Materials

Maybe youíve heard of Humboldt County.  Redwood country. They say that everyone around here likes trees.  Half like to see them vertical, the other half prefer them horizontal.    Back when just about all of the big trees were in the process of being cut down, this was lumber country and the main source of old growth redwood lumber.  Prior to roughly 1970, houses here were built of old growth redwood from top to bottom.  It was the native material; it was cheap, it was plentiful and it had some special characteristics. The thing about old growth redwood is that it is almost impervious to rot or termites. The contractor who built our kitchen told me he has seen early homes where the walls were made entirely of redwood-  4Ē lumber lined up side by side to create solid redwood walls.  Also surprising is that up until the 1950ís rain gutters were often fashioned from a special trough profile of redwood, and are a common site around town if you look closely. At EurekaModern, our house is framed in redwood 2x4ís, the floor decking is 2x8 tongue & groove redwood, interior paneling is 1x12 redwood lap board, and the exterior is 1x12 and 1x3 redwood board & batten.  The only wood parts that are not redwood are the pine roof-ceiling, fir beams and headers, and a little bit of pine interior trim.   Given the value of this nearly extinct material, it is entirely possible that some local houses are worth more as salvaged lumber than they are as houses.  Certainly when we did remodeling at EurekaModern HQ, I saved every bit of salvageable material and bought a surface planer to dress the old wood for subsequent projects.  

Whatís done is done, and there is nothing to do about the reality that irreplaceable ancient trees were turned into houses-- except to honor and preserve those houses.  

Not all redwood is the same. What people unfamiliar with lumber quality may not understand is that old growth is an entirely different material from second growth or new growth.  Itís all a matter of the way the trees grew and the relative proportion between heart wood  (the dark part of a cross section ring) and the sap wood (the light pat of the ring) and how many rings per inch the wood has. Old growth trees grew up hard, competing in ancient forest for resources of water and sunlight, hence grew slowly with very tight grain and almost no soft sap wood.  Iíve been told that old wood can be as tight as 100 rings per inch.  The tightest wood that I found salvaged from our house was has 85 rings per inch.  Contrast that to new growth, which grows up in full exposure to sunlight and generally has ample water.  These trees get big fast, but have rings as loose as 4 or 5 per inch.  Such wood is very soft and serves well as termite food, and is suitable for not much other than fence boards.  

A  Freshly planed redwood 2x4 salvaged from our remodeling project. Itís almost magical the way a planer refreshes old scrap wood to look like material from a specialty lumber boutique. The wood is very straight grained and almost clearÖ. and this was construction grade lumber in 1959!  Anybody bought any construction-grade 2x4ís at Home Depot lately?  Somewhat different.  

B  A view of the redwood 2x6 tongue & groove floor decking visible during remodeling.  This was standard practice for local construction of the period.  

C  The ceiling/roof construction as exposed during skylight installation.  Note the 2x6 T&G pine deck which served as the structural element and the cosmetic surface on the interior.  On top of that is a couple layers of 1/2Ē firtex for modest insulation value.  On top of that is the built-up hot-tar roof.  

D  Mary stands in the stump of an ancient redwood at the edge of Sequoia Park, a local preserve of ancient trees near our house.  Obviously, this one pre-dated the preservation plan.  Surely this tree was well over a thousand years old, perhaps twice that,  when cut.  

By contrast, this redwood that Iím standing on was recently cut in our neighborhood to make way for a new house.  It is new growth that grew up in a clearing where it had no competition for essential resources.  While it looked big, it was probably a mere 60 -75 years old and had on average 5 rings per inch.  I talked to the lumber broker who sold the tree. He told me that it was basically junk wood, suitable for making fence boards.