When Scott renovated the third floor of our 1880s San Francisco Victorian house a few years ago, he left a pile of old redwood lumber scraps in the backyard for firewood. Most of it was rough, unfinished timber of various sizes used for the original framing of the house. Whenever we had parties in the backyard, we would just thoughtlessly toss the stuff on the fire to keep warm on the cold San Francisco nights.
I was talking to Stian during one of these parties when he noticed what kind of wood I was throwing on the fire. He looked at me with horror. Stian grew up in the Bay Area and previously worked in construction, so he’s familiar with this old San Francisco lumber. He pointed out that the trees this wood came from were probably already 2000 years old when our house was built 130 years ago. You can’t buy old growth wood like this anymore, even if you wanted to, because there’s none of it left. Since those who came before us already cut down all the unprotected old growth forests long ago, all of the lumber that’s sold for construction now is new growth. New growth lumber is inferior as it lacks the density and maturity of old growth wood. If you look at a cross cut section of new growth versus old growth, you’ll see the grain of the old growth wood is much finer and tighter than the lesser quality new growth wood.
After Stian pointed this out to me, I immediately stopped throwing this wood on the fire and started thinking about ways to save it. It was difficult because hardly any of the pieces were much longer than a foot or so. But I figured I could fit all of the pieces together kind of like a stone wall and make a headboard for our California King sized bed.
I started this project by washing all of the lumber in a bucket of warm water and mild dish soap. After being encased in dusty lath and plaster walls for 130 years and then sitting in the mud and rain outside for another full year, they were filthy. Luckily, old growth redwood is highly resistant to rot, insects, and mold, so the lumber was in great shape.
After everything was clean, I used a paint scraper to chip away any large splinters of wood. I quickly became the owner of four or five painful giant splinters in my hands and realized I would have to put on gloves to continue handling the lumber.
After the worst of the splinters were removed I meticulously sanded the entire surface of each individual board with an orbital sander and coarse 60 grain sandpaper. This removed some of the dirty patina, but didn’t alter the appearance of the wood too much so that it looked different. When this was finished, I took another pass at all of the lumber using a finer 120 grit paper. At this point, everything was smooth to the touch but still looked old and rustic.
I was planning to finish the wood with either tung oil or a lacquer, but then I stumbled across some guy online who had been restoring old Northern California redwood and recommended Danish oil. He said the Danish oil brought out the beautiful natural colors of the redwood a little better than tung oil and didn’t leave an unnatural shiny finish. So Danish oil it was. It took me almost two full cans to cover every surface of every board.
Next came the problem of how to assemble everything. I ultimately decided to mount all of the individual pieces to a thin piece of 1/4 inch plywood backing to give the headboard support and keep everything in place. To prevent the plywood from being seen, I cut it a little smaller than the headboard so it wasn’t visible from the top or the sides when mounted to the wall. I also stained it dark so it wasn’t visible through the cracks.
To mount the lumber to the plywood, I first glued them in place with construction adhesive. After it dried for 24 hours, I was able to flip the whole headboard over and drive screws through the plywood into each individual board. This was sure to hold them in place in the event the glue failed.
Finally, I used a circular saw to trim both the right and left sides of the headboard to give it a nice fresh and even cut. After sanding everything one last time with the 60 and 120 grit sandpaper, I mounted it directly to the studs in the wall using flush mount picture hangers and some really long screws. And now I’ve got a piece of San Francisco history hanging above my bed. I guess it’s kind of ironic this old lumber is now attached to the studs in the same old house it was used to build.