Good Wood

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Recycled bridge beams: all de-bolted, squared up, and ready to build our house.

Natural building is a conundrum. In every sense of the word. Pick an aspect of modern western building, and then try and find an economically priced, ethically viable and completely non-toxic solution with a minimum of embodied energy. I am telling you now, dear reader, that for many materials you will be looking for quite some time.

Off-gassing plastics, sealants, wood products impregnated with (organic) poison to prevent critters eating it, pipes that leach, insulation with massive embodied energy or just a prohibitive price tag. It seems frequently that while building our tinyhouse we keep running into these problems. Why is the simple act of building a small and simple home which is ethically sourced, economically priced and which won’t potentially poison its residents such a hard thing to do?

How to roll a bridge beam over: use a tractor.

Actually, don’t answer that question. I’m not going to have that conversation right now – it’s a very long one. Lets just talk about wood. Good wood.

Right at the start of our Milkwood adventure, Nick bought a bridge-worth of bridge timbers at a clearing sale. These big, strong, tallow-wood beams had held up a bridge on the Murrimbidgee River somewhere out west for a hundred years. They were very heavy and Nick came home very pleased with his marvelous bargain. Beautiful recycled bridge timbers for our house beams!

How to remove rusted bolts from bridge beams: the adapted picket-driver option

The bridge timbers were massive, round and shaggy. Nick decided to get them squared off to turn them into large square beams – this would make them more usable in the build and reveal the 100-year-old grain of the wood. The timbers also contained a large number of crusty looking 100 year-old bolts, which needed to be removed before milling. Hmm.

Following a very loud week with Nick’s specially adapted star-picket-driver bolt-wrangler (think mini jack hammer) and lots of wiggling with pliers and whacking with chisels, we managed to persuade all the bolts to leave the building. We then had to ‘square them off’. We tried a lucas mill but it didn’t work very well – a lucas mill works best on a stationary log, not one you’re rotating 90º again and again.

How to remove rusted bolts from bridge beams: the sledgehammer option

Eventually we convinced the local sawmill to deal with them for us. One exploded finger (Nick’s) and lots of waiting and begging (we had to wait till the mill wasn’t doing anything else) later, we had our beautiful beams. Nick carefully calculated how we could chop them up into all the bits we needed, and we were off and away into traditional Post and Beam construction for the frame of our house.

Whether that particular saga of time, emotion, sweat and cash was more viable than just paying a premium for recycled beams somewhere is not a point we choose to dwell on. The point is we ended up with building materials which were unique and would make a beautiful, solid home. Our wood hasn’t displaced a family of orangutans in the process and isn’t recently treated with some weird chemical compound which repels all comers but is somehow simultaneously ‘perfectly safe’.

Nick takes a chainsaw to the squared off beams to make all the bits we need

And it looks like we’ll be able to source recycled hardwood timber for the entirety of our timber needs for this build, which is great. Ideally in the future, we’d like the timber to come from suitable trees on our property: this would give the timber the smallest footprint possible (it doesn’t have to travel anywhere), and we can be sure of it’s place in the forest getting regenerated (because we would do the actual planting).  But finding suitable trees which have fallen and dried hasn’t happened yet, so recycled it is.

During this process of preparing the bridge timbers I, as usual, had multiple moments of weakness. I suggested that maybe a simpler, cheaper and most importantly quicker solution like treated pine wasn’t all that bad. Surely you can get ethical pine (or similar), grown in happy, sustainable, biodiverse plantations and treated with some new bright green, whizz-bang anti-termite stuff which is completely inert and harmless? What does everyone else use to build their homes? Surely it’s not all awful for the environment and the building’s occupants?

The result (in progress) - traditional post-and-beam construction with beautiful recycled timbers

The short answer to this is: yes, and no. There is ethical and non-toxic timber products out there for a fair price, and they’re getting easier to find. But you need to go looking for them:

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC): The FSC is a truly amazing and useful organization. They certify both off-shore and Australian timber which is felled and processed with rigorous, best-practice ethics for the forest and the community concerned.

What’s more, FSC follow the process from the tree stump through to the shop, so the chain of supply can be tracked. Every single piece of every single tree. They do this by coding the end of every bit of wood like this:

  • Tree L in location X gets chopped down. It becomes log XL, and the stump becomes XL too.
  • The log XL gets chopped into, say, 4 pieces. Now you have XL1, XL2 etc.
  • If piece XL1 then gets chopped into 8 pieces you end up with XL1.1, XL1.2 and so on.

And so it goes. Isn’t that brilliant? You could (in theory) take your FSC certified timber chair back and visit the forest, and the stump, that it was made from! Ha!

The Good Wood Guide: put out by Greenpeace Australia Pacific, the Good Wood Guide is an excellent and comprehensive resource you can use to source and compare ethically produced timber. It takes into consideration the impact of the timber’s production on the environment and the communities involved. Well worth a look. Includes FSC stuff.

NSW Good Wood Guide: confusingly similar in name to the above. No longer updated but still worth a look.

IronWood: a recycled timber yard out of Sydney and Taree. We used their (now closed) mill in Kandos to square off our timbers. Beautiful recycled hardwood.

Lucas Mill: though not quite what we needed for our bridge timber squaring, these amazing portable mills can process and dress timber on-site. There are lots of contractors out there who would gladly turn up at your designated log and mill it into whatever you require. Good little business, too.

Also worth a thought if you’re after framing timber is talking to demolition companies. We have now talked to multiple demo companies who regularly demolish houses in Sydney and have to take a whole house full of hardwood framing timber to landfill because there’s no other way to get rid of it in time. What a tragedy! Do some ringing around and see what you can find.

And there are of course gazillions more recycled timber and scrapyard places, wherever you may be. And the tip shop – don’t forget that! Ethical timber building can be done. You just need to seek the good wood out.

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Comments

7 responses to “Good Wood

  1. What a timely article for us. We are sourcing the wood for our home right now. Yes, its hard making the right decisions about what is the most sustainable option. Recycled timber is great, but we are finding that the mileage on some of these timbers from our ‘local’ recycled timber places, makes them less ethical. Not sure what we are going to choose yet.

  2. as we were in the final stages of building our huge frame from recycled timbers, a friendly neighbour popped in to advise us to clean all the timbers with acid wash before we put them up. Oops, most of the raked ceiling timbers were already up. There we were 3 whole nights, after a days work, feeding the children and shouting at them to get to bed. 11pm, 8m above the ground on scaffolding, washing and rinsing the timbers. They look beautiful now, but it was very hard work.

  3. Hey KB! Your tiny house is looking amazing! Looking forward to seeing it in the woodflesh one day!

    Mum always said that to find out how long something’s going to take, you take the estimated time, then double it and add some. That seems to be how it goes for us, anyway!

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