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Reusing Old Materials for a Green Design



For a unique and eco friendly look, try using salvaged materials in your bathroom design, reclaimed wood, antique tiles and old sinks.
By Jenny Nash

“Everything old is new again,” goes the old saw about the cyclical nature of style. But today’s eco-conscious designers and remodelers are making everything new old again by using salvaged materials in their baths—everything from vanities made from reclaimed wood to antique tiles, old sinks and other fixtures.


These style salvagers are motivated by beauty, a love for old things and a desire not to waste them. That was the case several decades ago when wood from demolished structures was consigned to the trash heap or bonfire. Savvy business and crafts people offered to haul away the wood for free and then sold it or used it themselves.


This practice evolved from small one- and two-person salvage operations in the ‘70s and exploded in the last ten years, says Liz Bieter of Duluth Timber Company, in Duluth, Minn. The reclaimed wood, often heart pine and Douglas fir but also other woods, such as redwood and chestnut, have advantages besides being beautiful and earth-friendly, says Bieter. Because of its age, it’s more stable than new wood—it won’t change shape and its color has fully deepened.


That rich color has been earned, as have the requisite nail holes and even wormholes, from the wood’s previous incarnations. Its visible history appeals to many people, including Stephen Staples, of Staples Cabinetmakers in Plainville, Mass. Staples started his furniture-making business in 1996—for the second time. The first time, he says, he was “doing what was popular.” This time, he started doing what he wanted, which was to use salvaged wood. He picked it up anywhere he could, he says, even “walking through the woods looking for old sheds.”


Unlike others using reclaimed wood who mill it for various uses, Staples retains much of the wood’s original look. He’s used an old screen door as the front of a cabinet and hammered the myriad nails back into two large planks of “roofing pine” —not wood that people usually want to use again precisely because of its many nails. He'll also use it for doors on an armoire that will have a “medieval” look.


When Razan Brooker was extensively renovating her fourth home, an 1840 Italianate Victorian house, she turned to Staples for some period-looking pieces. Staples made a two-shelf vanity for the master bath—big enough for the two modern sinks Brooker placed on top—and side shelves, all of reclaimed wood. For the other bath, Staples took an Egyptian lattice door supplied by Brooker and used it on a vanity he made.


“He’s incredibly precise and artistic—these are showcase pieces," says Brooker. "The wood Steve chose for each one is exactly what the design called for, and I have not had one stain from water on my bathroom vanities. They look like they belong in this 300-year-old home.”


Reclaimed wood can also be used to make bathroom floors, ceilings and walls. Staples says it’s fine to use it in this moisture-rich environment, but you should sterilize the wood by cleaning it with a good disinfectant first so mold has nothing to start growing on. And any reclaimed wood should be kiln-dried to get rid of any moisture (some wood is reclaimed from river bottoms) or dormant bugs.


Leah Hennen, was looking for a more recent—but still retro—look for her mid-century ranch home. Several years and one home later, she’s almost ready to start renovating her 1930s-era bathroom with the lavender tiles and fixtures she’s salvaged. It all began with a pair of lavender porcelain sconces she found on eBay, which led to a lavender porcelain towel bar and toilet paper holder.


At her local salvage store, Ohmega Salvage, Hennen found a large box of tiles with—you guessed it—lavender ones scattered throughout. She and her children spent the afternoon sorting through boxes of tiles for the lavender ones. She has since found a lavender toilet and sink, but had to forego a cast-iron lavender tub since the cross-country shipping fee totaled over $1,000. Today, she’s just about ready to start her purple-passion of a renovation.


Like Hennen, you can find antique tiles and other retro bath fixtures on eBay or in architectural salvage stores. They can cost anywhere from a few dollars each to a few thousand dollars each, depending on age, rarity and condition.


And, unlike Hennen, if you’ve only managed to collect a few treasured tiles, you can scatter them among new field, or background, tiles on a chair rail or a sink surround—think Arts and Crafts Batchelder tiles among field tiles of limestone.


If you have some tiles that you’d hate to lose should you move from your house (such as heirlooms from your grandmother), consider surrounding them with an edge of wood or metal, such as copper or pewter, and then laying them so they can be removed and replaced with less sentimentally precious tiles. Be sure not to mortar the back—only the sides—of the surround to make removal easier.


For these aficionados of the past, it’s about re-using—not losing—materials and products.


“I believe that old things have a beauty and a quality that newer things, even reproductions, lack," Hennen says. "Often, these things are perfectly usable—or can be refurbished so that they are—and will last another 30, 50 or 70 years.”




Staples Cabinetmakers,

Duluth Timber: Duluth Timber Company,

Ohmega Salvage,

Reclaimed Wood Council,

Solar Antique Tiles,

Karen Michelle Antique Tiles,

Mountain Lumber,

Pioneer Millworks,

The Woods Company,





Copyright 2012 Ronald Sauve All Rights Reserved

This page was last modified on April 06, 2012

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