Celebration of the times before the big disconnect – how the old masters selected wood

Ulfsjö, Jämtland – the location of countless childhood memories. The corner on the right belongs to a barn (a different one than the one we moved). The red color is a ubiquitous feature of the Swedish landscape. Photo by me, 1995.

I spent my childhood summers on a farm in a rather desolate part of northern Sweden. At one point, much later in life, we were looking into moving a small grain storage barn on the property. It was situated a little too close to the lake, and we needed to move it uphill a little – to drier ground – as a result of changing water levels. Pelle and Annalisa – the dear, elderly couple who lived across the fields in a neighboring farm – thought we should move it to a particular spot, on a south-facing, gently sloping meadow. “It’s where the snow first melts in spring,” they said. “The cranes dance there”. This simple, matter-of-fact statement struck me like a bug hits a windshield, and I felt the sting of a great loss, even though I couldn’t quite define this somewhat empty feeling at the time. I realized soon enough though, what was missing. What I lacked, was their profound connectedness to the natural world around them. They were in this kind of unconscious, natural sync with the hum of the universe, and the flow of the changing seasons. I was both impressed, feeling somewhat deprived, and not so little envious! The journey into past technologies in researching my previous post on toxin free wood preservation, returned me to this notion that in my life as a modern, urban human in an industrialized world, I am completely missing something.

The best trees were said to grow close together in poor soils. This is a rather typical mix of spruce and pine trees. Photographer unknown, approx. 1908 for Skogshögskolan’s archives.

So, in order to better appreciate the surge of deft developments that so swiftly transformed us to fit our current ways, I wanted to gain a better understanding of the life rhythms of times past. With populations on the rise, the industrial revolution in full swing, and more efficient modes for trade and export, demands for wood and lumber increased rapidly. Harvesting had to happen year round. Breakthroughs in science enabled hybridizing of traditionally used tree species with others, more quickly growing varieties. An old Swedish woodsman once told me that although seed banks are collecting the seeds from the old “purebred” trees, a faster growing German type of hybrid tree now constitutes the majority of new re-plantings of Swedish forests.

Woodsman Anders Markusson (1871 – 1948) from Vika by, Mora, Dalarna, working on furnishing a corner. Photo by Olof Ekberg, 1929. Location unknown.

Before these modern technologies and chemical wonders caught up with traditional forestry and tree felling, there was an astounding amount of practical knowledge and know-how, which was passed down through countless generations of woodsmen. These time-tested ideas on what to look for when selecting the best trees, were crucial in ensuring the longevity and success of their labor. At the time, shelter was the most important use for wood, and only the very best available wood was used to produce buildings. Around 1930, Nordiska Museet in Stockholm (the Nordic Museum) distributed a survey to builders and woodsmen around Sweden, asking them to relay what they knew about the traditional methods. Their answers were presented in a book called “Var virket bättre förr”. Much of what I write here, I learned there.

The Nordic Museum’s 1930’s compilation of answers from woodsmen mapping out methods and practices from all around the country. The title means “Was the lumber better in years past?”

Along with everything we’ve gained since the late 1800’s, we’ve simultaneously lost some less tangible, yet essential aspects of our humanity – much of the reverence for the natural world, the awareness that everything is indeed connected, and the ability to live within what the seasons present us with. In a sense, in a time span of a few generations, instant gratification trumped the patient, contented notion that something good is worth waiting for. That’s a staggering notion! As we blast forward into the Anthropocene, the more spiritual and moderate ways of times past deserve to be more than a passing memory. The nuggets of wisdom offered in this book bear lasting witness of a wonderful connectedness with the living tissue that is rarely manifested today. Learning how wood was selected in days long gone, was a little like watching an old film clip – rolling along at a pace fairly alien to the lives we live today, yet capable of stirring up a kind of primordial longing. In this blog entry, I promise no special effects in the form of new, exciting developments, but rather wood-centric tidbits of cultural and anthropological interest.

The best trees grew in poor soils like this morän. “Morän” is a kind of unsorted, wild mix of anything ranging in size from sand and silt to large boulders, and covers 3/4 of Sweden’s surface. It was deposited there when the last ice-age retracted. Photo by Peter Grödinger, 1981 in Uppland.

Back in the day, the best trees were said to grow slowly and closely together in poor soils. The more adverse the situation, the better the results were known to be. Think about this for a second… So radically different from the current practice of using seeds modified for faster growth, and growth aided by continuous fertilizing. Crowded trees encouraged the trunks to reach straight for the sky, and develop minimal knots due to branching. To further ensure slow growth, the most exceptional trees were found in poor soils with northern exposure, and there was a definite preference for trees grown on ridges or other geographical high points, presumably because increased water run-off would temper its growth rate even further. Those extremely slow growing trees had very tight growth rings which resulted in exceptionally good lumber. The tighter, the better. In the northern part of Scandinavia, letting a tree reach maturity in such conditions might take at least 350-400 years, or so.

Photo by O. Tamm, 1928, in Södermanland for Skogshögskolan’s archives.

A tree was never harvested before it was “mature” – i.e. it had been determined to have stopped growing. Regardless of the actual size of the tree, its maturity was recognized by the bark becoming grey, and new shoots in spring being non-existent. On such an aged tree, branches would have started to dry up from the base and upwards along the trunk. Only the crown and branches near the very top would have needles. The tree in the photo is of good quality and reasonably free of branches. Such a tree was often left to re-seed an area after harvest – a so called “frötall”.

Woodsmen and builders knew to optimize the properties of the different species by selecting the right wood for the right job. Shape-wise too, they knew to take advantage of the trees’ natural forms and its inherent structural strength. Generally, pine was used where there was greater risk for exposure to dampness, like in buildings housing people and animals. Fir was reserved for overall drier conditions such as for grain and hay storage. The elasticity of fir also made it suitable for roof beams and trusses, and it was extensively used for flooring. Fir was preferred over pine as it is whiter in color, and its heartwood is less visually pronounced. Another advantage was that the difference in hardness between “spring-wood” and “autumn-wood” was less than for pine, so the planks would wear more evenly.

Wonderfully wide, white, time-worn floor planks in Masmästaregården, Gästrikland. Image from the book “The Swedish Room” by Lars and Ursula Sjöberg. Photo by Ingalill Snitt.

The softly worn, light gray planks obtained after decades – even centuries – of scrubbed fir flooring, is an essential part of the “blond” heritage of Scandinavian design! No real stretch of the imagination as to why is needed, when you realize the northern latitudes of Scandinavia leave you living in near perpetual darkness for a good portion of the year. The brighter, the better!

This image is from Bertil Almqvists childrens’ book ‘Sagan om Vasa’. It shows how ship builders would take their templates and match them up to trees that were grown in a shape similar to the template. They realized that the inherent strength of the actual tree far trumped anything they themselves would be able to assemble from separate components.

Being a hardwood, (as opposed to the in Scandinavia abundant conifers, which are softwoods) the greater density of oak was cherished and, where available, was used primarily for the most exposed members like sill logs and posts. Most of all, oak was used for building ships. Southern Sweden used to be covered in oak forests, but centuries of ship building has rendered it rather exclusive. The relative scarcity of oak dictated its place at the top of the hierarchy.

Unless you wanted to use the wood for under-water applications like docks, you made sure to harvest the tree in the winter when sap levels were at their lowest. Photo from Alavattnet, Jämtland. Photographer unknown, Skogshögskolan’s archives.

The felling of trees was done in the coldest depths of winter – preferably before accumulation of too much snow – when the tree sap was at its lowest levels. Another often mentioned requirement was that the felling take place during a new or full moon. I suppose this was because at these points in time, the moon’s gravitational pull on the Earth was at its highest, and sap levels were especially low. Not only did these circumstances minimize the required drying times, but trees were less susceptible to rot and infestations, and ultimately resulted in less cracking and warping of the lumber. On a completely pragmatic note, winter-time focus on tree-felling made sense in an agricultural society. Besides, snow and ice made for easier transportation of the logs.

Snow and ice facilitated moving the timber. Photo by G. Lundberg, 1920, Bispgården, Jämtland from Skogshögskolan’s archives.

So, how would you be able to tell what kind of caliber tree you were looking at? Well, supposedly, you could determine a tree’s density – how tightly (= slowly) it had grown – by studying its crown and bark.

Older pine with well developed and even bark, indicating a high-quality tree. I love the hat as a scale indicator! : ) Photographer, date and location unknown. From Skogshögskolan’s archives.

The ideal tree for house construction, besides having dimensions suitable to its end use, should have a straight, evenly thick trunk, as smooth and twig-free as possible. As great a share of it as possible should be heartwood and, of course, there could be no sign of insect infestation, rot, or for that matter, the diligent work of a woodpecker. In the event of any such visible evidence, the tree was immediately demoted to lesser uses. I found this poetic description of a mature pine, or “timber tree” as it was also called: “The coarse, gray bark of a pine, marred with countless cracks, should not reach more than approximately 10 feet above ground. Above that, the bark should be a light yellow, and adorned with thin, spiderweb-like flakes, which at the slightest breeze were set in motion and, if a ray of sunlight touched them, brought forth a wonderfully beautiful play of color.” [My translation]

Solvind (sun-wound) pine from Gideåälven area, Ångermanland. Photo by E. Björkman for Skogshögskolan’s archives. Date unknown.

Branches of a good pine tree should be perpendicular to the trunk. Branches pointing up or down indicated the tree had grown in a twisted fashion. You would never use a twisted log for building, because as it dried, it would twist itself out of its position in the corner joints, and cause drafty gaps. The sap in the majority of trees in the northern hemisphere apparently travels counter-clockwise, and you would be advised to avoid any where it didn’t. By chipping a small hole through the bark down to the sapwood, you could actually check which way the sap ran. So called “solvinda” trees [transl. “sun-wound”] meant trouble in construction, and were only good for fuel. Actually, any overly wound and twisty tree – regardless of direction – was best used for things other than building.

Both sight and sound were relied upon to determine which trees were suitable and ready. Internal cracks could be detected when after first hard frost, the sap levels had diminished and the sapwood was dry. If you listened carefully during hard winds, keen ears could hear a slight creaking as the trunk bent in the wind. If you took the back of your axe head to the trunk, the sound emitted by a fully matured tree containing ample heart wood would be firm and resonant, as opposed to a dull thud.

As they were, these select timber trees provided the finest, most tightly grown lumber in existence. But for the occasions where you needed even more durable and resistant wood, there was an ingenious, somewhat sinister trick that the Ents of Tolkien fame would have made you pay dearly for.

Root-barking in progress. Here, he is shaving off the bark, and will leave the tree to try to “heal” itself for a few years. When finally harvested, the sapwood will be impregnated with resin, and exceptionally hard and water resistant. Photo from Grundsjö, 1931. Photographer unknown from Skogshögskolan’s archives.

If you removed the bark from the lowest part of the tree – from the base up to as high as you could reach – the injured tree would desperately try to heal itself by pumping resin out through the now exposed sapwood. Sources vary on how long the tree was left to bleed, but eventually it dried out and died. When it did, its wood was “hard as stone” according to one account. For staves, as the primary structural members in stave churches, I’ve seen up to 8 years mentioned. Other sources mention 1-2 years. My guess is that it ranged depending on the planned end use of the wood. For the earliest staves – which constitute the vertical framework in a stave church, it was obviously crucial that the log was fully impregnated with resin, as the end-grain of the posts were in contact with soil or gravel.

Here the sap wood is nearly indistinguishable from the heart wood, as it has been pumped full of resin. Wood treated in this way was used for the most exposed building parts, like windows and sill logs. Photo by H. H., 1903 from Skogshögskolan’s archives. Location unknown.

Later, the posts of more evolved stave churches were resting on stone foundations, but even so water resistance remained important. If you think of a tree trunk as a bundle of straws with water traveling up them through capillary action, you’ll understand why. There are still 27 of these stave churches left to contemplate in Norway, as well as a couple elsewhere. Now, a thousand or so years after they were built, it is impressively evident that it worked like a charm.

The northwest corner stave of the Urnes church in Norway.You can see how the stave rests on, and wraps over the wall sills which meet beneath it. To the right, you can see the protruding foundation sill – part of the foundation framework on which the entire building rests. You can also see how the wood is covered with tar, which has been used as a preservative for millennia. Image from the book “Världsarv i Norden” by Leif Anker and Ingalill Snitt.

For less spectacular buildings, this technique – freely translated as “root barking” or “ring barking” was often used to prepare sill logs. I heard stories of how landowners went out in the forests to designate appropriate sill logs for a planned building, five or six years in advance. The trees were “root barked” and left there for another half a decade before actual construction was set to begin. Talk about foresight! The precaution of using self-impregnated wood like this was also commonly exercised for exposed areas such as window frames etc. This is the reason that you can still find buildings that are several hundred years old, with their original window frames intact! Present day wooden window assemblies disintegrate much quicker.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Often, the practice of root barking served in symbiosis with filling another need – that of producing tar. Since time immemorial, Scandinavians have produced and used tar to preserve their ships and wooden exteriors. This involved using a “tjärdal” – or “tar kiln”. By slicing off two rings of bark – one just above the roots, and one as high up as you could reach – and then linking the rings by cutting out a thin sliver of bark between them, you could then peel off a whole large sheet of bark in one piece. This expanse of bark lined the bottom of the tar kiln. A tjärdal was a cone-shaped pit dug on a slope, where finely split wood was “slow-cooked” for a long time in order to release its resins. The resin – or tar – would drain downslope, and was collected in cones fashioned from spruce bark, as it emerged below. The stripped tree was then left standing for a year or two, and then added to any woodworker’s finer assets.

Section showing a large portion of heartwood vs. sapwood in quarter-sawn pine. Photo from Skogshögskolan’s archives, 1919. Photographer and location unknown.

When you embark on your next renovation of an old house, remember what you just read. Salvage as much of the old, removed wood as you can, because your money can no longer buy new wood of the kind of quality that our great grandparents built with. With old growth forests practically gone, it simply does not exist any more, other than as reclaimed fare. Send grateful thoughts (and support) to companies that save wooden demolition debris from becoming landfill, and instead salvage and re-sell it. More than any others, they are making it possible for you to find the kind of high-caliber materials your old house deserves. And as you walk the isles of the lumber- and home improvement stores, know that wood harvested today is a far cry from that of centuries past. Luckily, there are ways to improve it – the most sustainable and non-toxic way is through acetylation. This is a technology that has barely begun to be available here in the US, but if everyone helps spreading the good news of its existence, we may begin to see more if it soon. Start asking your local lumber dealers for it. Don’t resign yourself to buying toxic, pressure treated wood, or for that matter, exotics. Instead, insist that they start stocking the acetylated wood. Especially in timber states like Oregon, this should be a no-brainer. We’re a market driven economy. If nobody asks for it, it will never happen… Can you say ‘green job creation’?

So, I guess the answer to the title of the book is a resounding YES! Wood was most definitely of a different caliber back then. Just check out the last image I have to offer. It shows an extremely tightly grown spruce. It has 378 (!) growth rings , and only measures 7.7 inches (19.5 cm) in diameter. The cut was less than 28 inches (70 cm) off the ground!  Amazing – I would love to know what became of such a treasure!

Photo from Ovanåker, Hälsingland, 1958. Photographer K. R. Nordin for Skogshögskolan’s archives.

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About annamadeit

Born and raised in Sweden, my aesthetics and outlook on life are strongly shaped by a culture rich in history and tradition. I care a great deal about environmental responsibility, and my aesthetic reflects the visually clean, functional practicality and sustainable solutions that are the hallmarks of modern Scandinavia. I was trained as an architect at the University of Cincinnati and as a color specialist at the Scandinavian Colour Institute in Stockholm. I'm obsessed with plants and gardens, and aim to take my skill set a step further by designing gardens as well as interiors. As someone so aptly said: " Architecture is the skin that separates the exterior from the interior". So true - you can't successfully focus on one without incorporating the other. I'm also an avid cook, and I love to ski. In addition, I put time and efforts into trying to rectify things that I feel are wrong in my immediate community. As you will see, The Creative Flux will touch on all these things, and more. For sure, it's all over the map, but then again - so am I! Welcome to my blog!
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5 Responses to Celebration of the times before the big disconnect – how the old masters selected wood

  1. artzenflowers says:

    Fabulous post Anna, I am a tree hugger of the first order and this history lesson is simply lovely! The way the resource was honored by the end user is profoundly beautiful and sadly lacking in the world today. Thank you!

  2. annamadeit says:

    Thank you for the kind words, Nancy! You’re right, it’s a bleak world where humans provide the only center. I wish I could hit the brakes so all the rest would again enter our focus…and slow us down enough to contemplate a little.

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