Build a House With Green Wood

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Figure 1
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A house like this can be yours quite inexpensively, if you know how to build with green wood.
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Figure 2
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Figure 3

Click on Image Gallery for referenced figures.

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 wood 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! How else can a guy build a home for a family of six for under
$6,000?

Green Wood 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% green oak cabin
ourselves in nine months for a cost far below what
we’d have paid a contractor to do the job. And, as you can
see from the accompanying photos, 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.
None of the four cost more than $2,000. The smallest, in
fact, set us back only $1,100.

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% 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% 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°–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° 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 right now for $4,000 . . . or about, well, a
few hundred dozen 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.

Need Help? Call 1-800-234-3368