By Michael Good | HouseCalls
There’s nothing like it in the world. The North American conifer forest that once stretched from northern Mexico to the Alaska tundra was one of the wonders of the ancient world. Without this enormous supply of trees and wood, the bungalow neighborhoods of North Park, South Park, Mission Hills, Point Loma, Normal Heights and Kensington would not have been possible.
Building those neighborhoods — and similar streetcar suburbs throughout the West — barely made a dent in what once seemed like an endless supply of lumber. It wasn’t until mechanized logging was developed in the late 1940s that the ancient forests met their match. (If it’s any comfort to old house owners, the modern housing tract killed the conifer, not the 1920s bungalow.)
Today, the 1,000-year-old redwood, Douglas firs and ponderosa pines have been replaced by mere shadows of their former selves. To the untrained eye, these tree plantations may look like the healthy vibrant forests of the early 20th century. But those forests are gone; that ecosystem has been permanently altered and replaced with monoculture tree plantations. They were planted too close together to ever reach their former heights or grow into a healthy forest.
Up until the mid 1920s, most Americans lived on a farm, perhaps in a house that they or their relatives had built. They knew their wood. They cut down trees for firewood and lumber, planted trees for windbreaks and shade, and built and repaired fences and barns from wood.
Current homeowners don’t quite have the same relationship with wood, even if they live surrounded by it. Boys no longer build Craftsman-style footstools in shop class. They don’t study “industrial design,” which included a background in classical architecture, furniture design, interior decoration and wood finishing.
Typical bungalow owners today may not know heartwood from sapwood, a mullion from a miter.
Hopefully, these answers to frequently asked questions from homeowners about wood will make you look at your wood a little differently and with a new appreciation.
There is no bad wood. If your house was built prior to the Great Depression, the quality of the lumber is superior to anything you could find today at your neighborhood home center. The lumber industry today is organized around the principle that one must extract wood products and profits from every stray wood fiber (and send it overseas, where they’ll really pay for it).
In the first decades of the 20th century, the approach was somewhat the opposite: cut down the biggest trees, and harvest the best parts of those trees for homebuilding. Logging wasn’t an industry, it was more of a messy art form with horses, donkeys, men with axes and two-man saws. Steam-powered donkey engines, steel cables, peaveys, skid roads lubricated with grease, and wood transported by water — flumes, rivers, lakes and oceans — were also involved.
The wood that found its way to houses, and particularly to the areas of a house that a homeowner could see and touch — cabinetry and trim — was made from heartwood, which is the hard, dry, knot-free center of the tree. That’s a rare commodity now.
Every wood species excels at something. Pine was lightweight and dimensionally stable, so it worked well for window sashes and doors. Western red cedar was light, and impervious to bugs, so it was used for wall and roof shingles. Redwood was also impervious to bugs as well as resistant to rot. It also grew tall and straight, which made for great framing lumber, exterior siding and interior trim. Philippine mahogany looked similar to the real thing, Cuban mahogany. Red gum had an extravagant figure and could be put to dramatic use in paneling and doors. Douglas fir was sturdy and could support heavy loads, so it was used for joists and trusses.
In fact, Douglas fir does everything well — from framing to finish work. It can be painted or stained, used in flooring or fireplaces. It looks good as Craftsman paneling or midcentury modern roof beams. Oak hold up to high heels, so it was used for flooring.
Our prejudices about wood are shaped by marketing campaigns. Furniture and tastemaker Gustav Stickley took a reviled but plentiful species of wood — white oak — and turned it into something prized and (thanks to him) now relatively rare. In the South, sweetgum was thought to be suitable only for secondary wood in furniture and for burning. Southern lumbermen renamed this reviled tree “gumwood” and marketed it to Southern California, where it is prized still by owners of 1920 bungalows. After the U.S. liberated the Philippine Islands from the Spanish, and fought the local resistance movement, they started harvesting a native hardwood and called it “Philippine Mahogany.”
It all cost the same, more or less. Back in the day, there wasn’t a significant price difference between the various species of wood used in homebuilding. Builders used a particular species of wood because they felt it belonged. For example, gumwood and fir were best fit for Prairie-style houses, and mahogany and gumwood were common for Spanish- and English-style houses. When faux graining became popular, fir was used, because it painted well.
It wasn’t always all about the money. Before the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) got involved in home building, lending and neighborhood creation, the value of a home was the result of a number of factors, many of them artistic, emotional and difficult to quantify. In the 1930s, thanks to the FHA, value became a simple calculation centering around square footage.
Prior to the invention of the 30-year mortgage, houses were often sold for round numbers of $2,000 or $3,000. Buyers paid cash or traded; the value of a house was whatever you agreed it was worth.
Today we interpret everything anyone did in the past in terms of price. Contractors assume a house was trimmed in fir because it was cheap. Some of the largest, most expensive houses were trimmed in Douglas fir. Some of the tiniest, least expensive houses were trimmed in gumwood.
Hardwood isn’t (necessarily) hard. Softwood isn’t (necessarily) soft. The term “hard” refers to the seed casing of the tree, not the wood itself. Walnut is a hardwood. Pine is soft. Douglas fir, a softwood, is relatively hard, and can be used for flooring. Balsa, a hardwood, is relatively soft, and wouldn’t make for a very durable floor. It does, however, make for a pretty spiffy model airplane.
Contractors tell current homeowners that hardwood is superior and softwood is inferior because the latter is difficult to stain successfully.
Philippine mahogany is not mahogany. True mahogany (Swietenia mahogani) grew in the southern U.S. and the Caribbean and was logged out by the late 19th century. Philippine mahogany is from Southeast Asia and is a different species (Shorea), generally called meranti in the lumberyards. In fact, there are a number of different varieties of Philippine mahogany and its color can vary widely. Dark red mahogany with a “ribbon” figure, which was artfully used in Spanish- and English-style houses in the 1920s, is rare today. If you have it in your house, it’s worth preserving — even if someone sheared off the bottom of your doors to clear a once-stylish shag carpet.
Gumwood is not eucalyptus. It’s Liquidambar styraciflua, or sweetgum (“red gum” to lumbermen). The confusion probably arises from the similarities in names (Australians call eucalyptus “gum”). It also makes for a nice story to imagine that someone found some productive use for all those eucalyptus trees that the Santa Fe Railroad planted throughout San Diego County. Only the old-growth sweetgum trees produce the red gum heartwood that was used in early-20th century millwork. As a result, few lumberyards carry red gum; replacing even a few feet of baseboard can require sifting through stacks of boards at the lumberyard.
Wood needs finish. Use paint, shellac, polyurethane or anything that will protect it from the elements. Water, sunlight and oxygen may be the stuff of life, but they are also the nemesis of wood. They destroy finishes and then create the conditions for fungi to thrive, turning wood back into fertilizer. Sunlight destroys the wood’s lignin, thereby weakening the cell walls. Moisture attracts termites — and we know what they do.
Sometimes the only way to preserve wood is to replace it. Damaged and decayed wood can be restored with epoxy wood filler. However, at a certain point it makes better sense, and is perfectly acceptable from an historic perspective, to replace a piece of your house with a modern replica. If it helps to assuage your guilt, consider this: 90 years is a good run for a piece of wood. We should all be so fortunate.
— Contact Michael Good at firstname.lastname@example.org.