Tuesday, October 11, 2016

old growth wood

Before we headed off on our summer road trip, we delighted in the idea that, while we were gone, our house was going to get a fresh coat of paint, something it has needed quite badly for some time now.  

We imagined returning home to a house that was sparkly fresh and better than before we left.  And I envisioned the garden in full bloom and full of produce beside that gorgeous house.

We spent our last days in June, before we left for six weeks, cleaning the house, readying it for our house sitter, weeding the garden, getting the bees ready for our time away, and packing, of course.  During all these preparations, we painted squares of potential house and barn colors and then visited the options for days as we walked by, seeing how each of the possibilities looked in the different lights of morning, midday and evening.  On sunny days and grey days.  We visited neighbors and historic homes in the area and asked them about the colors they had chosen for their homes.  

We thought we were pretty fortunate that the worst of the construction, and all the home chaos this would create, would happen while we were away. 

Suffice it to say, several phone calls and many texts from our house sitter/house painter, who became essentially our contractor we realized we needed far more than paint.  Moreover, all these updates came during our trip with spotty and sometimes frustratingly difficult cell service.  We soon realized that yes, we were incredibly fortunate, because our newly minted "contractor" just happened to be an extremely skilled woodworker interested in renovation and care of historic homes.  

Needing those skills, however, mean we were unlucky in many other ways.

We had carpenter ants.  Lead paint.  And water damage.  And very, very significant rot.  There was much discussion of structural integrity and other terms that describe what happens to wood when exposed to long term moisture and hungry insects.  One such discussion occurred while we hiked on a trail that led to incredible pictographs painted on cliff walls a hundred years older than our house. That conversation sticks in my mind as I looked at the cliff walls and simultaneously heard and saw what happens to structures when they are pounded by the elements over a very long period of time.  

Those carefully chosen color palettes seemed a bit silly in the face of so much work that needed to be done.  Luckily we were in good hands.  

And though it makes me a bit jealous that I missed seeing all of the action here, and seeing just what our 230 year old home looked like as it was stripped of nearly all of its clapboard and then stood bare awaiting the unanticipated supplies and remedies and treatments while we continued our trip, I am also glad we were away for it.  From photos sent to us while we were gone, it was not a good time to try to live in our house when, for example, it stood heavily draped in plastic that then fluttered constantly in the wind.

When we returned very late on the last night of our trip, despite all the phone calls and pictures and conversations about what was happening here at home, we were nonetheless still a bit surprised when our headlights danced across the yard as we drove into the driveway.  And we were certainly more surprised when we took a look around the next morning.

The garden this year, well, it had run wild.  It was, and continues to be, survival of the fittest out there (the fittest seem to be grapes and potatoes, strangely.  Oh.  And plus one well fed garden shed dwelling groundhog), as it has received little tending since we returned, so close to all the activity and bustle of workers on scaffolding and power washers and nail guns and piles of wood covered in tarps.  Ah, well. There will be other years for it to be well-tended.

Fortunately, I could still satisfy my curiosity about how the house was built. I could still see where there was evidence that additions were made, where original roof lines ran, where there used to be a door that is now a window. And I have our devoted workers still here to ask.  Plus the job has become so huge that there is still much to see as they continue their repairs.  I walk around peeking under the plastic, spying the old wood versus new in the areas not yet covered.

We could think of ourselves as unfortunate that the house was in such bad shape under the trim and clapboards, leaks leading to significant damage.  

But then, we could consider just how old this house is.  Just how many people have lived here, and how well it held them and now us.  And just how lucky we were to decide that now was when it needed to be painted, and that we had someone here who has been able to assume the role of preserving this historic house, who has worked tirelessly to recreate the care and detail that this house deserves.  Before, say, the roof collapsed on itself late one night in a blizzard.

The house, as is the way with older homes, has had a lot of care and change over the years.  But much of the wood, the bones of the house and some of the clapboard and trim, is original.  Which is kind of incredible. That's 230 year old wood.  The wooden structure deep in the walls and beneath our feet, holding furniture that has moved in and out with families who jump, run, stomp, slam doors and throw open windows.  And wood outside, exposed to weather and wind and wear.  

Much of the clapboard ultimately needed to be torn down and replaced, but there is one entire side of the house that did not.  It turns out that the technique for joining the clapboards -- with each one hand tapered and fitted together, the ends of the two pieces overlapping, a technique called skyving -- serves as good evidence that this side of the house was the one side that still had nearly all of its original clapboard, placed there in the late 1780's.  As one example of his care, our restorer has also skyved the joints for every single new clapboard he is installing.

Given that the home's builder and first inhabitant was in the tree business, originally harvesting wood from the area for the masts of King George's fleet, it is likely the wood for the house was harvested from here, too, or at least from very near by.  The clapboard on the rest of the house was newer, ends not skyved but butted up against each other where they meet, installed at various times as additions and renovations were made over the years.  It is this non-original clapboard that needed to again be replaced.  Yet it was the original clapboard that was salvageable.

We know much more now than we did about old growth wood, about how this wood is stronger, more durable, harvested from trees that had grown and stood strong for hundreds of years, untouched in dense virgin forests.  Given that these trees grew where there was limited light and space to expand, they grew slowly, making their growth rings closely spaced, ten times the number of growth rings per inch as compared to trees harvested in the present day.  Trees planted in the past century to meet the demands for lumber are chosen for their fast growth, such as the pine tree, and they are typically harvested at 20-30 years of age rather than 200-300 years.  Lumber from old growth trees is therefore stronger, denser, less likely to expand and contract in the various temperatures of our Maine climate, and far more resistant to rot and termites.  The trees that were here in the 1700's, that are now within the structure of our home, are why our house is still standing strong.

I walk around the house and pick through piles of debris and see just what years and water can do to wood, both old growth and more modern pine, and how rot works through a piece of wood, what stays solid and what falls away.  It's a lesson in wood, in growth, in aging, in preservation and maintenance versus starting fresh.  We -- well, our incredible restorers -- salvage what we can, and replace areas here and there with modern composite wood, using materials and designs that we have access to now, that we hope will withstand what the next hundreds of years will throw at the house.

New siding for the other sides of the house lays across the grass, between the heritage apple trees and the apple saplings we have added, the headstones of the former inhabitants of our home just beyond, This siding is getting primed and prepared for being placed over the huge swatches of modern moisture blocking Tyvek.  It's gorgeous hardwood, chosen for being as close to old growth pine as we can get now that there is no old growth wood that can be sustainably harvested.  This hardwood will last another lifetime...for forever, we are told.  

Given the age of this house, and the amazingly loving building and then care it has received and we hope will continue to receive, forever, when talking about trees and homes, is a really long time.  

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