Woodform Architectural explains the many differences between recycled timber and new timber to help consumers make the right choice for their application.

Forest and Wood Products Australia Limited (FWPA), a not-for-profit company that provides research and development services to the Australian forest and wood products industry, defines recycled timber as ‘timber that has been previously processed and used in a given application, then subsequently removed and made available for re-use in a similar or altered form’.

Often salvaged from structures such as old barns, abandoned warehouses and dilapidated factories among others, the timber is then recycled by specialist companies by grading it, detecting and removing nails and bolts, dislodging damaged sections, and re-milling it for re-use. 

Advantages of recycled timber

Recycled timber is obviously more environmentally efficient as it reduces the demand for new lumber and the corresponding transport costs (especially if originally imported from another country), while also lowering unnecessary wastage of old, disused, but still useful timber.

Forest services in Australia were established early in the 20th century to manage and protect the remaining forest on public lands. For nearly a hundred years, therefore, a majority of timber production has been sourced from legal quotas apportioned to public forests. 

If the recycled timber was originally utilised before the implementation of this controlled logging system, it’s likely to have come from old-growth trees, whose denser grain is superior to those of trees now mostly grown in tree farms or sustainably managed forests, which are cut before reaching full maturity. Recycled timber is also preferred by many users for its rustic and vintage look, which is not generally manifested in new timber grading.

Advantages of new timber

New timber can be responsibly sourced with the following accreditations, making it almost as eco-friendly as recycled timber: FSC certification - a Forest Stewardship Council certification internationally recognised as the most rigorous environmental and social standard for responsible forest management; PEFC accreditation - the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification and the world's largest forest certification system; and Australian Forestry Standard’s COC-certification (Chain of Custody) tracking a wood or forest product from its origin in a certified forest through to its end use by the consumer.

New timber offers several advantages over recycled timber: New timber is easier to machine into preferred specifications than recycled timber; recycled timber originates from disparate sources and will reflect its previous usage in different geographical areas that experience a wide range of environmental exposures; recycled timber comes in varying dimensions, aside from having received assorted treatments and surface finishes; new timber has consistent availability unlike recycled timber, which can be erratic in supply; and recycled timber has unpredictable visual grading with possible imperfections from nail and bolt holes.

FWPA issued its ‘Interim Industry Standard: Recycled Timber - Visually Graded Recycled Decorative Products’ as guidance for recycled timber manufacturers, suppliers and users. While exhaustive with its suggested visual grading requirements, it cautions: “Detailed discussions between purchasers and suppliers prior to specifying or ordering recycled timber is the key to a successful commercial transaction”.

New timber also allows more uniform moisture content control. Though considered sturdier than new timber because it has had more time to rid itself of moisture content than kiln-dried new timber, recycled timber often comes from large logs and posts, which when split, could bow due to trapped core moisture. Also, recycled timber of mixed species may expand and contract at different rates that may not be foreseen as easily as with new timber.

FWPA’s Interim Industry Standard advises: “Critical changes may arise due to moisture content change. For example, the formation of large checks affecting the structural adequacy of the piece or excessive twist affecting the utility of the piece. Such changes in a piece may be cause for rejection of the piece with respect to its final application.”

Using new or recycled timber is based on one’s project-dependent aesthetic and functional requirements, which can be analysed by specialists to determine the best choice for the application. But whatever the choice, the end user always gets to enjoy the timeless appeal of timber.

Image: A recycled timber application