Up the street in my town a group of guys is merrily taking apart an old building. The windows and the siding are already gone; the sheathing boards and the frame are on their way. Everything is being carefully sorted-wide boards of any value in a neat pile, other boards and lots of two-by-fours in another pile on the ground, lots of junk and firewood into one of those “cans” demolition crews station next to their projects.

The crew has been at this job for a few days now, and shortly they’ll dismantle a hand-hewn timber frame that emerged as one end of this former house was stripped clean. “Recycling,” one of the young, bearded men called from somewhere up high when I asked him what was up. More power to him, his friends and their pry-bars -for once, at least, a huge pile of useful materials, or at least a big portion of one, isn’t going to a landfill.

The scene reminded me of some other recycling efforts I’ve encountered, many of them with maritime associations. Wooden ships in this country and elsewhere were built of timber too valuable to waste, and many a plank, rib, knee or spar ended up in a house, a barn, a bridge or as a flagpole somewhere. At City Island, N.Y., where several America’s Cup defenders and challengers ended their days being “broken up” in the yards that had built them, salvaged materials were frequently re-used.

More than a hundred years ago an entire former U.S. Navy warship, the USS North Carolina, was purchased and scrapped by an enterprising City Island boatbuilder, her timbers ending up in a new bridge between the island and the mainland Bronx. In England in the 17th century there was a tradition of turning upside-down ship hulls into barns, some of which survive.

Maine was once a hotbed of house moving and building recycling. A house that once sat on my family’s property got moved across the road 75 years ago, where it sits to this day. Houses on islands were routinely moved from one spot to another, their owners presumably making good use of their neighbors’ skill in moving heavy objects like boats or blocks of granite.

Buildings were floated to or from islands on barges (a few went overboard, legends have it) or skidded to new locations on winter ice. An entire community was removed from Hurricane Island early in the 20th century, much of it to nearby Vinalhaven.

It’s all recycling, and while it once may have been fairly easy to move a wooden house because there weren’t as many busy streets or overhead wires as there are today, the real reason house-moving or disassembly went out of fashion was economic: at times it’s simply cheaper to build new. Taking apart an old structure be it a house, a barn or a boat, is a time-consuming process. There’s skill involved in pulling things apart so they don’t break.

And there needs to be a market for used building materials; that market isn’t very good sometimes because the alternatives are easier or cheaper. A fresh two-by-four from the lumberyard may not have the character or an old one that’s really two by four inches, but it’s usually straight, lacks nails to ruin your saw, comes in a standard length and doesn’t leave your hands black after you’ve handled it. And often, particularly when you add in the labor costs associated with old wood, the new stuff costs less.

That said, materials and their use are undergoing a revolution these days. Here in Maine, the clear white pine we love to use for so many things is getting expensive because it’s becoming scarce.  Sure, we still grow and harvest white pine, but the really big trees went a long time ago. The same is true for spruce, oak and other species.

Walnut? Chestnut? Cherry? Hard to come by if you can find them at all, and let’s not talk about cost. That’s why the wood recycling business has begun to make sense even in a forested place like Maine, why it’s worth it for a crew to take apart an old house and make all its components available for new purposes. After all, as I’m fond of saying, there was a time when we made things out of whole trees.

A factor just as important as cost, to many of us who work with wood, is quality. The tight growth rings of old-growth wood make it stronger. Wood that’s free of knots is easier to work with. And a really wide board, for furniture projects at least, is usually (unless you’re looking for a particular effect) better than a board glued up from narrow pieces.  The place to find really wide boards, of course, is in buildings that were built back when…

And finally there’s character. I love the look and feel of wood that has a history, even a story. It doesn’t have to be rough, black, weathered or full of splinters and holes; but for me to want to put my time into creating something beautiful, wood needs to have a past. “The wood in that tabletop came from the floor of an old church,” I like to be able to say. Or, “it came from a boat that defended the America’s Cup.” Or, “it was part of a house that used to stand up the street, where that new one stands now.” Recycling. It’s the responsible way to make use of the world’s limited resources.

David D. Platt is former editor of Working Waterfront.