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OUR OLD HOUSES ARE BUILT FROM OLD GROWTH WOOD

by | Doors & windows, Features, Wood floors | 4 comments

old growth wood houseFrom their framing to their siding to their doors & windows to their built-ins & their flooring, our old houses, are built of old growth wood. Thousands of board feet of it.

“Old growth.” What does that mean?

Let’s have a tree history lesson. Fossils show that the first tree-like plants, with vascular systems that transported water & nutrients, allowing the plants for the first time to rise up off the ground (Think moss.) & to form trunks & branches, developed 400 million years ago. Their evolution since then included the development of seeds & true woody stems.

Then,

Over 300 million years ago: The earliest conifers (i.e., cedar, fir, pine, redwoods & others) appear.
67 million years ago: Evidence of the first maple trees.
56 million years ago: Evidence of the first oak trees.

They continued to evolve & to create the great forests that covered most of America, generation after generation contributing to the next as they produced seeds, died & decayed, becoming part of the rich soil of the virgin woodland.

REDWOODS- THE LONGEST LIVING OF OLD GROWTH WOOD

loggers cutting old growth woodLet’s start with the Redwood, one class being the oldest plants on earth, living from about 800 to 3,200 years. On the west coast, before they were chopped to build our houses, they played an important part in the lives of early indigenous peoples who revered them, building  structures from fallen trees. Native elder Minnie Reeves called them “a special gift from the Great Creator. Destroy these trees and you destroy the Creator’s love . . . and you will eventually destroy mankind.”

When California became a state in 1850, there were nearly 2 million acres of redwood forest. San Francisco was built twice with redwood, before & after the quake & fire of 1906. But the worst was yet to come. During the first half of the 20th Century when California experienced a major building boom, the redwood forest suffered its greatest losses, with trains of lumber heading south as trains of oranges headed north.

Going into the 21st Century, only 5 percent of the old growth forest still stood, thankfully protected on public lands.

In modern times, redwood farms produce wood for lumber, however, this new wood does not have the same high levels of toxic tannins, a type of bitter, astringent chemical compounds which protect the trees from fungus & insects & decrease its susceptibility to rot.

Selective cutting of young trees is permitted on redwood farms but these trees do not have enough age on them to acquire the decay & insect resistant properties of the old growth. If you want the original, old growth wood, you must buy it second-hand, salvaged from old buildings that some uninformed person has chosen to demolish.

OTHER OLD GROWTH CONIFERS IN OLD HOUSES

The Douglas fir forests of the Northwest were treated just as casually. The timber industry, both logging & milling’ developed into a huge industry. The quantities were regarded as unlimited, if they were regarded at all in the push to maximize profit. As harvesting & transportation technologies developed, so did the quantity of forest land destruction increase.

It wasn’t until the 1880’s that conservation of timber supplies was considered. National forests were established & research into good forest practices began.

OAK

Clear cut forestThe Domesday Book of 1086, a survey ordered by William the Conqueror to record his holdings, indicated a forest cover of 15%,  By the start of the next millennium, this coverage had dropped to 5%.

In the 17th Century, as thousands of colonists arrived in the United States from England, they placed heavy demands on the forests taking huge trees, some hundreds of years old, of many species for lumber not only for building but also for fuel. Additionally, they cleared lands for agriculture & livestock.

Additionally, after the Industrial Revolution, potash, potassium carbonate derived from burned wood was in high demand in the colonies & in England where they had already decimated their forests. By the early 1800’s, the pre-revolutionary American colonies were providing England with more than 60% of its potash.

The construction boom after WW I, especially during the mid-1920’s, furthered reduced our forest resources. You can read about pine’s story, in the forests of the Eastern U.S.,  here.

FARMED WOOD VS OLD-GROWTH WOOD

old growth bungalow woodTrees are planted in man-made forests with the purpose of generating a large amount of product, fast. These farms do not replicate the ecology of the natural forest.  Generally they are one species only, & all the trees are planted at the same time. The trees are planted in rows spaced to allow maximum sunlight & water exposure so they grow very fast. The old forests allowed trees to grow slowly, putting on more tightly-packed growth rings

Because of this, new growth wood does not have the strength, stability nor the decay & insect repelling properties of old growth wood- not to mention the beauty. But. stick with me here. I have a theory about additional environmental factors that made the virgin forests a much better place for trees.

The conditions in the old forests had evolved over millions of years. Co-evolution is the evolving of all the parts of an ecosystem to assist each of its parts survive better. i.e., evolutionary change over time, benefiting each interacting member, usually involving different species. Tree farms lack this dynamic. They are the new  kids in school without a support system, not oriented to their environment, & growing in unnatural conditions.

The virgin forest is home to many tree species as well as hundreds of different insects, animals & microbes. All of these organisms have made reciprocal adaptive changes in cooperation with one or more other species, over the millennia, helping one another to survive with greater & greater efficiency.

Old growth forestMuch of this mutual adaptation involves microorganisms, the fungi that break down the fiber of the dead trees & turn them into nutritious soil, but also form a communication network for the trees. Watch this short video by National Geographic that explains how trees connect & share with one another.

Trees do not stand alone, competing with one another for sunlight, water & nutrients. Rather, the forest is almost like a single organism, the different trees interacting with one another, both within & outside their own species, through their roots & the fungal networks that connect these roots. They exchange communication & nutrients through this network, with the larger, old Mother trees forming the hubs. As an example, Douglas firs share excess sugars with the leafless birches in the spring & fall, & in return, the birches send sugars to the Douglas-firs in the summer, via the fungi underground.

Here’s my crazy theory. The health of the human body depends on the quantity & diversity of the microbes that live in the gut. To build a strong, healthy body, one needs a strong healthy microbiome- the colony of microorganisms within the body. This is a lovely short video of 2 Stanford researchers who have discovered much of what is known in this science. They have a big picture of bacteria over the fireplace in their home.

My hypothesis is that lumber from a tree grown in the virgin forest is better, stronger, more stable, more decay & insect resistant not just because it is old & bigger, but because it has grown up with a Mother, a family, neighbors & friends in the form of an active ecosystem that has had millions of years to get it right. “It’s not better because it’s old, it’s old because it’s better.”

What do you think?

FOR MORE INFORMATION ON OLD GROWTH WOOD, VISIT OUR OLD HOUSE RESTORATION VIDEOS- OLD GROWTH WOOD here.

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4 Comments

  1. Mary Goderwis

    I’m a professional wood finisher and specialize in restoration work and new projects made especially with reclaimed wood. I’m also the President Emeritus of Sutherland Welles Ltd., a coating company, specializing in Polymerized Tung Oil products, now in its 57th year

    Your article is a perfect description of old growth wood and how it differs from new growth wood of the same species. Truly night and day different. It annoys me no end when vendors pretend to sell wood that is touted as old growth or “ vintage” and is nothing close and charge exorbitant amounts of money for something they aren’t providing- I just fume!! Antique Heartpine and Chestnut are what comes to mind readily.

    Finishing them and matching to an existing truly antique wood is a challenge I love, but when you are dealing with totally different growth patterns and reactivity to dyes and stains, it can really put you through your paces. This is especially challenging with flooring. I’ll be saving your article as a great client teaching tool.

    Reply
    • bungalow101

      Hi Mary,

      I am so pleased that you think so highly of it! What do you think about my wild statement about the microbial health of the forest affecting the strength & quality of the lumber? I have contacted several forestry organizations & they love my hypothesis but are stumped.

      This is interesting that vendors are out there selling fake old growth wood. I am revving up to do an article on suppliers of old wood & while I personally know some of them from my years in wood flooring, many I don’t. Would you be willing to sidecheck my list so that I’m not including someone dishonest?

      A-and, would you care to write an article for me on your product & its uses? I mention tung oil in my article on wood floor finishes as a material that after many trials we chose not to use. What is your experience with your product for floors? I’m game to recommend it if you have found it to be good for this application. I never tried your product.

      Reply
  2. Marsha Martin

    Very interesting article and theory. Our house was built in 1885 and moved about 200 feet to its present location in 1890, which the thought of the process to do such a feat over 137 years ago still amazes me. It is built of heart pine and cypress. Incredibly sturdy. Luckily for us a company called Antique Restoration salvages old houses and is less than 10 miles away so when we had to do repairs and replacement of one of the upstairs floors they had the exact heart pine tongue and groove flooring. I would never live in a new house, very inferior to the quality of lumber in these old houses.

    Reply
    • bungalow101

      Thank you! Nobody ever comments on my theory! I am an enthusiast of the gut microbiome & find the information applicable to many other aspects of life. You might want to read my article on native plants.

      Wow! That’s wild that they would have moved it so long ago, but I think that in modern times, people are more wasteful.

      Reply

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