Why Should We Save Old Wood?


"New is good, old is bad" We hear this mantra in our society every day. Somehow your home is substandard if you don't install vinyl windows and vinyl siding. The replacement product industry claims these products are "no maintenance, energy efficient and will last forever". From my prospective, nothing could be further from the truth. "No maintenance" simply means you can't maintain them. In general anything claiming to be a "replacement product" is something you probably have to replace over and over again.

We have truly become the poster child for throwaway societies. In the 1990's Arizona State University students led by archaeologist Bill Rathje conducted a study of landfills across the nation called the Garbage Study. By core drilling these sites they were able to look at what's been dumped over many years. Diapers? Paper? Plastic? No, our landfills are choked with over 30% demolition and construction debris. Old growth lumber is one of the biggest portions and the product we can least afford to discard.

Most homes built before 1945 used old growth lumber in their construction. From a lumber standpoint a tree becomes eligible for old growth status when it reaches 60 years. Most of the trees American logging companies clear-cut for construction lumber range from 8 to 20 years old. Ask the kid at the big box lumberyard what that two by four is made of and the answer will usually be "white wood". Pardon my French but what the hell is white wood?  Is it pine, hemlock, spruce or fir?

I do know this, the construction lumber of today is so high in moisture content and made from such young trees is just twists and warps in your walls as it dries down to around 12% moisture.

Treated lumber is even worse. All construction lumber is supposed to be kiln dried to 18% moisture content. Treated lumber is made with the worst Southern Yellow pine available, dried to 18% moisture, then pressure treated without being re-dried. For goodness sakes the moisture contents in these sopping boards ranges from 30 to 40%. I can't tell you how many time I've cut into a treated piece of lumber and been squirted in the eye.

So why is old growth lumber better than new growth. Once a tree reaches 60 plus years old it has survived draughts, excessive rain, heat waves and cold spells and becomes much hardier. Most people know that the rings in a tree stump can tell you how old a tree is. The more rings per inch the older the tree.  Old growth wood is stronger and more rot resistant than new growth. I can't tell you how many historic houses I've pulled the 1950's aluminum siding off to find the original old growth siding and trim. After repair and a good paint job this wood will last another 100 years and can yet again be restored. I call that a lifetime product.

Repairing old wood can be done in many ways. One of my favorite methods of repairing rotted old wood is using architectural epoxies. This method has a 30-year track record of success on historic homes and can work for you as well. Avoid car body fillers for the same reason they fail on cars, contraction and expansion as well as their propensity to absorb moisture.

I've tried all the epoxy products available and like the Abatron system the best. This product was developed originally to repair the submerged portions of wooden boats. That's a pretty good recommendation from my standpoint. Abatron.com will get you to their mail order site catalogue.

The Abatron wood repair system includes a two part liquid epoxy (photo #550) and a two-part wood filler. The putty should never be used without first soaking the rotted wood with the liquid epoxy. This conditions the wood and makes the soft rotted wood hard again. Mix part A with part B thoroughly in a plastic container. Pour or brush the liquid on the wood until no more is absorbed. Always wear gloves and eye protection.

Once the liquid has cured for an hour or two you can apply the putty. Mix part A with part B making sure the putty ball is one consistent color with no marbling. The trick with the putty is to apply it as thickly as possible. Epoxy cures from the chemical reaction of A & B being mixed together. This creates heat and so the thicker, the more heat and as a result, the best cure. It's a good idea anyway to build the putty up higher than it will be when sanded or planed smooth.

Under normal conditions the putty should be ready to smooth out within 24 hours. It's amazing how easy it is to sand, chisel or plane the built up putty down to the surrounding surfaces. Always wear a two-strap dust mask when sanding this product.

The results are really quite extraordinary. A rotted porch baluster (spindle) with rot at its base would cost $40 to $60 to reproduce. With less than $2 in epoxy and about 20 minutes in real time, the baluster on the right is ready to prime, paint and serve the house for another 100 years.

The bottom line is, repairing old growth wood saves time and money while retaining the architectural integrity of your old house.

NOTE: If I recommend a tool or product it's because I purchased them and they work. I receive nothing free from any companies.

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