One of the major issues we deal with in the realm of home improvement contracting is the reliability, workability, and durability of wood today. As one of the leading building materials, Pine has made it’s way into many aspects of both commercial and residential remodeling. Chances are, if you look around your house, you will be able to see several places where Pine or a variation, Douglas Fir have been used.
Most of our homes are constructed with what we call “two by” material. A combination of 2x4’s, 2x6’s, 2x8’s, 2x10’s, and 2x12’s all make up the “bones” of our homes. Typically, Doug Fir kiln dried wood is used for framing members and continues to be the main material selected to frame although metal is starting to make a surge in the building industry. Being that we are based in Wethersfield, CT, the oldest town in Connecticut, we often deal with antique properties that have their own charm when it comes to building materials. It wasn’t uncommon for landowners to harvest material directly from their own land to aid in the construction of their homestead. Everything from Pine, Oak, and Maple right down to the brownstone and fieldstones that were found on the land were often used in the construction of foundations, houses, barns, and privies. Back after it was settled, Wethersfield became a bustling hub of trading and shipping due to it’s prime location on the Connecticut River. Due to a shallower river, Wethersfield was the farthest trading port into the interior of Connecticut. Many ship captains settled in Wethersfield and subsequently, their ships were disassembled and used to build houses. When we remove parts of the exterior of the homes around town, we still find a wide variety of building materials that were repurposed. We have seen old ship boards, barn doors, and we even discovered that a small bungalow built at the end of the 19th century was once a barn for one of the neighboring homes. A walk through Old Wethersfield will show you many different examples of ship captains and landowners using the resources of the land to their advantage.
With the housing boom in the 1980’s, things seemed to change. We can often tell just by looking at the pine trim in a home when the home was built. Wood was being harvested so frequently for building that the resources needed to be renewed, so additional trees were planted. The new wood was grown so fast and harvested so quickly that old growth wood quickly gave way to the harvesting of new growth wood. This has caused some issues in today’s building climate. With old growth wood, the grain structure of the pine material was very tight and close together. If you take a look at old pine floors or even stained pine trim that you might have in your house, you will see that the grains are spaced more closely together. This is an indicator that the wood had many years to grow and develop before it was harvested. With a tighter grain structure, the wood has a different density as well. Older pine tends to be harder than newer pine because the grains are so close together. The density of the wood directly correlates to the weatherability of the wood as well. Tighter grain structure helps wood to shed water as opposed to absorbing it. With a newer growth piece of pine, the grain structure is much more spread out which makes the wood much more susceptible to rot. If you look at many of the older homes around Wethersfield, homes that were build in the 1700s and 1800s, you will see many situations where original material is still on the house. While it may show signs of age and wear, you can still see in many cases that the wood is still solid and holding paint well. This is largely attributed to the grain structure of the material.
One example of where we see the drastic difference in the durability of material is on the old porch floors, especially those built in the early 1900’s. Around town here in Wethersfield, we have many colonial style homes with beautiful covered front or rear porches. The porches were typically built on thin metal posts and framed out of regular Fir framing members. They were surfaced with 3 1/8 Doug Fir floor boards. Doug Fir was commonly used as a floor covering in both the interior and on the exterior of homes. After about 100-120 years of wear from being exposed to the elements, many of these floors are either in need of repair or replacement. When we go to repair or replace these floors, we are always amazed as to how well they stood up and lasted over time. Back when they were installed, they were laid down and nailed and then painted. Now, when we go to do the repairs, you can clearly see the difference in the graining of the wood. The new material is definitely not as dense and hard as the old material and this requires us to take extra precautions with the wood to make sure it lasts. We bottom prime each board before installation in addition to side priming the tongue and groove edges. Then, as we install each one, we seal the stainless-steel staple holes with siliconized caulk and prime the cut edges. Even with taking these precautions, we have seen a faster deterioration in the new material. This new material, even with the extra steps we put in to making sure it lasts, has a much faster fail rate than the old material. So much so that we have had to do repairs on some of the wood that we installed 10 years ago.
Another example of where we see the difference between new wood and old wood is when we go to stain clear pin interior trim. We had a job recently where we color matched a stained window by sanding it down, applying test stains, and then applying polyurethane over the top. We were able to find a perfect match by using the original window. However, when we went to stain the new pine wood and trim, we found that the “perfect match” stain was very far off in color. How could this be? Well, wood grain takes stain in different ways. In this case, the new wood’s grain structure was much more spread apart which caused the stain to have a much browner tone to it. Needless to say, we had to sand all of the stain off and go back to the drawing board and find a stain that was better suited for the new wood.
The use of finger jointed material is also an area that has changed due to the building boom of the 70’s and 80’s. Finger jointing is when the end of a piece of wood is cut out to mimic fingers. This cut out is then joined with glue and pressure with another piece of wood that has the same type of cutouts. We are finding more and more that finger jointed material is made up of smaller and smaller pieces of wood glued together to create larger pieces. This is the case in flat stock material (1 by material) and trim pieces as well. Unfortunately, with primed trim, we are seeing that more and more contractors are using primed, finger jointed trim on the exterior of homes. The issue with this is that the finger joints fail incredibly quickly due to the many possible areas of failure which would be the finger joints themselves. Once water gets into the most minute crack in a finger joint, the water keeps seeping in, expands the material, cracks it, and lets more water in causing extensive rot. Companies like Lifespan however, have developed a way to naturally pressure treat pine material and apply a very good primer to it. Lifespan used to come with finger joints, but now they offer a solid select board which is a complete solid piece of wood, 16’ in length. It is rated for exterior use and will outlast anything else on the market with the exception of PVC material. In addition, the primer they use is an alkyd primer which is durable and safe for the environment. In exterior trim applications, this is the only material we use. People often are surprised by how much our materials cost, but when we explain to them that with the Lifespan, they are getting a superior product, but it does have a cost associated with it. A 1x8x16 usually costs about $60-$70. However, in situations where we are dealing with wood trim and clapboards (Lifespan makes a clapboard as well), it is important to keep the material consistent around the entire house. Lifespan makes this possible to do while providing peace of mind that the material is going to last.
Next time you are having work priced out on your house, make sure you understand what you are getting in terms of material. It’s important to remember that the wood of today is going to be different than what you are used to. It’s softer, less dense, accepts paint and stain differently, and will wear in a shorter period of time than older, slower grown, wood. While it may look good at first, it will deteriorate much quicker than newer, modified materials. The introduction of composite and PVC materials is alleviating some of these headaches for homeowners, but those alternatives can be costly as well. When we quote projects, we want to make sure that our potential clients know exactly what they are getting for the price. This is especially true when it comes to material since there can be such a drastic difference in material cost. A finger jointed piece of pine trim at a big box store can cost $6 for an 8-foot board whereas a piece of Lifespan solid primed and treated board goes for about $60-70 for a 16-foot length. The big difference is that one should be used outside and the other should not. If you have any questions regarding various wood materials and the difference between them, feel free to give us a call. We are always here to help!