Reclaiming Vintage Wood – An Epic Tale

Explaining how he created the lengthy and intricate story that became The Lord of the Rings epic, J. R. R. Tolkien wrote, “The tale grew in the telling.”  Sometimes remodeling projects are like that.  Typical reasons to add time and cost to a project include uncovering rot in the walls, opening a floor and discovering a hidden portal to the fourth dimension, and finding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow with which to fund a bigger project.  Well, at least the first one is typical.

But, sometimes, things just work out that way for the better, like, serendipitously…

Such is the case with a recent (2013) remodel of the kitchen in the home of Terri A. and Les S., located in the forested foothills of Mt. Baker, Washington, home to bald eagles, spawning salmon, white-tailed deer and Lucy, the sweetest guard dog on the planet.

Terri had for many years wanted to upgrade her kitchen, which was functional but lacking a certain something – like cabinet doors and drawer spaces.  The room had all of three – count ’em – three drawers with faces among seven built-in base cabinets and one wall cabinet.  Roll out baskets were installed in several of the boxes, which added the storage capacity of drawers without the finished look of drawer faces.  The design was basic and adequate, but far from efficient and elegant.

You know a picture is worth a thousand words, so take a look at the Pre-Remodeling Layout:

Left Side Cabinets

Open Cabinets Left of the Sink

To the left of the sink a perpendicular run of three cabinets included a corner cabinet; it was a chore to access stuff in the “blind” end which had no shelf.

Baskets on drawer slides helped improve some access, but the interiors of the cabinets were wider than the fixed-width baskets, resulting in wasted space.

Additionally, the built-in boxes shared a common side wall between any two, and the illusion of a thicker wall was created by using a wider stile (the vertical trim piece, or “face frame”) at the front of each wall, wasting more interior cabinet room in an already small space.

The sink cabinet was about 22 inches wide which accommodated a relatively small drop-in style sink.

Sink Area

Sink Area with Peak-A-Boo Door

The door below the sink was an afterthought as was the wall cabinet over the range on the opposite side of the room.  Hence, they didn’t match anything.  As you can see, most of the aesthetic design went into the interior of the cabinets where knotty fir plywood was used for the cabinet side walls.  Terri loves the look of the original wood which is also in the walls and throughout the house.  So, duplicating the hue and character of the old wood was an important design feature in her vision of the new look for her kitchen space.

Three Unhappy Drawer Faces Right of the Sink

Three Lonely Drawer Faces Right of the Sink

“Knotty fir” is  a descriptive name rather than a species; in fact, according to The Real Wood Bible, coast Douglas fir, which this wood almost certainly is, is not even a true fir (Abies genus)!  Another name for the tree is Oregon pine, and its grows ubiquitously on the west coast of the United States and Canada from British Columbia to California.

We can roughly date this original installation to perhaps the late 1940s, when plywood became a consumer product after its widespread use for the war effort during WWII, to the early 1970s.  Knotty fir, although beautiful, was considered a cheaper grade of wood:  the more desirable Doug-fir grade had few, if any, tight knots and was used for furniture and paneling.  Today, knotty fir is rarely found; my local lumber yard stopped carrying ACX fir plywood 15 years ago.  Regardless, this grade has one good (“A”) side and the other side is not-so-good (“C”.)  Further, the “A” side has the knots cut out and patched with oval-shaped pieces of veneer, so the best use was to paint it, not look at it.

What is available today is expensive CVG (clear vertical grain) fir plywood, which is useful for staining or clear coating for appearance but has no knots to add character.  When it comes to dimensional knotty fir lumber (which is solid wood), generally all that can be found are “shorts” useful for small projects.  These solid boards are usually a few inches wide and maybe five feet long.  To create doors of any width, several of these narrow boards need to be edge-joined to create a wider panel.  This is not always attractive because the doors end up looking like fence boards side-by-side.  Also, book matching, joining pieces of the same board to create a mirror image grain pattern, doesn’t work very well as a visual feature because the book-matched boards aren’t wide enough.

So, how to realize Terri’s dream of a “new” kitchen carrying over the same rustic beauty of the original design was the first challenge.  Terri wanted to initially add new cabinet doors and drawer fronts and retrofit four of the boxes with real drawers; she also decided to replace the temporary cabinet over the range, add a narrow cabinet with a counter top next to the range, add a tall pantry with multiple roll-out shelves, and a few other upgrades to give the kitchen greater functionality and a finished look.

Even for this limited amount of fabrication, choosing to use CVG fir plywood exclusively would have been costly at $160 per 4′ X 8′ panel, and would have been out-of-character with the surrounding walls and trim – which have those wonderful knots!  And we’ve discussed the issues with using fir shorts.  CVG fir dimensional lumber is also expensive and a bit monotonous from a visual perspective – the wood is beautiful but the grain pattern is straight as a string.

After doing all this research and thinking about how to make this kitchen look like it came with the house, I asked my local lumber guys if they had any ideas how or where to obtain a quantity of old-school knotty fir lumber.  I really didn’t want to find an old building, bid on the demolition, demolish it, extract the usable timbers and beams, resaw them into lumber, etc.  There must be someone somewhere who makes this their business who can save me 90 percent of the work of reclaiming this type of wood.  As it turns out, there is, and it’s a local business who specializes in just this area.

Jeffrey E. operates from his home shop.  He regularly participates in auctions and bids for de-constructed building lumber specializing in fir.  His business focuses on reclaiming fir lumber for use in new and remodeled houses, cabinets and furniture.  A pleasant surprise was that he makes a living at this which reflects a good demand for this material, and an ethos among his customers to reuse and recycle perfectly good wood products for new projects.  Jeffrey has a technique for planing the old raw wood he uses which retains a portion of the patina from the years-long aging process the wood has undergone.  The result is an attractive patterning on the finished product which adds a unique feature to the decor.

The boards I purchased were all about 12 feet long by at least 6 inches wide; they had been surface-planed to 5/4 (five-quarter), which is about 1 and  1/16″ thick.  The edges of each board were original to the beam each had been sliced from, so they were not perfectly straight for running through a table saw.  To solve this problem, I fixed a straightedge (a long, perfectly straight board) to each one to act as a guide for the table saw fence.  This technique results in one straight edge cut on each board, which can then be used to rip a straight edge on the opposite side, or rip narrower boards for use.

After painstakingly ripping a straight edge, I fed each thick board through my surface planer for multiple passes.  This finally reduced the thickness of each board to a standard 3/4 inches plus a fraction for sanding.

The planer removes a fraction of an inch with each pass.  Once you get one side nicely flat and smooth, turn  the board over and remove wood from the other side,  When both sides are looking good, stop and examine the board for features you want to display, like knots, nail holes, particularly striking grain patterns, and colors.  Choose a side to be the “outside” of doors, drawer fronts, panels, etc., and concentrate on removing the remaining thickness from the other side.  This will preserve the look you selected.

To minimize potential problems, planer blades, router bits, saw blades, chisels and all cutting implements should be maintained razor-sharp.  Quoting from Nick Gibbs in The Real Wood Bible, “In the workshop…Douglas fir is a satisfying lumber to work, with spectacular grain patterns emerging on plain-sawn surfaces, but it has its drawbacks.  Cutters have to be sharp and there is a risk of splintering.”  Splintering is a problem that can lead to other problems, like getting a splinter (or 12) in your hand.  Splinters hurt like the Dickens because the fingers and hands are the site of the highest concentration of nerve endings in the human body.  Besides, Doug fir splinters are usually tiny, sharp and deeply imbedded.  Now, besides having to repair the splintered wood, you have to endure the misery of painful splinters reminding you of their presence every time you bump them.  So, keep your tools sharp and bone up on minor surgery.

Now I sorted through the milled lumber for the best looking faces to use for doors and drawer fronts.  All the top drawers are traditionally the same height (about 5 and 3/4 inches), so I picked a 6″ wide board with few flaws near the edges and long enough to make six top drawer faces of varying widths.  The consistency of grain pattern and color carries around the kitchen in an eye-pleasing effect.

I chose pieces by width to make wide and narrow doors as called for in the design.  Because the boards were 12 feet long, I had the advantage of the ability to book-match each door panel, making for a much more attractive look compared to random boards edge-joined together.  I also paid attention to the location and “quality” of knots and nail holes; these added the precise rustic character of the original installation we were looking to achieve.

Now I must digress to tell you about the serendipitous part (apart from finding a trove of beautiful vintage wood for the project almost literally in my backyard…)

Terri (remember Terri?) wanted to have a centerpiece in her upgraded kitchen.  She found and purchased a stylish and contemporary cast iron and porcelain “farm” sink, the kind with an apron the doubles as the front of the cabinet, like this:

When we measured for a drop-in installation in the existing cabinet, we realized this sink needed to be installed as a “tile-in” whereby the tile counter top is brought up to touch the perimeter of the sink, which is set flush with the counter top.  This is one of several ways to install different sink designs; another might be made to install under the counter top, known as an “undermount” sink.

Terri and Les didn’t bat an eye, as they had considered replacing the dated tile counter top, also.  Now the project “grew in the telling,” as the existing sink cabinet wasn’t wide enough.  They quickly decided to expand the project to a full remodel replacing not only the old counter top and the offending sink cabinet , but the original cabinets on either side and along the other wall.  What started with minor changes now became a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

The new cabinets have the following features:

  • Apron sink cabinet with two doors for access to storage
  • Two banks of three drawers each in two cabinets
  • Two roll-out shelves behind a single door that hinges out-of-the-way
  • A pull-out recycling center with two 20-gallon containers and a drawer
  • A large corner cabinet with a shelf and 170° hinged door
  • Two drawers above the two roll-out shelves
  • A 12-inch wide cabinet with drawer and adjustable partitions
  • A 9-inch cabinet with one fixed and one adjustable shelf
  • A large wall cabinet with a shelf above the range
  • A tall pantry with two doors and five roll-out shelves

The new cabinets were constructed using birch plywood for walls, bottoms, drawer boxes and structural parts.  The light color of the birch makes the cabinet interiors bright and easier to see into than the previous darker wood.  Euro-style construction maximizes interior space and allows for hidden hinges which were unique to each location; some hinges open 110°; others open past the plane of the side wall to allow full-width roll-out shelves to move without obstruction.  The cabinets have knotty fir rails and stiles which the doors and drawers close against to complete the rustic appearance.

We also added a 10-foot long shelf near the ceiling along the wall above the pantry and refrigerator for extra storage and knickknacks.  Further, the breaker panel, tastefully located in the kitchen wall, is now hidden behind a knotty fir door hinged for easy access.

Again, a picture is worth a thousand words:

Terri's New Kitchen

Terri’s New Kitchen

Above the Range

Above the Range

Beside the Range

Beside the Range

Tall Pantry

Tall Pantry

Tall Pantry Revealed

Tall Pantry Revealed

Les did a fine job installing the sink, which is a technical job requiring accurate and precise measuring and cutting.  ( I wonder if he read my article on the subject…)  He is also the tile guy for the new counter top.  The counter top will have wood edge to accent the large square glazed tiles.  Add a new faucet, rustic shelf brackets and distressed porcelain knobs on the cabinets and the kitchen space is totally reinvented while retaining the ambiance and “look” of the house.  The patina of the existing aged wood in the walls and shelving was almost perfectly matched by using an oil-based polyurethane which uniquely darkens to a rich golden color when it cures.

All in all, the project was a resounding success.  A vintage kitchen received a modern make-over, thanks to the availability of the perfect vintage wood product, a vintage carpenter, and the roll-with-the-punches attitude of two of the nicest people I have had the pleasure to work with.