To Look For And Questions to Ask
When Shopping For A Quality Reclaimed Wood
Building a table
well, one that is sturdy, robust and will weather the test of time is an art
that employs the distilled knowledge of years of experience. It is a process, however, that looks easy and
profitable luring to it many overnight “experts”, many of which only know the
specie of wood they are using because that’s what they were told. Design, proportion, construction techniques
and above all finish can be a disaster causing the consumer years of
torment. When investing in a table from
a professional, time-tested furniture maker, you will have a family heirloom, a
table that will last for untold generations.
Remember the age old
saying, “The bitterness of poor quality lingers long after the sweetness of a
cheap price.” There are lots of ways to
make a poor quality, inexpensive farm table.
The tips below will help you to avoid the phrase so often heard, “I
didn’t know”. Good luck and remember that
most often “you get what you pay for”.
- Where did the wood come from? Ask the table manufacturer if they know
the ‘story behind the wood’ -- was the wood originally cut from the virgin
forests of America? Was it
from some other forest in another country?
Or did it come from an old house or barn? Where was this structure located? When was it built? Who lived there? What function did the lumber serve in
its first use? Ask for this
information to be written down so you can tell the ‘story’ to friends and
family. Ask if the wood the table
is built with comes with a ‘Certificate of Authenticity’.
is soon to begin on these New England
- How is the tabletop secured to the aprons? Is the tabletop nailed or screwed
firmly to the aprons? The tabletop
should be attached to the aprons with clips to allow the wood to move. A table top that is rigidly attached to
its base will crack as it expands and contracts with seasonal changes and
subsequent changes in humidity.
wooden clips secure the top to the table apron, free floating in a grove,
allowing unencumbered expansion and contraction of the top.
- Are the turned legs machine duplicated or hand
turned? We live
in a “cookie cutter world” and often times, due to the lack of skill of
the table assembler*,
the legs are mass produced on a duplication machine compromising the
handmade appearance of old and giving the table a standard furniture store look*. A professional woodcraftsman can hand
turn each leg without the aid of calipers*
enhancing the handmade ambiance of the table. A machine turned leg spins at a high
speed and is pressed against a profile
knife* that cuts the leg out in one swift operation. Each leg is the exact duplicate of the
other, which is a perfect example of our “cookie cutter world”. There is something special about a hand
turned leg. The gentle differences
in proportion, the slight waves and dips of the craftsman’s hand held chisel
add another dimension to the overall texture of the table.
next time you’re looking at antiques, note the subtle changes in proportion.
chair’s finials* and table legs
are from the early 1800’s. Note the difference in the size / irregularity
of true handmade turnings. Note the
table leg to the right is an extreme example.
I only show this because it is so extreme.
turning a table leg without calipers.
- Are the legs made from reclaimed wood? Ask if the origin of the leg and
apron stock is from the same structure as the table top? If they are tapered legs, look to see if
the clean cut side of the leg has been embellished to resemble the uncut
faces of the old beams?
of old beams for leg stock.
5. Is there a choice of table ends? Quality table ends include:
– is a term that originated from early bakery breadboards. They are narrow boards (2” to 3” wide) that
are applied to the end grain of the main table boards. If the breadboard ends are rigidly attached
with nails or screws, they will cause the main table boards to crack. A quality table with breadboard ends is
engineered to accept movement so the wood can expand and contract with the
seasonal changes in humidity without cracking.
Square cut ends
– is when the table top has been cut off square, straight and even.
Cityscape ends –
is when each board making up the tabletop is cut at random lengths giving the
table a more rustic look.
Mountain range ends
–is when the boards making up the
tabletop ends are cut with slight variations in straightness, much like a
primitive table top would have been.
- How are the bowtie patches made? Are they hand cut
and slightly irregular giving them a handmade, more primitive farm table
look? They should be the same
thickness as the tabletop if expected to have any structural holding
power. If the bowties are machine cut using a
router and a template, they will be perfectly symmetrical and won’t look
appropriate on a farm table top. This
method only allows the thickness of the bowtie to be about ½” which
affords little holding power. They
are used more for cosmetic, decorative purposes. You will find symmetrical bowties used more
on modern furniture creations.
between two pine boards Final touches to the fitting in of a
- How are the holes in the wood filled? You do not want the holes filled
with handyman type wood fills, glue and sawdust or wax crayons* that will chip away and fall out as the
wood moves. Holes and cracks should
be filled with quality epoxies*
that can be colored as desired and will stay put with the natural expansion
and contraction of the wood. If preferred,
nail holes can be filled with wooden
pegs* of the same vintage wood or in some cases, authentic hand
forged rose head nails* that were
in the boards originally.
showing end grain. Rose head nail made by the blacksmith’s
hammer as he peined* the nail
- What types of finishes are used? Beware of wax finishes* as they may cause white marks and may get
sticky in the summer time. Many
table assemblers*, who
do not have a finishing background or a finishing facility, use wax finish
because of its simplicity. If the
wax has been heavily applied, you will be able to scrape it off with your
fingernail, which is not a good thing.
A durable wipe on finish that finishes the wood from the inside out
is far superior. This finish is in
the wood and not sitting on top.
This type of finish eliminates chipping, flaking and cracking. Be sure the finish is maintainable. Ask how it could be repaired in the
event of a scratch? Ask if another
coat of finish can be applied as part of a table maintenance program? Ask if the table comes with a
- If you have your own reclaimed wood, can it be
used in your custom-made farm table?
A caring craftsman will be more than happy to
build the farm table using wood from the client’s homestead, which adds
- Is the bottom of the tabletop finished? When the bottom of a table is
finished with the same number of coats as the tabletop it allows the even
absorption of humidity, which prevents future warping, cupping or twisting
of the wood. This also produces a
hygienically safe surface. Most
table bottoms found in the marketplace display raw boards still dusty from
the barn or attic carrying untold micro organisms.
- Is the table identified by the furniture maker? Does the table have a signed and dated
paper label glued to the bottom of the tabletop and/or is it branded in a
way that cannot be removed? This craftsman adds his signature signet mark
on the tabletop. A significant
addition that could add greatly to the value of the piece as it ages.
Staples hand scribing his famous signet mark in a table top.
- Does the table carry a warranty? Confirm that the furniture maker
will repair or replace structural defects or a defective finish barring
misuse or abuse.
- Are custom orders considered? Confirm that the furniture maker will sit
down and consult with you and your interior designer about your taste and
style, the style of your home and other furniture you may have in your
home when you are investing in a custom piece. It is important that
clients get exactly what they desire.
- If there are drawers in the table, are they
dovetailed? A good
sign of a quality farm table is if the craftsman adds a dovetailed drawer
in the apron of each handmade farm table.
Also, ask if the front of the drawer is made from reclaimed wood
like the tabletop.
- How long has the furniture maker been in the
table making business? Anyone
can place a couple of boards on top of 4 commercially available legs and
call it a ‘farm table’. It takes
years to learn all the nuances of how to do it correctly. Beware that if table making is the
person’s sideline, they may be ‘here today gone tomorrow’. Make sure furniture making is the
craftsman’s full time passion and don’t be afraid to ask for references.
Stephen Staples at his Norton, MA shop in 1982 making
farm tables long before it was popular.
- Does the furniture maker have a “buy back
consignment” policy? If you
move and cannot take the piece with you, a custom furniture maker may be
able to sell it for you.
- Do the boards for the table top match? Do they come from the same tree? Are they the same species? Were they reclaimed from the same
building and/or floor? May you
choose your own boards? If they
do match, it means the maker took the time to ensure the uniform look of
the table. Boards should be chosen
with an artistic eye making sure they are symmetrical with similar age
worn character from the same reclaimed building.
- Know where tool marks should and should not
modern day tool marks made by the craftsman in the construction of the
table, like the circular saw blade and jointer marks*, should be removed with a hand plane* at the same
time leaving some of the tool marks from 200 years ago. If these clues to the age of the wood
are preserved, it will always be possible to date the antique boards.
- Beware of a skinned*
table top. When an
old wood tabletop is sent through a wide
belt sander*, the entire surface is removed making the table flat
and even. This process cuts hours
off the production time and a century or more off the face of the old wood
tabletop leaving it flat, smooth and speechless. Ask the furniture maker if the table top
has been processed in this manner.
- Will the table appreciate in value? It takes an artisan with a track
record to build a piece of furniture that appreciates in value over
time. It also takes a company who has built a name for
quality and artistry in the industry.
Look at their website and go to their ‘news page’. Every time they have appeared in a significant
publication, they gain credibility and value is added to their creations
as more and more people begin to collect their work.
- Unwanted guests?
Will you be taking home more than just a table? Wood from old structures is often home
to a variety of burrowing insects.
One in particular is the powder
post beetle*, which can go undetected at the time of purchase only
to be noticed when a little pile of dust or frass* starts to accumulate under the table. The powder post beetle is so named due
to its ability to turn a post to powder (often times a table leg will do
nicely). Many builders treat the
wood with an insecticide (not the best method on your “green” table);
however, more often nothing will be done at all, allowing these little
fellows to emerge and venture throughout your home looking for that choice
timber, whether part of your home or another piece of furniture. The only way to rid the wood of these
pests, as well as mold spores and other living creatures, is sustained
levels of heat. Stated by Carolyn
Klass, Senior Extension Associate, Cornell University, in her
document called ‘Powder Post Beetles’ dated April, 1986, she recommends a
core temperature of 120 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes. This is achievable through the use of a
kiln or oven. As if and how any unwanted guests have been eliminated from
the wood your piece is made from.
Rung to a chair shows entrance and exit holes
as the core of the rung is dust.
Looks like a good board right? This board is actually full of frass left from
a boring beetle.
larvae of the powder post beetle will not eat the outer skin of the furniture
or wood it infests. Usually this outer
skin is impregnated with something unpleasant tasting like finish or bug spray.
- Was the table made in America by
Americans? God bless America!
- Apron / Skirt – Table aprons, also known as a skirt, are
boards connected to the top, to which the legs are attached.
- Assemblers – Someone with little woodworking experience and
skill who buys pre-manufactured table parts and puts the pieces together
with a few old boards, some wax finish and “hocus-pocus” a Farm
Table! For now anyways.
- Butterfly Patch /
Dutchman – A bowtie shaped piece
of wood, also known as a Dutchman, cut into a board to hold a crack
together, replace a defect in the board or fill a hole in the board.
- Calipers – A measuring device with two C shaped legs
hinged at one end with an adjusting screw for opening and closing
calibration used in wood turning to measure and replicate rounds and
- Epoxy – A thermosetting resin adhesive characterized
by toughness, strong adhesion, and low shrinkage.
- Finials – An ornamental termination to the top of a
piece of furniture.
- Frass – Sawdust like powdery dust excreted by larvae
and pushed out of holes left in the wood.
A beetle’s life cycles can last from one to ten years.
- Hand Plane – A hand tool used from the earliest days of
woodworking and still in use by discerning craftsmen today to slowly level
the surface of wood as it comes from the saw mill.
- Mill Marks – Marks left by a power planer that gives the
board a corrugated wavy appearance.
Since this machine has only been around since the turn of the last
century, you should not find these marks on an old piece. A quality woodworker makes every effort
to remove these telltale marks.
- Patina – The color all things turn with age; such as,
wood, steel, copper, brass or a stone wall.
- Peg – A square piece of wood used to fill a hole in a
board. A peg is also used to hold
mortise and tendon joints in place.
- Peined – To hammer, bend or shape.
- Powder Post Beetles – The adult beetle does little damage. It is the larvae that do the major part
of the damage. Larvae create
tunnels in the wood and become pupae.
As adults, they bore out through the wood and fly off looking for a
mate. Then they start the whole
cycle over again boring a new entry hole in another location.
- Profile Knife – A steel knife blade into which the profile of a
turning (table leg) is cut. As the
wood block spins at high speeds, the knife is pressed into the block and
cuts an exact replica in seconds.
- Rose Head Nail – A handmade nail from the 18th
century characterized with a petal like appearance from 5 or 6 blows from
a hammer to broaden out the end of the nail rod.
- Skinned – Taking a board and removing all the traces of
age. All of the boards’ character
is swept away in just a couple of passes through a leveling machine.
- Standard Furniture
Store Look – Where one piece of
furniture is exact in every detail to another; such as, color, tone,
- Wax Crayons – Special wax crayons that are used to fill
holes in furniture. This wax
remains soft and eventually wears out of the hole.
- Wax Finish – A method of finishing wood with paste
wax. When done correctly, this can
produce a nice luster. When done
incorrectly the surface can become sticky and be susceptible to white
- Wide Belt Sander – A machine similar to a large belt sander with
an adjustable table to calibrate the amount of surface taken off with each
pass. It is used to flatten uneven
and wavy table tops. 200 years of
age can be peeled off the surface of a table in just a few passes.
- Wood Expansion and
Contraction – With the changing
season and consequential changes in humidity, wood will shrink across the
grain and not along the length of the grain. A table that measures 6’ long and 40”
wide in the winter could measure 6’ long and 41” wide in the summer,
depending on the wood species. If
wood is held securely along its width, it will crack as a result.