Is reclaimed wood worth saving if it’s covered in impossible-to-remove grime? BIG Yes! Here’s how to clean wood that’s safe and easy and works the best!
Collecting reclaimed wood is most definitely one of my hobbies since I build with reclaimed wood SO much.
So as you can imagine, I end up with all kinds of reclaimed wood in all kinds of conditions, covered with dust, dirt, mold, green mildew, stains or worse that is difficult to simply wipe clean.
In fact, most of the reclaimed wood I collect is so dirty, you may not even think to bring it home!
So coming up with an easy cleaning method was a must if I was going to keep up this little wood collecting hobby of mine.
And trust me when I say, I’ve tried everything.
I’ve tried a mixture of bleach and water, scrubbing with brushes, sanding, and more. All those efforts did make a small dent, however nothing really got deep enough to make a big difference. And they were all hard work!
But there is one method that never ever fails to clean wood to even nearly new condition if I’m not careful! No soap or chemicals needed.
Since using this method, I don’t turn down ANY wood any longer, thanks to how easy this is!
Before and after
Here’s a fine example. Would you have brought home that top board?
These dirty reclaimed wood boards were from a great old fence wood with a whole lotta wood needing cleaning to the max. The planks were covered in black mildew and really didn’t look as if they’d be worth trying to save.
But that bottom plank is from the same wood lot, only cleaned up! And it wasn’t very much effort at all.
Doesn’t even look like the same wood, does it?
And when you gather wood to the degree I do, I needed a quick and easy method that took as little effort as possible. Because imagine if you will, an entire driveway filled with old dirty wood like this!
Ask my neighbours… it happens.
So here’s how I clean wood the most effortless and best way which is also safe thanks to this cleaning solution… which is just water!
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How to clean wood the easiest and safest way
I’d like you to meet my pressure washer.
Your first thought may be, pressure washers put out too much water on wood. However I’ve found the exact opposite to be true.
Pressure washers give a powerful burst of water that’s so short term, the wood dries so quickly, you really need not worry.
And if it does get wet, the choice is, leave good wood behind, or risk it with a little water for the short term.
I vote pick up the wood and give it a shot! Because it’s likely to go to the landfill if you don’t take it anyway.
So toss out the scrub brush this round. Here’s my own easy method of cleaning reclaimed wood using plain, safe water that works every time without a ton of effort and gets every bit of grit out of all the crevices.
First, I’ll share a few places I gather reclaimed wood, then how to prepare, clean and store it so it’s ready to go for any of your building projects.
How to collect wood for free
Collecting wood is a hobby that will serve you well if you wish to build your own DIY projects. And you’d be surprised how easy it is to find in just the right places!
One of my most memorable wood scavenging moments was when my family farm’s barn came down. Luckily the new owners allowed my brother and I to scavenge some wood for keepsake purposes! But what. a. day. I mean, where do you even begin?
In another case, I was taking my dog for a walk, when I came upon a small trailer in someone’s driveway, stuffed with fence planks. I bravely knocked on the door and asked where it was going. When he responded with, “The dump!”, I must have gasped out loud because his next question was, “Do you want it dropped of on your driveway instead?!” Easy yes that day! THIS is what I ended up building with it!
So keep your eyes open and don’t be afraid to ask. I have never paid for any of my reclaimed wood in 15 years.
Where to look for free wood
- Collect from falling down fences
- Scavenge free pallets
- Watch for piles of debris by renovators
- Check out burn piles… before they are lit!
- Put a call out to friends
4 wood scavenging posts you’ll enjoy:
When the family barn came down
Scavenging from a neighbour’s barn
Easy way to take fence planks apart
After collecting wood, now you have this big pile in your driveway! Good on ya! And what lucky neighbours you have…
But now comes the work. While free wood is cost-free, it does require a little labour to prepare and clean. So snap on your gloves, put on those safety glasses, and let’s get that wood build-worthy.
Removing the nails
Reclaimed wood, especially if it came off a fence, can be filled with nails or staples.
Storing wood with nails is very dangerous, so please do remove the nails where you found the wood if possible, or at the very least, as soon as you get the boards home.
How to easily remove nails from pallets or fence boards
Ok, now that the boards are safe, let’s clean them up!
How to pressure wash reclaimed wood
Have you ever tried scrubbing old wood? It’s a LOT of work! So I do one better, and that’s pressure wash it.
Pressure washing is the fastest, easiest and safest way to clean the mildew off reclaimed wood without harsh chemicals.
But you’ll also want to take some care not to clean too deeply or you may remove all that decadent patina, the very reason you’re collecting old wood to begin with!
Choose a gentle pressure washer tip (I generally use the white one), then go for it.
- Spread planks all over the lawn, well-spaced.
- Choose a few planks, then pressure wash one side.
- Flip the planks over with your foot, then pressure wash the other side.
Pressure washing tips to keep wood safe
- Choose about 5 planks at a time.
- Clean with the grain of the wood.
- Try 1 pass first at a further distance.
- Do another pass only if it needs it.
- Gradually get closer to the wood as you test it out.
I like to pressure wash about 5 planks at a time so I don’t have to backtrack too much.
How close to get needs a little testing. I like to work the pressure washing wand with the grain of the wood, not getting to close. If the wood isn’t coming out clean enough, I’ll try a 2nd pass. Or go closer.
The key is to get it just clean enough to do the job, then stop. Otherwise you may remove all that wonderful old patina right off.
How to dry wet wood
- Remove planks off the lawn asap.
- Set the planks on something with no moisture, such as concrete, so the water is dripping off and away from the planks.
- Stand wood upright and position the wood with lots of air drying cracks.
- Rinse off any lawn clipping residue.
- Allow the wood to dry completely before storing.
One time I had this entire yard filled with freshly pressure washed wood planks, but I left them on the lawn to dry.
BIG mistake. The dampness from the grass warped nearly every one.
So now I haul all the wood to the sidewalk, and lean the planks against the house, facing south. The boards are well spaced then spread out so air movement can get through.
After several days once dry, they are stored inside.
Hopefully before it rains.
How to store reclaimed wood
So now that you’ve decided you want to store wood, you’ll need a little bit of space for all kinds of random planks! Here’s a few ways I store mine.
Landing the red metal rack for wood storage
Learn how I created lumber storage underneath my work table HERE
Sand dry wood to further prep
So now that your wood is clean and dry, it’s time to give it a light sand before building with it.
I cut the wood down to the desired size for a project first, then give it a light sand with an orbital sander along both sides and the cut edges.
Here’s the astonishing before and after of two cedar planks from the same fence.
The top plank hasn’t been touched yet, which is all full of mildew.
The 2nd cedar plank has been pressure washed, then lightly sanded.
Isn’t it gorgeous?! You seriously cannot get this outcome any other way!
Video on pressure washing reclaimed wood
Click above to watch a short video on how easy it is to clean reclaimed wood with a pressure washer! Can you even believe how those chairs use to look?!
Visit the full post on an Adirondack pallet chair makeover HERE
Other ways to clean reclaimed wood
I get that not everyone has a pressure washer.
However even with the smallest pressure washers now on the market where you can simply plug in and use, they are fairly cost efficient and much easier to use than my powerful gas powered version.
I vote to stick to at least 2000 psi if you can.
However here’s few other ways to clean wood without a pressure washer. Just be prepared to work very hard.
- sweep wood free of dust and cobwebs first
- fill a bucket with warm water mixed with dish detergent or mild soap and scrub with a brush
- try scrubbing with a little bleach mixed with water while wearing gloves and safety glasses
- white vinegar and water may help with some light cleaning
Pressure washer advice
Honestly? Just go buy a pressure washer. LOL
I just landed a used small one for $45 on Facebook Marketplace that was just under 2000 psi and it works pretty well and is much easier to manage than my big one. Perfect for most homeowners.
Looks like it’s going to be very low maintenance and if it saves me back breaking work, it’s well worth it.
Follow the manufacture instructions, grab all the pressure washing tips available, pick up a good water hose, hearing protection and eye protection, put on your boots and you’ll be set.
I don’t even use cleaners with my pressure washers. Just water.
Let me tell you what a complete and utter joy it is to pull out a clean plank when you’re ready to build something! Aren’t those cedar plank wood tones gorgeous?! Who knew they were black with mildew at some point?
I’ve found the best way to clean wood is with water, plain and simple. Something no brush attachment nor liquid dish soap nor mop nor broom nor spray bottle of some magic potion has come remotely close to.
Skip all the fancy stuff. Just use water! And a price efficient pressure washer that will do all the work for you of course.
Here’s a few other posts you may find helpful while you collect and prepare your own wood stash!
Other helpful wood prep posts:
How to take pallets and fences apart easily with no fancy tools!
Is your pallet wood safe? Find out how to choose wisely.
How to protect chippy barn wood to retain original patina
Refinishing wood projects with waxes and oil… a comparison with project samples
Visit many unique reclaimed wood projects to make HERE
19 thoughts on “How to clean wood that’s easy, safe and works the best!”
I follow all your “pallet adventures” and I love it! You gave me a great idea with these coasters!
Thank you for sharing such talent!!
Ah, the pressure washer! I love it but I think it hates me! The setup, connecting, leaking, tangling, coiling! Every spring I get itchy to clean up yet brace myself at the same time and mine isn’t nearly as monstrous as yours. Bring on Spring!!
The difference is like night and day! I appreciate this post because I have some old picket fencing I’d like to do something with, but it’s got a pretty nasty “patina”…now I know how to rid of that without breaking my back…thank you! I can hardly wait to see what you decide to do with all of these beautiful planks!
Being someone over 50 myself, I love this idea. And I just rent my power washer from the local hardware store when I need it. No room at my little cottage to store it. Thanks!
i recently started stripping the vinyl ugly wall paper from my small bath…of course the vinyl came off easy but the paper backing not so much it looks like they use something other than paste to put it up and it is going to take me a year (having back issues surgery coming soon) to wet and scrap it off also it was put right on the wall board with no a speck of primer. so i would put that fence board on the walls so i wouldn’t have to remove the dam paper ha ha xx
Pulling out ours this weekend. I don’t know how we ever lived without a pressure washer. Our cedar fence was looking terrible but after a few hours using our pressure washer the cedar looked like new again. You must’ve been the talk of the neighborhood that day while your reclaimed boards dried on the lawn!
What a great answer to my recent thoughts of how to clean reclaimed boards! I have a wall (maybe two) I want to plank with the neighbors old fencing they offered me. This was shortly after you said your neighbor gave you some fencing. (wow) Love your blog!
Love the ideas for cleaning the pallet planks !
Loving this! I’ve been wanting to do some stuff with reclaimed wood, but I’m always hesitant since I mean, I don’t know where that’s been!! But this is a great tutorial here, now I’m a little less wary of using reclaimed wood.
Hi Donna, I live in Northern California in a drought with water use restrictions. I’d love to use a pressure washer to get my wood done so well, but I have to be careful. I wonder if it uses less water to spray the wood with the hard pressure and get the crud off quickly, than to scrub it with a brush and have to keep changing the bucket. Any thoughts? Thanks!!
Pressure washers use very little water. If you can line the boards up, turn on the water, do your spraying and turn it off you will probably use less water than with a bucket and brush.
Hi there I recently had a bunchanged of reclaimed wood I was able to grab and I want to make a coffee and side table. However that would mean fresh cut ends. Do you have any suggestions on what to do with the fresh cut ends? What do you do in your projects to hide them?
I do my best to hide the fresh cuts when necessary, but other times, I allow them to just be a part of the project.
That said, you could always experiment with watered down stains made from craft paint that will ‘dull’ the fresh cuts some. I’ve done that with success too.
Donna, I recently was gifted with two of the heaviest, old wooden doors, with the most gorgeous chippy paint on them. How do I clean that without removing all the chippy character? I can use a garden hose with no pressure I suppose. And I want to use them to make an outdoor arbor so maybe they don’t need a lot of cleaning?
I have an big old house that I can get the old wood off of it and I am going to use it for my tiny house for my siding. What you think? and also use it for other projects to. So I am glad that I found your site on how to clean the wood. But i don’t know what to put on the wood to preserve it when I put it on my house. Do you have any Ideal? I would appreciate if you could tell me what to use. I don’t want to paint it I want to keep the old look. Thank you kathy
Hi Kathy! I think using the old wood for your tiny house would be fabulous! I’d suggest to visit a local paint store for expert advice on how to best preserve it. I don’t seal smaller projects however for a house, I would certainly be looking into something as that is a long term commitment. Hope you get the right advice!
I just discovered your page today. I’ve only in the last couple weeks started experimenting with painting on old wood we have around the shop. I’m interested in learning how to make “not yet old” wood look like it’s old. Is there a process for doing this?
Also, your ideas are very creative. I look forward to creating more art using whatever wood I can find. Thanks.
Ok, I have pallets of barn wood from buildings I tore down. Using the 1 x 6 x 11′ on two walls in the Master Bedroom, 1 x 4 x 8′ on a knee wall in the Master bath, and other siding on the Western wall of the kitchen. Also a salvaged barn door as the entrance for the Master bedroom. Making a fireplace mantle with a cross beam, The rest of the siding will be used on the 3 season wellhouse as wall art. Question: is this too much reclaimed wood to be using? We are selling in Spring.
Hi Sten! Love your ideas, they sound fab!
Regarding the amount of wood, it’s hard to say. I like to have sections where there is none so it doesn’t take over. As in, reclaimed wood maybe here but not against or touching other reclaimed wood to break it up abit. A feature wall is a nice addition though!