Building a "Reclaimed" Wood Headboard... Without Any Reclaimed Wood

I was recently commissioned to build a headboard by my roommate's writing partner.  She was hoping for something simple and a little "rustic."  It's really hot right now to use reclaimed wood either from old barns or buildings, but living in LA and not being a full-time woodworker, I have a severe lack of access to actual reclaimed wood. People are also totally price-gouging the old stuff as a raw material, or using it to slap together poorly made furniture which they then turn around for an outrageous price.  That being said, there's also some really beautiful, high-quality stuff made from reclaimed wood, so just do your research, understand that good quality workmanship doesn't come terribly cheaply, and you can find something good.

I had to figure out a way to achieve the aged look without buying the boards, constructing a barn and then letting it sit for a few decades.  I had some luck with a combination of black tea and steel wool dissolved in vinegar that you can find written about a lot on the internet.  I also combined it with some shaping of the boards to really try and get the wood to feel old.  


Lumber (this is not a cut list, this is what to buy):

- 5 x 1"x4"x6' Pine common boards
- 2 x 1"x4"x6' Poplar board
- 1 x 1"x4"x3' Poplar board
- 2 x 1"x4"x4' Poplar board


- 2 quart-size glass jars
- 4 black tea bags
- White vinegar
- 1 piece of 0000 steel wool
- Salt
- 120 and 220 grit sandpaper
- tack cloth
- Scotch brite green pads (3 or 4 of them)
- Some sort of protective clear coat (if desired)

Other materials:

- Wood glue
- 1 1/4" screws or nails (I used drywall screws)
- 4x or 6x 1/4" carriage bolts (2" long) with a flat washer, lock washer and a nut.

- Cross-cut saw (hand tools work fine although power tools will be faster)
- Hammer or a drill (or a screw driver... although that will take forever)
- Shallow wide gouge and a rasp (for shaping the boards)

Prep your aging solution

It takes a little time to prep the oxidation solution, so you'll want to do this one or two days in advance of really starting to build the headboard.  In one of the jars I brewed the four bags of black tea in about 2/3 quart of water.  I then filled the second jar with  about 2/3 quart of the white vinegar, about two teaspoons of salt, and then the piece of steel wool.  Stetching the steel wool fibers apart prior to adding it will help speed up the oxidation reaction.

Do NOT put on the lid tightly enough to seal the jar, as this will either cause the reaction to stop (the gaseous byproducts need to escape) or could cause the jar to burst.  Putting it in the hot sun will help speed up the reaction.

Let the tea sit for a couple of hours and then remove the tea bag.  The steel wool should probably sit for 24-48 hours or until an appreciable amount of the steel wool has dissolved.  Your timing needed may be less or more.

You can try a test board by rubbing some of the black tea into the wood, letting it dry completely, then putting the steel wool/vinegar mixure over it.  You should see it almost immediately start to "age" as the tea oxidizes in the wood.  It will darken more and may even turn slightly red as the vinegar dries.

The Board Prep Process

Fresh boards

As in many woodworking projects, surface prep is where the bulk of your time is spent; I'd guess 8-9 hours of my 12 invested were spent here.  While it is time-consuming, it is ultimately pretty simple, following the same process for each board: (1) cut the board to its final dimensions, (2) shape the board to accomplish any artifical damage or wear that is desired, (3) sand the board down, (4) "age" the board with your tea/vinegar/steel wool solution (5) Back off the aging a little with scotch brite pads to acheive some color variation, and finally (6) put your clear-coat on.

We'll go into a little more detail for each step (with pictures) below.

Step 1: Cut boards to length

After you've acquired your lumber (see the materials section above) you'll want to cut the following to make the headboard I did:

4 @ 1"x8"x62" out of 4 of your pine common boards
2 @ 1"x8"x19" and 1 @ 1"x8"x24" out of the remained pine board

Boards cut down to 62" with one board subdivided into 2x19" pieces and 1x24" peice

Pretty simple, right?  If you didn't buy the Poplar at the lengths specified in the materials list, you'll want to cut your boards down to the sizes listed there.  You buy by the poplar by lineal foot and stores like Home Depot or Lowes will cut them down for you, so you'll save some money and time if you go ahead and try to buy at the correct lengths.

Step 2: Shape your boards

You can do yourself a little bit of a favor by buying some of the boards that may have saw marks left in them from the mill (as I did) or some that maybe got slightly damaged in transit to the store.  Just make sure that they are sound and not splitting or too damaged.  Also pay attention to residual sap in the wood as your aging solution won't absorb into areas that still have a high-sap content.  This can make for an interesting look however it could also make for an unwelcomed surprise if you're not expecting it.  

Gouging out some grooves for texture

The shaping process is where you can get creative.  Using the gouge, I gouged out some shallow (and some not-so-shallow) channels through the wood trying to follow the grain.  I tried to think about the spots that might erode if they had been expose to the wind or maybe had had water blowing against them for a long time.  I used the rasp to break and shape the edges, corners, and ends of the boards.  I tried to think about how light would reflect off of the reshaped boards vs flat boards and concentrated on trying to enhance and play with that especially around the features already present in the wood (grain, knots, existing damage and mill marks, etc).  You don't have to go totally overboard here, but every little bit you do will help sell this as old wood.

Here I've rasped down the corner closest to the camera.  The gouge marks down the center should allow for a nice shift in reflected light from the flat board.  Using low angle light like this can help you get a sense of how the light will reflect off of a gloss topcoat.

Grain tear-out, while usually gut wrenching, is actually OK here.  We don't want to create huge splinters, splits or otherwise actually damage any of the boards, but we do want to make them look like they've already lived one life and we're giving them a second.

Step 3: Sand everything down

After shaping, we want to sand out the marks that indicate that this is not actually old wood.  This includes most (but not necessarily all) of the marks left by the rasp and gouge.  Leaving a few of these marks in though is nice because we then get a little extra texture to the wood (the smoothed parts vs the less smoothed parts).

Start with the 120 grit paper and sand out some of the harder edges, smooth some of those channels we've created (until the gouge marks aren't visibl) and remove any splinters, etc.  If you've picked up a board with mill marks left in it, sand these until you can comfortably run your hand over them without worrying about splinters, but definitely don't sand them out all of the way.

If you're sanding by hand, always sand with the grain of the wood.  Sanding across the grain tends to not add much to the feel of these boards and just looks kind of unfinished.  If you're using a power sander, do move the sander in the direction of the grain, but note that you'll want to spend more time with the 220 grit paper to get out the random orbit marks.

After you've sanded your boards with 120 grit paper, go over them with 220. It will take longer, but I'd reccomend doing this by hand.  You'll end up with a better looking finished product.  The 220 paper will make them smoother however won't actually change the surface texture of the boards in the way that the 120 did.  

Cleanup from this process is pretty important: if you've done things properly, you and everything around you will be absolutely covered in wood shavings and sanding dust.  If you're going to be spraying/brushing your clear coat in the same area, you'll want to ensure everything is swept and dusted.  

We also want to remove the dust from the boards.  This is best done with "tack cloth" (also available at home depot), but dusting with a slightly damp rag is also ok.  

Step 4:  Apply the aging solution

After your boards are dusted, liberally apply the black tea to all of the board surfaces. Only the "face" side and edges are technically necessary, but for completeness I did the backs as well.  When I was finished with applying the tea, I only had about a cup of it left.  

Top two boards have had tea applied, lower three boards still need to be treated

Leave the tea to completely dry for 15 minutes to a half hour.  Leaving them in the hot sun can help speed up this process.  After they are dry, go ahead and liberally apply the vinegar/steel wool solution to the tea-treated surfaces.  You'll see gray start to develop almost immediately, wich will deepen and turn all sorts of cool colors as it dries.  Let this dry completely (seriously, all the way) prior to moving on to the next step.  Let them sit for at least 30 minutes to an hour.

You can see the wood change almost instantly with the vinegar/steel wool applied to the boards.  If it doesn't something may have gone wrong...

Boards changing color as the vinegar evaporates.

Our boards now have some color.  A far cry from where they started!

Step 5: Back off the aging in select spots with Scotch Brite pads

This step can be skipped if you're happy with how your boards look, however I'd encourage you to try it as it adds another layer of variation to the boards which helps them look aged a litte bit more.  

One more elbow-greasy step before we're ALMOST ready to assemble.

After your aging solution has completely dried, take your scotch brite pads and rub the surfaces down.  This will lighten the wood a little bit wherever you rub.  It looks especially good if you rub the high spots of the board and let the natural valleys or the ones you've created stay a little darker.  Doing one board more than another can add some nice overall variation to the finished piece (maybe one board was "inside" of the barn while one was outside... etc.).  

IT's hard to see, but the left side of the image (under the Scotch Brite pad) is just a hair lighter than the stuff on the right.  This is exactly what we're going for.  We probably don't want anything too drastic...

After you've lightened the wood, you'll want to go back over everything with tack cloth to get the dust off.  I would NOT recommend using a damp rag here as that will most likely affect the aging that you've done.  However you do it, you'll want to get any dust you've created off prior to applying the clear coat.

Step 6: Apply your clear coat

Follow the instructions for whatever finishing product you've purchased.  I did two coats on all of the pine boards of a clear satin urethane. One spray can was enough to accomplish this for 4 of the boards and I did a single coat of clear gloss urethane for the fifth board (more hidden, also more likely to contact hair, hands, etc.).

Be aware that the clear coat and all of the chemicals in it will likely impact the "aging" of your wood to some extent.  In my case I used a water-based spray-on clear satin urethane top coat which had the impact of making the gray and dark red colors turn more brown.  It also turned the knots a wild purplish-reddish-brown that I really like!  If you're dead-set on the grays and reds, you may want to try a few different products to find the one that changes the underlying color the least. Not applying anything is also an option, however it's likely that the colors will change over time on their own, and the wood will likely show more hair and skin oils on the lower boards.  


* Like an idiot, had so much inertia and had been working so long that I didn't take any pictures during the actual construction process you'll have to settle for mediocre, hand drawn pictures of the process.  Sorry! Still new to this kind of thing * (I might add these later... but don't get your hopes up too much... the picture at the bottom shows pretty much everything you need to know)

Phew!  The bulk of the work is finished!  You're on the home stretch!  Make sure any clear coat is dry enough that turning it face-down onto a blanket won't damage anything and then we're ready to begin the final assembly.  

Lay down a blanket on the floor and go ahead and lay out your boards, face-up and decide on the final ordering for how you want them.  I chose the boards that had the most interesting shapes and figuring for the top since they will be seen more, and the boards will lessfor the bottom.  Once you've settled on the final order, flip them all end-over-end so that you end up with a face-down version of what you just had.

First we place the center support (the 3' poplar piece). I pulled everything together with a pipe-clamp placed just off-center, just enough so that things wouldn't shift.  Mark the center of the headboard (31" from either side) on the top board and bottom board, and mark the center of the poplar board. Apply a liberal quantity of wood glue to the poplar board, then place it on the headboard (glue-side down of course) lining up your centering marks.  Now, tack it down with nails or screws at the top and bottom, then add screws or nails in between, either one or two per board (I used two).  Release the pipe clamp.  

Next, we'll place the left leg.  Make a mark 1" in from the edge at the top and bottom of the headboard. Grab one of your 6' pieces of poplar and follow the same process as for the center piece however aligned the left edge of the poplar board with the marks (not the center).  Pull everything together with a clamp, flatten out any warped boards by bringing them flush with the others, glue, screw top and bottom, then screw the leg into the rest of the boards.  The top of the poplar board should be flush with, or just below the top of the headboard.  Make sure that the extra wood is sticking out from the bottom of the headboard (not the top!).  Repeat this process on the other side with the other 6' piece of poplar to finish off the legs.

Finally, we need to place some diagonal bracing to give the headboard a little more structure.  There a lot of ways you lay out the cuts, I just took a board (one of remaining the 4' poplar boards) and laid it over where it would eventually go marking where it intersected the other boards, then made my miter cuts (~50 degree angle for the dimensions we're working with) based off of these marks.  See the drawing below for a better sense of how this works (it's better shown than described).  Then glue, place, tack, screw... etc.  Repeat this for the other side.  

Woohoo!  Construction is finished!


All that remains is the final sizing of the legs (based on how tall the mattress/bed frame is) and mounting it to the frame.  

You may have noticed that this headboard is currently very tall.  The top of the mattress/frame combo for which I built this headboard sits about thirty inches (30") off of the ground.  I wanted four full boards of the headboard to be exposed with one below the mattress to keep pillows from getting wedged in between the headboard and mattress.  As built thus far, there should be 43" between the point where I want the mattress to hit and the bottom of the legs meaning that we need to remove 13" of wood from the bottom of each leg.  So if the height of the top your mattress relative to the ground is "h" inches, then you'll need to remove 43-h inches from the legs to have it hit in the same spot I've planned for this on.  

After getting the height right, we're ready to mount the headboard to the bed frame.  Slide the headboard in behind the bed against the mount points. Make marks on the headboard where we'll need to drill the holes through which the carriage bolts will pass. Pull the headboard back out, and using a 3/8" bit (for 1/4" bolts) drill a hole through each of the marked points.  Two bolts through each mount point (4 total) should hold fine, but I've added a third to this setup (6 total) for a little extra security. 

Put the headboard back behind the bed, line up your mounting holes and pass the carriage bolts through so that the head of the bolt is on the side of the frame against the wall. Put on a flat washer, then a lock washer, then a nut and tighten down enough so that the square part of the carriage bolt pulls into the hole.  Repeat for the remaining bolts.

Stand back and admire your handy work!

Wrap up

I hope you've gleaned something useful from this writeup.  This was a fun, simple project that just about anyone can do for a very reasonable price.  It's also a great way to get reclaimed furnishings without actually having to reclaim anything.  I hope Ally enjoys the headboard for years to come as it will certainly last at least that long!

Until next time!