Wood – Then and Now

Maybe the theme of this post is lost knowledge or it could be the old order yielding to the new.  My house was built in 1901 and like most houses has had times of love and neglect, I neglected it for two decades and am now trying to make amends with some renovation.  After a couple of years, the job has acquired a rhythm.  The first stage is poking around and working out what to do, professionals call this “estimating”, then the acquisition of materials and finally doing the work.  The upside of being my own builder is that I can work slowly, the downside is lack of experience.

Twenty years ago this was new

When we bought the house, the mortgage provider made it a condition of the loan that we do something to mitigate the effects of damp.  This included replacing some joists on the ground floor and some floorboards in the bathroom.  Approximately 20 years later, some of this is having to be replaced again.  A window which was replaced just before we acquired the house will also have to be dealt with.  However, most of the original 1901 wood is in good shape, there have been problems with some sash windows but these were resolved by taking them apart and, removing the the filler forced into gaps by painters and re-assembling them with modern lighter glass (this involved a county wide search for lighter sash weights).

A retired builder I met whilst walking my dog has given me some insight into the nature of wood.  Much of the wood used in buildings around the turn of the century had a high resin content which had a preserving effect on the timber.  When working on the windows, I noticed that there were occasionally sticky areas where resin had seeped out.  This type of wood might might sometimes be referred to as “Pitch Pine” which was used a lot in Victorian Buildings, Methodist Chapels were evidently fond of it.  My builder friend reckoned that the best timber came from the Baltic and Canada where the trees grow slowly.

The new floorboards in the bathroom have had their ends dipped in wood preserver and I have varnished both side, hoping to create a sealing effect.

A lot of the past few weeks has been spend building bookshelves and kitchen units, the day starts with a cycle ride to the timber merchant, then pushing the bike home with the materials for the day’s work strapped to the crossbar.   I asked what tree the wood I was buying came from which got the reply “Don’t know, no one ever asks that question”, pitch pine is regarded as a specialist material and probably expensive.  The only local source of pitch pine that I have found is from a company which specializes in reclaimed timber, I need to improve my carpentry skills before I can use this stuff.

I’m guessing, but this probably built from some species of pine

Modern building methods do not expose wood to damp conditions in the way that Victorian and Edwardian ones did.  For example, look under the boards on the ground floor of a Victorian house and you might see the ground on which the house was built on, in our case, chalk which has much in common with a sponge.  A modern house will have a concrete floor with a membrane between it and the earth below.  Similarly, windows and door frames are often PVC extrusions which do not rot and are designed to form a draft proof seal when closed.

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About SolarBucket

I trained as a mechanical engineer in the 1970's and then spent most of the following 25 years doing sums and software for Oil and Gas Exploration. Current interests are the study of wind and solar resources.
This entry was posted in Carpentry, History, Uncategorized, Wood and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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