Building with Green Lumber

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by Adobestock/Tomasz Zajda

Learn how to build with green lumber for low-cost, non-energy-intensive, DIY timber framing with green lumber including gathering raw materials, shrinkage, nails, and nailing.

If you’re interested in low-cost, non-energy-intensive, do-it-yourself housing–and who isn’t these days?–here’s new-old way to make that dream come true.

Planning to build your own house or cabin? Want to save a bundle on materials AND add to your dwelling’s visual appeal? Then by all means, use green lumber in your project!

Now please hear me out! I know the idea of constructing a house of unseasoned wood registers with most folks like fingernails scraping on a chalkboard . . . but doggone it, fresh-from-the-tree lumber is [1] only one-fifth to a third as expensive as kiln-dried pine, [2] no harder to work with, in my opinion, than “ordinary” materials, and [3] stunningly beautiful. It’s also real, in a way that Formica and stucco and linoleum can never be.

Sure, raw timber does shrink as it dries out. You can circumvent this problem, however, with the right construction techniques . . . and I’m sure that once you’ve compared the aroma, appearance, and sheer good karma of a green wood house with the aura of any other wooden structure, you’ll agree that shrinkage is of trivial importance. (Well, almost trivial.) Besides: Green wood is organic, non-energy-intensive, and just plain fun to work with!

Green Lumber is Inexpensive

Yep, that’s all I spent on the 1,800-square-foot structure that keeps the rain off my wife, myself, and our four kids. Working together, we constructed the 100 percent green oak cabin ourselves in nine months for a cost far below what we’d have paid a contractor to do the job. And, our humble abode is really quite livable. And that’s not all. Over the past five years I’ve built four other green oak cabins, ranging in floor space from 450 to 700 square feet, which we rent out for additional income.

One thing I’ve discovered from these experiments is that green oak lends itself well to all the conventional construction techniques used for foundations, windows, doorways, partitions, etc. My own house, for instance, is a fairly standard stud-wall structure with studio ceiling. The various “raw” materials I used, though, cost much less, and look a heckuva lot better, than the usual drywall and veneer paneling.

Take it from me: when you buy freshly hewn and cut wood, you’re getting what you pay for in terms of an all-round pleasurable building experience.

Where to Get Unseasoned Wood

Simply go to your local sawmill and tell them what you want. Traveling around the U.S., I’ve noticed an amazing abundance of these outfits . . . in fact, I’d hazard a guess that perhaps 75 percent of the population lives within 100 miles (a reasonable shipping distance) of a sawmill. If you have any trouble at all locating a mill, your State Forest Service or any large contractor for custom-built homes should be able to put you onto one which will probably be closer than you think.

Green lumber is sold by the board foot (144 cubic inches) and where I live, a board foot of green oak costs around 10¢. That’s for full dimension lumber, too . . . two-by-fours, in other words, that really measure 2″ X 4″ rather than 1-1/2″ X 3-1/2″ (which is the current size of a lumberyard 2 X 4). This means you end up saving money two ways: first, because you buy direct from the mill . . . and second, because you get stronger materials that you’ll use less of.

I buy oak exclusively, simply because it’s available where I live (Virginia). Other suitable varieties of wood can usually be found in areas where oak is not abundant. For example, spruce, though not as strong as oak, is plentiful in Colorado, and cypress (an ideal wood to work with) is common throughout the South. Poplar is another fine building material, as is California redwood. All I can say is, look around . . . you’ll find what you need.

How Green is Green?

I use lumber when it’s very green, and by that I mean a day away from having been a tree. My philosophy is “the sooner you build with it, the better”.

I don’t air-dry the wood I use at all, for several reasons. First, if the sap-laden lumber is stacked and left to sit, it stains very easily and can quickly become ugly. Secondly, air drying, when done properly–requires too much time, space, and attention. (Authorities say you should allow one year of drying time for every inch of a board’s thickness: a year for one-by-sixes, two years for two-by-fours, and so on. Follow this rule and you’ll be walking around hip deep in curing wood clear into the 1980’s before you finish your cabin!) In addition to that, green oak can be cut with less difficulty, bends fewer nails, and is all-round nicer to work with than after it’s seasoned. Thus, if you ask me, the air drying of wood earmarked for construction is not only unnecessary . . . but maybe even counterproductive!

By the way, I also don’t treat my lumber with any preservatives-although I have applied linseed oil to one living room wall to bring out its grain because green oak is naturally decay resistant. Most other woods DO need to be preserved, though, so be sure to have some creosote on hand if you’re planning to work with spruce, poplar, etc.

Let the Builder Beware

Remember at all times that green wood is ungraded lumber. This means, among other things, that you should check to be sure all load-carrying pieces: studs, joists, beams, columns, etc., are free of any splits, cracks, or bark sawed into the wood. Set blemished pieces aside to use later in less critical areas.

The fact that you’re working with ungraded lumber also may mean that you’re in violation of building codes. This is worth checking out on a local level. Here in Albemarle County, Virginia, the codes are (as far as I know) among the strictest in the state . . . and they prohibit the use of ungraded stock unless the material can be proven superior in strength to kiln-dried lumber. With oak, fortunately, this is no problem.

To paraphrase Will Rogers, I never met a building inspector I didn’t like . . . but then again, your experience and mine may not be the same. The only way you’ll find out for sure what your code requirements are is to go downtown and apply for a building permit. Before – not after – you start construction.

About Shrinkage…

As sure as a toad croaks, all green wood shrinks. The idea when it comes to making a house out of this material, then, is to work with the shrinkage and not try to fight it. (Like it or not, the forces of shrinkage are mightier than you are and will win every time!)

It’s therefore important when you design your home to incorporate overlapping details into your plans . . . details which by their very nature, will not allow great yawning gaps to open up in your walls, floor, or whatever. Similarly, a good rule of thumb is to avoid the use of boards wider than six inches wherever possible, since such pieces of lumber, naturally, tend to shrink more than narrow ones.

Remember that the greatest overall size reduction in a plank of wood occurs at right angles to the annular growth rings of the tree from which it was cut. This means, in actual terms–that a 1″ X 6″ X 10′ board will contract about 1/16″ in the 1″ direction, approximately 3/8″ in the 6″ direction, and something under 1/4″ in length (see Fig. 1). Less dense timbers – pine or fir, for instance – will shrink slightly more.

Green wood will complete 70 to 80 percent of its total shrinkage within three to four months after it leaves the sawmill–assuming the climate is warm and dry, while for the next year or so, only minimal contraction will occur. To keep inordinately large stresses from accumulating in the wood, then, unseasoned lumber should not be allowed to dry out too quickly during the first few months of use. Hence, the best time to purchase and use raw lumber is in the fall, when the sap is down and the weather is cool.

Nails and Nailing

If you plan to work with green oak, be sure to buy only common nails: 8d for one-inch-thick stock, and 16d for two-bys. Box nails are unsuitable because their smaller shanks allow them to bend more easily than common nails.

And you don’t need coated nails when you’re working with raw lumber! The coating is only there to increase holding power . . . and believe me, if you use oak you’ll have no problem with the nails falling out or pulling loose. As a matter of fact, you can count on destroying the wood before removing a misdriven spike.

One-by-sixes (no doubt the size material you’ll work with most often) should be nailed at intervals of three feet along their entire length to preclude undue warpage. Reduce this spacing to two feet if you want the planks to stay absolutely flat forever. And remember that the maximum distance between nails under conditions of damp climate, northern exposure, etc., should never be more than six feet.

Drive nails in pairs at each station along the board, as shown in Fig. 2. Ideally, the fasteners should be placed exactly 1-1/2″ in from the edge of the board and no more than 2-1/2″ to (at most) 6″ from the ends.

Each nail also should be hammered in at an angle of 60 to 70 degrees –measured from the flat surface of the wood – and oriented so that the tip points toward the edge of the plank (Fig. 2). This allows the wood to bend the nail slightly as shrinkage occurs . . . which is what you want. You don’t want the nail to hold so tightly that the board develops enough stress to split down the middle. (Which is exactly what will happen if you pound the nails in perpendicular to the plank’s surface.)

You can nail two-by stock: two-by-fours, two-by-sixes, and so on, in the same manner as you would kiln-dried pine or fir, because the greater thickness of such studs makes it unlikely that the wood will ever split or warp.

Ditto for four-by material. I’ve installed 4″ X 6″ X 10′ beams with two bolts at each end, and the middle left unsecured, and not seen any trace of twist or warp, ever.

Joists, as usual, can be nailed top and bottom to a box frame at the periphery of the floor or ceiling, with two-by bridges attached at interior points.

Board and Batten Siding

Here’s an example of a shrink-proof covering for a wall that’s both good-looking AND easy to build.

In case you’re unfamiliar with board and batten construction, the general configuration is presented in Fig. 3. To make this kind of siding, all you do is fasten 1″ X 6″ and 1″ X 4″ boards vertically, and overlapping, to the horizontal members of a basic stud-wall frame.

Begin by nailing one-by-sixes to the horizontal studs so that there is no more than a two-inch gap left between any pair of neighboring boards. Then you can affix the battens made of 1 ” X 4″ stock to the siding boards (Fig. 3). An inch of overlap should exist where the battens and boards meet.

Be certain, when you attach the battens, to hammer the nails in at a 60 or 70 degree angle . . . and be doubly certain to drive the nails in pairs, one spike to each edge of the wood. If you were to drive only a single spike into the edge or center of the batten, as is usually done in this kind of construction, the strips would later curl so much that you could poke your little finger between them and the boards underneath. On the other hand, if you attach your siding as shown in Fig. 3, the boards will pull each other together tightly as they shrink . . . giving you a sturdy and curl-proof structure.

Lamentably, some of the green battens, perhaps as many as five percent, will tear themselves apart as they cure, no matter what . . . especially on south-facing walls. When this happens, all you can do–if it bothers you, is go around the house after the wood has dried and replace the split members. Still, this isn’t as bad as it sounds . . . and when you’re finally done, you’ll have walls to be downright proud of.

That’s Not All

Unfortunately, in the last 2,000 words or so I’ve only been able to give you the most abbreviated introduction to the art of building with raw lumber. I haven’t told you about the marvelous furniture you can make from green oak . . . or about the energy-efficient homes I’m designing around asymmetric frames which [1] are incredibly strong, [2] use little wood, and [3] can be assembled quickly at a reasonable cost . . . or about the 930-square-foot house you can build and a few hundred other things.

If you want to learn more about how to build with uncured lumber, you might want to read my book The Green Wood House (which should soon be available from The University Press of Virginia, Midmont Lane, Charlottesville, Va. 22902). But better still, go out and get some fresh-from-the-sawmill planks and timbers and work with them . . . that’ll teach you more about the subject than anything that’s ever been written.

I’ve always believed that low-cost dwellings ought to be beautiful. And that’s just what the Green Wood House is to me, in more ways than one.

Originally published as “The Green Wood House” in the May/June 1976 issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS.

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