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Recycled timber is perhaps the most environmentally benign building material we can use. When we use recycled timber, we take the pressure off our forests and delay the onset of shortages. Not only do we usually save money on the cost of our timber, we reduce waste.

Recycled timbers often have an unsurpassed aged beauty. Although more time and effort is usually required when we use recycled timber, the end result is a unique item with a special character. Many wood turners, cabinet makers and kitchen renovators are currently using recycled timber for this reason. Recycled timber is becoming popular now that so many of the tree species we valued in the past for specialty timber are becoming rare owing to over exploitation.

Most of the post consumer recycled timber sold in Australia is currently sourced from demolition waste. As demand for this resource increases, shortages may occur and prices may increase. Shortages may soon become significant because  the more modern buildings we are now beginning to demolish were made with steel or concrete rather than timber.

While shortages of high quality demolition timber may occur in the future, another source of post consumer recycled timber is just beginning to be seen as an important resource. The source of this wood comes from factories and businesses. All of this wood waste is potentially recoverable, and we expect this to be an important source of recycled timber products in the future.


Some woodworkers are hesitant to use recycled timber because machinery can be damaged or made blunt by embedded nails and thick layers of old paint. The following useful techniques for overcoming these problems have been suggested by woodworkers experienced in the use of recycled timber:

use an old hand electric planer to remove old paint and dirt from the timber surface. This also enables identification of nails. Wear a good breathing mask to avoid any possibility of inhaling lead based paint.

try to encourage people at demolition yards not to cut off nails with an angle grinder as this makes them very difficult to remove.

recycled timber can be purchased pre stripped of paint and de-nailed.

Second hand yards offer a variety of timbers in a variety of processed forms. Some yards will re-mill the timber ready for reuse, others will de-nail it. When renovating buildings, remember that your rubbish may be someone else's treasure.


By Roger Barnett

The potential resources available to the keen scrounger are astounding. One can literally pick up, for free, comparable or better materials than can be bought on even commercial budgets. The key is in investing some time in tracking down sources and accepting a few dead ends here and there. However, the joy of finding timbers    sometimes worth thousands of dollars    that were otherwise on their way to the tip makes the effort worthwhile.

Furthermore, even if you factor in the value of your labour, scrounging around will still come out trumps over purchasing new or second hand materials. For example, let's say you're having a bad scavenging day and it takes you some three hours to source that certain something you are looking for. Let's value your labour at $20 per hour and call it a $60 expense all up. Even on a bad day, that's going to be cheaper than buying over the counter, more often than not.

As a rule, however, scrounging works best when you know the sort of product you're looking for well in advance. If you're thinking of banging up anything from a cot to a cottage sometime in the next few months, now is the time to start putting your feelers out for the bits and pieces.

Currently the re use practices in the industries that have a lot of 'disposable" timber vary from non-existent through to thorough. At one end of the scale, businesses are paying tens of thousands of dollars over the course of a year to have their "waste” taken to the tip. This contrasts with well organised infrastructures whereby specialty recyclers pay a basic fee to have timbers set aside, which they in turn mark up and resell. Either option is good, both for your hip pocket and forest resources, however if you can cut out the middle person and go directly to the source, your savings will be most impressive. Attitudes from the businesses concerned range from initially cautious about anything out of the ordinary, through to ecstatic, perhaps even to the point of payment for large removals. (One of my favourite sources knows me on a first name basis, calls me when stockpiles are high, and drops whatever they're doing to forklift what I want onto the trailer for me).

Also, don't be too proud to have a good rustle through those large Waste removal bins that renovators use when building. Going a step further and having a chat with the renovator will often turn up more than you  hoped for; they're only too happy for you to reduce their load, and in exchange they'll set aside any useful timbers to save you having to dig to the bottom of the bin.

A word of caution, however: Be wary of inadvertently moving in on a recycler's territory. Contracted recyclers, who actually pay the renovator for the right to specific materials, are understandably less than enthusiastic about having you pinch their booty out of their bins. Such situations follow some trends: They're only ever after larger jobs (such as entire office building fit outs and the like), and the bins will be quite obviously full of only one type of material (metals are the most common, with a separate bin for other materials). If in doubt, you've got nothing to lose in asking.

Lastly, you may find the following specific leads of use:

>Car importers: While the good ,  or is that bad?,   old days of cars arriving in boxes is over (they're generally imported on purpose built ships these days), smaller and specialised vehicle importers still import their primary product in timber boxes. These are generally good for particle boards (often over three metres square) and occasional structural members. Much of these materials wind up with recyclers, but certainly not all.

Machinery importers: Any larger unit, such us baking ovens, industrial motors, control panels, conveyer parts, etc. will generally arrive in the country in timber boxes. As these industries don't turn over enough to warrant a serious re use infrastructure, these boxes generally get thrown out the back until they're dumped. By stepping in at this point, you'll generally chance across more light weight particle board (a good replacement for timber panels and plaster board) than you could possible use. Plywood (typically 5 ply) is not asking for too much, as is the case with all sorts of pre made crates and pallets (suitable for anything from bed bases and work benches to 'pre fab' cubby houses). Again, occasional structural timber is not out of the question, though generally not longer than 3 meters

Pipe/Conduit/Duct manufacturers/importers The situation here is that anything long and straight needs to be kept long and straight while being shipped. Consequently, purpose built racks are often used for transit then discarded. These consist of structural members (typically two by three's) up to the length of the product in question    much over three meters becomes scarce, but certainly not out of the question. It's not pure fantasy to think of 4" by 6* dead straight exotic beams, six meters in length, being cut up for firewood for employees at best, dumped at worst.

Glass importers/manufactures: Possibly one of your most reliable sources, although not always the best quality timber, Glass crates vary from small boxes (useful as they are for storage, plant boxes, benches, whatever) through to huge (five meters by six being the biggest I've seen). There are many combinations in between, generally consisting of often lengthy planks (4" x 3/4" to 8" x I" softwood) held together with the a couple of more structural pieces (2"x l 1/2" to 4" x 4" hard and soft). The planks, being of a variety of colours and textures, can make attractive panelling.

A word of warning: As many of the above sources arrive from overseas, they are treated with a variety of pest control chemicals failure to refer to the 'Chemicals" section of the book would be foolish.

Additionally, the following items turn up regularly in large waste skips when someone's renovating:

Feature timbers: Expect to find anything from Baltic pine floorboards through to mahogany panels. If they're in large quantities (say, from an old warehouse or church hall) they'll generally be already spoken for by a recycler, however if you're looking for enough material for a coffee table or a hand built door, look no further. As an example, the hundred year old knotty off cuts of Oregon someone threw out a few months back now exist as a coffee table which puts the rest of my furniture to shame.

Doors (and windows): Everything from tacky office toilet doors through to solid oak front doors. With and without glazing, generally just a case of sizing your frame to match and screwing them in place.

Structural timber: Four by two's and three by two's abound, almost always between 2.5 and 3.5 meters long. The trick is to design your project to suit the lengths available or join two lengths with bolts. There's lots of Oregon in California Bungalows, Pine in more recent houses, and an awful lot of Aussie hardwood. It's generally very straight and has had a long time to dry out.

Weatherboards, skirting boards, cabinets, desks, etc.

A word of advice: If you have a set idea of what you want to make and, more importantly, how you wish to make it, scavenging around may prove of little use. If, on the other hand, you approach a job with flexibility and an open mind, you shouldn't have to pay for anything except the nails, bolts and glues than hold it together. As an example, through scavenging, the cost of making a bedroom can go from around a thousand dollars to less than twenty (which was for nails and other hardware items). The bedroom may not have been built quite the way it was imagined, however neither functionality or aesthetics were compromised. Most importantly, nor was the environment.

This flexibility can be taken a step further: In the absence of finding exactly what you were after, some time spent engineering around a problem can provide a solution. As an example, while good floor bearers can often be hard to come by, an engineered beam could easily be sourced through industry waste. Also, the original markings on the crates make for reminders about your ethical timber sourcing. Appropriately located symbols and writing (not necessarily in English) can hold as much interest, and certainly more conversation, than, a good knot or grain pattern.


Most furniture retailers have little idea of where the trees they are selling have originated, nor do many show any concern for the environmental consequences of logging the trees they sell as furniture. Some retailers, who do know they are selling rainforest or old growth furniture, will try to avoid our concerns by saying the timber is "plantation grown" when it is not.

In our directory section, we have chosen to restrict ourselves to listing furniture dealers who have made themselves familiar with the environmental issues related to wood, and are manufacturing furniture made from the good woods recommended in this guide. Thus, they sell furniture that has been made from recycled timber, plantation timber., farm timber, urban timber, or a* combination of all four.


We have found that the people involved in using good wood timbers love to share with their customers the story of where they obtained their wood. They are proud of their careful choice of timber and the product they have produced from it. Recycled timber does not just arrive on a truck. Often it has been carefully .rescued" by the very craftperson who makes the furniture. We think this is important and feel that a large part of the pleasure derived from purchasing furniture should be knowing where the furniture we purchase came from, and at what ecological cost.

A number of furniture businesses are currently cashing in on the popularity of recycled timber. We have investigated as many of these as we could and found that in some cases, the description of the timber as “recycled” was not true. For example, some of the recycled furniture businesses we investigated were found to be using rainforest timber plywoods as draw bases and backing boards. one retailer even claimed his imported Indonesian furniture was made with recycled timber. We have not listed these businesses as Good Wood Suppliers, but will do so when they agree to honestly declare the source of their materials.


Before we get to the decision to purchase timber, we should think about whether we need to purchase it at all. Do we really need it? One of the central causes of forest destruction is our wasteful use of our resources. We are not reusing our timber as many times as we might, we are not recycling our timber products enough, and we are not reafforesting our land to its full potential.

Friends of the Earth wants to demonstrate that responsible consumer behaviour, including a boycott of rainforest timbers, will lead to less wastage of wood products and take some of the pressure off rainforests and our native forests.

In Victoria, there is generally a shortage of high quality and large sized timbers because nearly all our local timber comes from plantations, or regrowth forests. Our forests currently produce a large amount of lower quality timber, for which there is less demand. This lower grade timber is generally channelled into low value uses such as house framing and woodchips. However, with some changes in processing, much of this lower quality timber, and particularly our native hardwood timber, has the potential to substitute for imported rainforest timbers and U.S.A or Canadian old growth timbers. For example, smaller pieces of timber can be carefully segregated and end joined or laminated to produce large size timber products (see next section).

Australians, compared with North Americans and Europeans, often have unrealistic expectations that timber should be clear of any blemishes, and this is a major obstacle to using timber responsibly. Changes in consumer attitudes toward timber are needed. We hope to encourage consumers to accept joined timbers, gum veins and other features in timber. Accepting the natural features of timber is necessary if we are to use our local timbers rather than the clear timbers imported from the world's diminishing rainforests and old growth forests.


To reduce waste through better use of timber:

think about whether we really need to use timber (will something secondhand do?);

use the lowest grade and smallest size pieces of timber appropriate for the job. The common practice of ordering full lengths and then cutting them up into small pieces should be avoided; do not throw out off cuts. Put them aside and use them on the next job;

use standard and utility appearance grade timber, rather than select grade, particularly if the surface is going to be painted or otherwise hidden;do not ask for blemish free timber (clear grade) and do not insist on stringent colour matching specifications. This leads to an increased wastage and downgrading of timber to lower value applications;

try furniture made from knotty or feature grade timber. It will not only be more individual and visually interesting, it will also be cheaper;use joined timbers whenever possible. Timber can be joined on its ends by finger joints and metal nail plates, or on its width by glue laminating;only buy timber from a sawmiller who can demonstrate a commitment to optimising wood recovery. For example, someone using a bandsaw rather than a circular saw can increase the yield of a log by up to 30 per cent. Bandsaws produce less sawdust and, consequently, we get more timber; and consider staining plantation timbers to achieve that exotic look. This avoids the need to use our endangered or rare rainforest species.

There are many good books available on the subject, and most woodworking stores stock an extensive range of finishing products.


There are a number ways plastic waste can be reused as a substitute for rainforest and old growth timbers. For example, for in ground applications, where a material is likely to be exposed to persistent damp, bacteria, or poor ventilation, a recycled plastic wood substitute might be the best choice. (Not suitable for structural uses.)

The Good Wood and Paper Guide FRIENDS OF THE EARTH 1999