Are older homes really made with better wood?

For today, we will avoid the discussion of whether they really do not build them like they used to. Instead, we are going to look at the question, Is today’s lumber different than the lumber 100 years ago? and if so, is it better or worse?

First, is it different? The short answer is yes, it is. It’s even more different from 200-300 years ago. In the early days of building homes in the United States, lumber was plentiful and convenient to use. Many houses were built with lumber that was harvested within just a few miles of the house. The country was literally covered in old-growth forests full of high-quality lumber. In that time period, due to the ease of access, homes were built with the closest available products. This meant some houses were framed with lumber that today we would use to make high-end furniture.

As demand grew with a growing population, and old trees were becoming more scarse, forestry had to change. We could not longer just cut down trees, we had to start growing them. But well come back to that.

So what made the old-growth lumber better? Let’s not think about the lucky people who used Cypress and Oak to build their houses. Instead, let’s focus on a 100-year-old Pine, Spruce, or Fir 2×4. The two big differences would be the tightness of the growth rings and the development of chemicals in the wood, like cypressene.

The older trees, which had many decades to grow, developed tight growth rings. Over time, the trees became denser. This results in a harder board of the same dimensions and increased stability. A 2×4 with only 3-6 growth rings will be more prone to warp and move more with humidity changes than one with 10-20 growth rings. This means the old lumber was harder, heavier, and more stable. As trees grow older, they accumulate chemicals like tannins and cypressene in their wood. These chemicals help the wood become more resistant to rot and insect damage.

Is our modern lumber better in any way?

Two things are superior in modern lumber. One is sustainability; gone are the days of just cutting down forests to make lumber to frame houses. Along the way, people realized they needed to start planting new trees and managing the forests. Without sustainable practices, we would run out of wood. We do a far better job caring for and managing our forest now.

The second is consistency. Lumber sizing and grading standards have made it easier to plan and build homes. You don’t need to use the same sawmill for all your framing lumber to match the house.

We will likely never return to buildings with 100-300-year-old trees. Today, we can build and do things we couldn’t before thanks to modern engineered lumber products.