Using Second Hand Materials.

Using Second Hand Materials.

Recycling is the modus operandi of all environmentally conscious people, not least the intrepid self builder. Recycling, particularly building materials, is a major industry throughout the world. Unfortunately environmental awareness is not always the driving force behind recycling. In places where building materials are scarce, even the most rusted sheet of roofing or bent piece of timber is not wasted. Asbestos is reused until it crumbles to an indigestible toxic dust.

Over the past thirty years, second hand building materials in Australia have become rarer and so more expensive. More people now appreciate the value of recycled materials. In the cities, concentration of populations has resulted in more renovation and additions to existing buildings. Aesthetic awareness has meant trying to keep close to original styles and so using similar recycled doors and windows. Second hand timber is also becoming harder to acquire. Perhaps because the demand has increased and demolitions are less frequent. P.C. (Prime Cost) items such as sinks, baths, basins and toilets are still readily available but you must be aware of the suitability of these items. Chipped and stained porcelain is expensive to repair and cheap refurbishment deals are just that and will not last. By-laws concerning toilet pans and cisterns must be checked out before buying second hand units as the wrong pan sizes and flush quantities will not be accepted. Also, many old fashioned cisterns will not have spare parts available for repairs. Still, that will be no surprise; many new types have similar problems and many competent plumbers are able to repair old cisterns with a bit of tire tube and some fencing wire.

The decision to use second hand timbers should be made carefully. The time and labour cost of acquiring, repairing and preparing used materials can be astronomical. If you are building to a budget, especially if you are paying for labour, second hand materials may cost far more than new materials to install. A good carpenter can ‘swing’ a new door in less than two hours. This means he or she can cut and erect the jambs, fit the hinges, swing the door and fit the lock and handles in that time. The door will cost about $30 to $70, hinges $5, jamb $30 and lock and handles about $30. With labour of say $50, each door should cost around $200 to swing. The labour to prepare a second hand door can run into many hours. If it is to be stripped of paint and polished, it could take from 5 to 20 hours to prepare. Before it is swung, it will have to be straightened and squared. If the hinges are on the wrong side they will have to be changed and the old checkouts patched. If the lock holes don’t match the new ‘door furniture’, they will also need to be patched. As almost all old doors are not standard size, each door will have to have the jamb made to suit.
A good carpenter who is patient and committed to a good job, could take a day or more to do each door. If they are working to a quote, they will refuse to do the job or charge extra. You are now looking at a cost to swing each door of $300 or more, not including the paint stripping and initial cost of the door.

Windows have similar problems, with any cracked or broken panes adding to the labour. Removing old putty and cracked panes is a very slow and painstaking job and the original frame should be worth the time and effort needed to bring it up to scratch. Window sashes (the opening part) are only half of the work. The frame is very important and must be in good serviceable condition if you are to save money.

Second hand timber scantlings must also be considered carefully. If the timber is not in good condition or is full of nails there may be many days of labour just to get it to a useable state. You should also be aware of the stress grade required for the particular timbers needed. Although most second hand timber will be seasoned and presumably stronger, the type of timber will still have a bearing on its strength.

Finding materials.

The first stop for doors and windows will be the local second hand dealer. Just about every town has one or two. Local newspapers and the trading post are the next best shopping place. We used to get up at 5:00am on a Tuesday morning and go down to the Manly Ferry Warf to get the Trading Post, hot off the press. We used to wait until 6:00am before ringing people. We thought it more polite, until one morning when we rang about twelve french doors for sale in Mosman, only to be told there was a person loading them onto the truck as we spoke. After that, we always rang ASAP, we reckoned that if they wanted to sell they would answer the phone at any time. Timber is also available through the press and if you are prepared to put in the time retrieving it, some great bargains can be won.
The ‘tip’ was also a great gold mine in the past. Many now are controlled and have recycling centers that are always worth keeping a regular eye on. Let the managers know what you are looking for and they will generally give you a ring if something arrives that may suit you.
Let your friends and others know that you are looking for materials. Many treasures are discovered in the back of forgotten sheds, although in northern NSW you have to be quick to beat the termites.


Careful selection of second hand materials will save a lot of time and potentially a lot of money. For doors, it is important that they are not warped or ‘out of wind’ (twisted). Up to 3mm bow from top to bottom will be acceptable. Up to 5mm out of wind may be acceptable. Any more and it will be difficult to get the door to meet the jamb properly and they are very difficult to straighten. It may be possible to ‘unwind’ the door slightly by twisting it the opposite way with weights or by clamping. Measure the door width at the top, middle and bottom. If this varies more than 3mm the door styles will have to be planed true. If there is door furniture, it will need to be removed and reinstalled after the door is straight. For timber panel or glass panel doors, measure the width of the top rail at each end. Many old doors have been planed off to suit frames distorted due to settling foundations. It is much easier to plane a bit off the top of the door than to stop the foundations settling. The top rail will have to be re-cut or planed to square the top of the door. Check the bottom rail of the door for similar adjustments.

All joints between rails(horizontal) and styles(vertical) should be square and tight. If there is a crack showing at the junction it indicates that the mortice and tenon has loosened and will have to be re-glued and wedged before the door is swung. For glass doors it is common for the crack to taper, indicating that the door has sagged out of square due to the weight of the glass. To repair these doors properly the glass will have to be removed and the door dismantled so it can be re-glued and wedged correctly. The glass or timber panels should not carry the weight of the door frame if it sags.

Window sashes like door frames have styles each side and rails top and bottom. Generally the bottom rail will be considerably wider than the other rails and has a double mortice into the styles on each side. This is to give the sash enough strength to prevent sagging. This is especially important for casement style windows that are supported at the side and open sideways either on hinges or friction stays. Awning windows (hinged at the top) or hopper windows (hinged at the bottom) will not be subjected to as much diagonal stress and so will not need such heavy bottom rails. Double hung sashes (sliding in tracks supported on spring balances or sash cords and counter balances) also are under less stress and can afford to have lighter frames.

Window frames are very important. Sashes only make up half the window. It can be very expensive to just buy sashes and then have to manufacture frames to suit them. Always try to get the complete unit and ensure that the frame is in good condition. The first place to check is the joint between the frame styles and the sill. (bottom rail of frame). The sill should be made of a highly durable timber as it collects and should shed all the water from the window. If the window has a centre mullion (style) it will be morticed into the sill. If the paint seals are not well maintained moisture will seep into these joints and resultant fungal decay (wet rot) will destroy the joint. The time and cost of repairing such decay is generally greater than the value of the window. Use a sharp screw driver to drive into the joint. If it goes right in with little resistance give the frame a 'swerve’. Check the frame for twisting and warping. It can be pulled straight to a certain extent when it is fixed in the wall but major distortion will be difficult to correct.

Second hand timber is available in such a wide variety of types, sizes and condition it is difficult to give a comprehensive analysis. Generally, timber fits into two categories; softwood and hardwood. It is best if you have a fair idea what you need the timber for, before going out to look. Also it is wise to know the value and availability of the equivalent new timber.

The main benefit of using second hand timber is that it will be seasoned and stable. That is, it will not shrink or warp. This makes it very attractive for many uses from framing and joinery to furniture. If you are using the timber for house construction, ensure it meets the stress requirements for the job. Softwoods generally will not get stronger as they age, so stress tables should be read as for equivalent new timber. Hardwoods however, do strengthen with age and good quality, dry, clear grained timber can be graded similar to or higher than kiln dried equivalent timber. Most older timber, softwood or hardwood, will have been cut from older larger trees and so the grain will be straight with less knots than timber cut from younger smaller trees. Timber being cut today is coming from much smaller logs. A legacy of using up the ”renewable resources” faster than they are being “renewed”.

Be wary of timber that has been left stacked out in the weather. If there is a white fungus on the surface or the timber is soft and “carrotty”, the moisture content may be too high. This leads to fungal decay and the breakdown of the structural fibre. The timber will break easily and be dangerous to use in construction. You will also not be able to dress or polish the surface successfully.

The are many difficulties working with second-hand timber and you need patience and plenty of time to get good results. Nails will be the biggest drawback. If you are pulling timber out of a structure, take the time to de-nail it thoroughly. Mark any broken off nails with a wax chalk so you notice them when starting to use the timber later.
Stack the timber neatly up off the ground so it remains straight and away from termites. Cover the stack with roofing sheets to keep it dry Timber left un-stacked will warp and twist even if it is well seasoned.

When cutting the timber try to make cuts away from nail holes but use a tungsten tipped blade on your power saw. Always keep the blades sharp. The extra cost of a few sharpenings and new blades will not be great in the overall scheme of things. If you are using a chainsaw take extra time to ensure there are no bolts and nails. Don’t forget to look all round the cut area and remember nails are often in at an angle so give them a wide berth. Nails will destroy a chain saw chain very quickly and tungsten tipped chains are very expensive. Always use eye protection as flying fragments of metal and old hard splinters can be devastating.

If you are intending to plane the timber, it must be free of all dirt and nails. Even the tiniest nail will chip planer blades leaving a raised ridge on all timber following through the machine. Dirt ingrained into the timber will dull planer blades very quickly. Once dull they will start to burn the timber and over heat the blades. If you haven’t done so already, invest in a good quality belt sander. All surfaces to be planed should be sanded with a coarse belt. This will remove most of the ingrained soil and grey surface and the nail holes will stand out as black stains. If you are intending to plane a lot of timber it will be worthwhile investing in a metal detector to find the buried nails. When old nails rust and break off they leave a black stain around the hole but deeper in the nail may be un-rusted and lying in wait for the unsuspecting blade. Push a smaller nail into the hole to feel if there is any nail left. Use an old sharp chisel to cut a conical hole around any broken off nails so they can be gripped with pinchers and pulled out. Nails can be punched in deeper than the planer is likely to cut but you must be sure they are deeper. Check after each run with the planer to make sure you have punched them in deep enough.

All this sounds like a lot of work and it is just that. Second hand timbers if used well can look spectacular. If you have the time and energy to commit to this type of work the results can be awesome. But if you are thinking of paying somebody to do it, think very carefully as the labour cost will be astronomical.