Why Old-Growth Wood is Better

By Scott Sidler June 1, 2015

old-growth woodThere is no better wood to use when repairing an old house than old-growth lumber. Though it is hard to come by (it’s not on the shelves at Home Depot), it is the most appropriate and best performing option, especially for exterior wood repairs.

In this post, I’ll explain the differences and tell you some of the main benefits of using old-growth wood. I’ll also tell you some ways to find it in your local area.

 

What is Old-Growth Wood?

In this picture, you can see a piece of old-growth siding on the left next to a piece of replacement new-growth siding on the right.

Old-growth wood is lumber that was grown naturally in vast virgin forests. The forests of nearly every continent have some areas that are still untouched where trees haven’t been harvested for our use yet.

These trees grew slowly due to limited light and competition from the other trees. Because of this slow growth rate, the growth rings on the trees were packed very tightly together which gives the wood some big benefits, which I’ll discuss in a just a minute.

In America, we began seriously depleting these virgin forests during the industrial revolution, and by the 1940s, most of them were gone. Lumber prices began to spike as Americans looked for substitutions for our lumber addiction. Enter second-growth and new-growth wood.

Tree farms began to produce lumber for the growing demand and the fastest growing species like Pine were selected for this reason. The trees grew in open areas with little to no competition for sun, which caused them to grow very quickly so they could be harvested in 10-20 years as opposed to old-growth wood, which may be from trees as old as 200-300 years old before being harvested.

Let’s look back at the picture above. The old-growth siding has 29 growth rings in this 3/4″ thick sample compared with the new-growth piece that has only 7 rings including the pith (the center of the tree). That’s a much faster growth rate, so let’s see why this fast growth may not be as good as the slower growth of old-growth wood.

Why It’s Better

Now that you know what it is, here is a short list of the many benefits of old-growth lumber.

  1. More Rot-Resistant – Sure, we have woods like Pressure Treated and Accoya (which I use often) but old-growth wood is the original rot-resistant wood. The slow growth process creates greater proportion of late wood (summer/fall growth) to early wood (spring growth). Late wood is the good stuff that adds this rot-resistance. Also, older trees develop heartwood at their center, which is not only beautiful to the eye, but it is extremely durable and resists rot in ways that other wood can’t.
  2. More Stable – Wood moves. It contracts when it’s dry and expands when it’s wet. This can cause joints to open up, paint and finishes to fail prematurely, and a host of other issues. But, old-growth wood (due to the tight growth rings you can see in the picture above) does not move nearly as much as new-growth. It is immensely more stable, and therefore keeps everything where it needs to be from siding and framing to windows and doors.
  3. Stronger – The denseness of old-growth wood makes it a much stronger wood able to carry heavier loads across longer spans. The span rating for framing lumber continues to fall each time the lumber industry revisits it. Wood is getting softer and weaker as the years go by, so old-growth is definitely a worthwhile option, especially if you already have it in your house.
  4. More Termite-Resistant – Termites don’t like hardwoods. Don’t get me wrong here, termite-resistant is not the same as termite proof. Termites will still eat old-growth wood, but they prefer soft, moist wood (read: easy to chew). Old-growth wood is harder and drier than new lumber and it does not make as tempting of a meal for termites.

So, that’s the deal. If you’ve got an old house, then you’ve likely got old-growth whether it’s the framing, siding, windows or some other element.

Before you think about replacing an element of your house, think about the fact that you may be replacing resilient old-growth lumber with lower quality, new-growth lumber. You may be better off keeping what you have!

If you’re looking for a place to find old-growth wood locally, try doing a search online for Architectural Salvage in your town, or try some of these other great sources.

 

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10 thoughts on “Why Old-Growth Wood is Better”

  1. Interesting article! I’m curious, my house in the Pacific Northwest was built in the 1960s. What are the odds it was built with old growth lumber?

  2. Roger-Your statement bellies ignorance of God’s creation . . . we are to be stewards of this earth. When you clear-cut the forests, you eliminate dozens of species of plants and animals that God created to work together in harmony with the old growth forests. Besides not appreciating the beauty of the whole scheme of things that God created for our appreciation and spiritual uplifting, you change the climate. Have you ever walked, biked, driven through an area that is paved, or even farmed where the trees are not present. . .and then come upon a stand of woods. On a hot day, you immediately feel the effect of many degrees of difference in the temperature in the two situations. By this simple small-scale observation, does it not follow that, given the large scale of clear-cutting of the forests of the world that has fed the gaping maws of the saws, that it would likely have an effect on the climate? I think that God meant for us to use what He said in Genesis “and it was good” in an intelligent way, that allowed for use, but not over-use. Forests that used to give life to so many species, including mankind, disappears when we clear-cut and abandon the land to erosion, loss of species, and ugliness. In the early days of white settlement, they cut as if the virgin timber would never end. . .often cutting just the treetops, burning the rest, dynamiting the redwoods, and so on. Don’t you think there might have been more old growth left if they hadn’t proceeded with the same attitude as you display? So sad, too bad. . .live with what’s available. . . look to straw-bale, clay construction, re-cycled metals for building studs, and so on.

    1. God should have thought of that before letting such a hostile creature, (humans), survive around nature. I mean create us in the first place, or whatever. What that god of yours really needs to do, is get everything about procreation in the bibles,(Which teaches good morals. That’s it…), and change it to being okay with contraception. I’m not asking people to stop having sex. God sure as hell knows I’m not stopping. Let’s just start ONLY replacing what we got.
      We are asking our planet to give more than it has, or at least to much to quick.
      Also, if you go into a natural forest and leave random trees left to continue to grow, those trees more often than not, would have died shortly after. You would be taking a tree that spent it’s entire life in competition, and traded protection with former trees, to a drastic different environment. More sun, rain, wind… Saplings survive because they don’t know any better. It sounds funny, but true.

  3. In addition to demolition sales, we’ve also found great old growth wood/replacement pieces at restoration facilities, ours are typically in the major cities (Chicago). it’s so hard to walk away and leave things at the store…. haha

  4. As for where to get it, I’d add befriending local demolition contractors. Sad as it is, if they’ll give you a call when they’re bringing something worthwhile down at least something will get saved, often for very little cash. Just make sure to treat anything buggy looking with a borate solution before bringing it home…

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