John Rawlinson from Oakbeamuk.com explains the advantages of sourcing original oak beams for a period property.
Oak beams are like good claret — they mature with age. Reclaimed oak works perfectly for beams in period properties as it has a lot of character; it is darker in colour because the tannin in the wood reacts with the surrounding atmosphere, giving the beam a distinctive aged appearance. It features knots, splits and a sense of time passed with old notches from cut branches still showing, or with previous joinery cuts now forming part of its history.
Using reclaimed oak beams is good for the environment as the tree is slow growing, so the more we can recycle, the better. Reclaimed oak is also very hard and heavy as it has completely dried out, so while difficult to cut, the beam moves less and therefore is less likely to twist.
Why might you choose reclaimed beams?
The choice of beam usually depends on the look required. Reclaimed beams can be anything from 50 to 300 years old, which are the most stable type of oak beam available. Buyers also have a choice of green or newly milled oak – the cheapest option and easiest to work with – or seasoned or air-dried oak, which has been left in carefully monitored drying conditions for three-five years, so it is less prone to twisting and splitting.
Green and air-dried oak beams come in regular sizes and are consistently straight, however they don’t have the authentic aged appearance of reclaimed versions.
What should I look for when buying?
When it comes to measurements, the odd centimetre often doesn’t matter and will be plastered in anyway, so if the builder gives you a list of preferred sizes, try and establish in advance a range of dimensions that would be acceptable. Beams can be cut to length, but cutting them lengthwise is much more difficult. It is better to work with what is being offered rather than waste time in an endless search for the perfect shape and size of beam.
When buying reclaimed beams you should always check that they have been properly cleaned and treated. The last thing you want is to introduce an infestation into your home. You should try to avoid beams that have come from Eastern Europe as these are prone to infestation, are of lesser quality and do not finish as well as Western European beams.
How are oak beams restored?
Beams are heavy and unwieldy to move around, so we use a team of men with forklifts and other handling equipment. A power washer, a stiff wire brush on a hand tool, draw knives and rotary polishers are used to achieve a variety of finishes, and some of this specialist equipment can be expensive.
Cleaning old beams is also very dirty work, and potentially toxic if the wrong type of paint has previously been applied. You should never use sandblasting to clean beams as this can leave the wood pitted and with a surface that is very hard to bring back to its natural texture.
How much do reclaimed oak beams cost?
Prices range from £35 per cubic ft for green oak, to £45 per cubic ft for air-dried and reclaimed. The finished cost of a beam, after a piece has been selected to specification, cleaned, treated, denailed, custom shaped and waxed, is £73.50 per cubic ft.