research completed in 2010 identified that production of virgin building materials consumes 11 to 13 times as much energy and results in three to five times potential for climate change as use of reclaimed lumber and flooring. Data like that, along with the beauty and warmth reclaimed wood provides, make it a winning choice for your kitchen or any other space in your home.

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