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Douglas Fir Facts

  • Douglas Fir Porch Decking: Clear vertical grain or mixed grain?

    Posted on March 8, 2012 by Jennifer

    Sipping a glass of tea on a big front porch is the essence of Americana: classic, neighborly, and relaxing. If you’re building a porch, you can probably picture it right now. What you may not have pictured in your front-porch daydream is what kind of lumber you need to turn that dream into reality.

    Prefinished CVG Douglas Fir | AltruFir Doug Fir Flooring

    CVG Douglas Fir

    Traditionally, porches on historic homes were built with clear, vertical-grain Douglas fir decking. Though grown in the Pacific Northwest, it was shipped all over the country to serve as porch floorboards as far away as Chicago and New Jersey.

    Why? Because 100-125 years ago, old-growth Douglas fir with beautiful vertical grain was not only recognized as a superior choice for quality and durability, it was also plentiful and affordable.

    These days, vertical grain Douglas fir is still the recommended choice for a porch that will last for your home’s next several decades—but it’s more expensive than a shipment of mixed-grain Douglas fir decking. Some homeowners think, if you’re just going to paint your porch floor anyway (another historic home tradition) who's going to know what type of porch decking is under that paint?

    Unfortunately, you will be able to tell in just a few years whether you’ve opted for a wood product that will stand the test of time, or one that will begin to wear out and buckle.

    To understand why clear vertical grain Douglas fir (you might see it abbreviated at lumber suppliers as CVG) works so well for an outdoor use like a porch floor, first you need to understand what woodworkers mean when they talk about CVG vs. mixed-grain.

    Vertical Grain means that the grain of the wood runs parallel along the face of the board. When you look at it, you’ll see straight lines running up and down the length of the board. These straight vertical lines give CVG Douglas fir some important benefits.

    For one, those parallel lines mean that as CVG Douglas fir naturally expands and contracts in response to moisture—as any wood product does—it expands and contracts evenly. It is less prone to warping, buckling, or bending. This is especially important when you’re talking about a porch, where the wood will be exposed to constantly-changing weather conditions.

    CVG Douglas fir is also generally regarded to be the most durable grade of Douglas fir, holding its shape well and holding its fasteners tightly.

    Mixed grain is exactly what its name sounds like—a mixture. That means that when you order a batch of lumber from your supplier, some of the boards you get will be vertical grain. Others, however, will come from boards that were sawn the other way, parallel to the annual growth rings of the tree. These are called flat grain, sometimes FG, and you won’t see neat lines running along the face of the board. You’ll see a wavy pattern of wood grain, which is attractive in its own way, but not best suited for an outdoor application.

    The historic home experts at “This Old House” magazine wrote about this very problem in a Q&A column: the homeowner wrote in that his porch had been replaced with fir graded “D & Btr mix-grain,” that was primed and then painted. “Now every winter the floor buckles, and in the spring it flattens out again,” he wrote.

    This Old House’s master carpenter, Norm Abram, replied: “Flat-grain boards expand and contract more than vertical-grain wood, which has rings nearly perpendicular to the face. To make matters worse, all that swelling wood is pushing against your porch piers and your house without anywhere to go. Buckling is the inevitable result.”

    A CVG Douglas fir porch, on the other hand, if treated properly and regularly painted and maintained, will last 40 years or more. Tim Carter, a building contractor who writes a nationally-syndicated “Ask the Builder “ column, writes that vertical grain Douglas fir is his number-one choice for porch decking. “Some of the wood is over 100 years old and still in good condition,” he said in his column.

    So when you’re choosing your porch decking, take a lesson from what historic homeowners across the nation can tell you about the quality and durability of vertical grain Douglas fir.

    Or what they would tell you, if you could get a hold of them. They’re all outside with their feet up, sipping tea on their big front porches.

    - Jennifer Rouse

    This post was posted in Douglas Fir Flooring and was tagged with douglas fir porch decking, cvg douglas fir

  • Douglas Fir in California Design: San Francisco Homes

    Posted on March 1, 2012 by Nicole

    Douglas fir in home design dates back before the days of the Gold Rush in 1849. Douglas fir had a big impact on San Francisco Victorian architecture from the 1850s to the early 1900s. The 1906 Earthquake and fire destroyed over half of the burgeoning Bay Area. Thousands of homes burned, including many Doug-fir-framed Victorians that dotted neighborhood streets.

    We’d like to look at the use of Douglas fir from the start of Art Deco in the 1920s on through the Great Depression, WWII, and through the 1970s to today’s New Modernism approach to sustainability.

    Douglas fir goes utilitarian

    We won’t bore with you the details, but there were a wide variety of architectural aesthetics popular in San Francisco beginning in the early 1900s on through the 1940s. Art Deco, Beaux-Arts inspired New Revival Mediterranean and Marina homes, and Art Moderne designs which all featured an eclectic mix of materials. New revival homes were outfitted with wrought-iron balconies and clay-tiled doorways which mirrored Spanish elements and emulated Beaux-Arts design with its brick and stone figural sculptures and classical details. If any wood was used, it was minimal in appearance – balustrades or wood shingles.

    Between the 1920s on through the 1940s, Art Moderne architecture reinforced innovation with design. The International Style became a façade trend in the mid-1920s, emphasizing a less is more aesthetic. The advent of new building materials - stainless steel, aluminum, Formica, and pigmented structural glass – figured prominently in these design movements. Meanwhile, factories churned out abundant supplies of steel in preparation for war and Old Fir went utilitarian, being made into automobile running boards, wall sheathing, and military applications.

    In response to a depressed economy, a Northwest fir trade association set out to promote plywood and the milling industry. Founded in 1933, The Douglas Fir Plywood Association –dubbed American Plywood Association today – sent out on a national mission to bring fir back.

    Douglas fir Boom and Bay Area Modernism

    After the war, the nation needed more housing to keep up with the 1940s baby boom. Thanks to the housing boom, Douglas fir was back in business. In 1955, the Douglas Fir Plywood Association put together 52 Fir Plywood Home Storage Plans. The 50 cent black & white booklet featured 65 do-it-yourself home projects based on a you-can-build-anything-with-fir-plywood motto. Crisp illustrations and clear plans outlined everything from drawer construction to edge treatments.

    In San Francisco, five years before the issue of 52 Fir Plywood Home Storage Plans, local architects were inspired by the old rural wood-clad buildings in the area. The decorated shed and building as billboard aesthetics turned into the next big design aesthetic and Old Fir had a home. Coined Bay Area Modernism – Third Bay Style, these wood-dressed homes featured wood paneling and flooring. Outside, vertical wood board siding, wood shingles, and vertical exposed sticks were dominant features. For wood enthusiasts, this was a welcomed change from the Art Deco and Art Moderne stucco-fashioned designs of the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s.

    However, it was Joseph Eichler’s innovative use of Douglas fir post and beam construction, that popularized Old Fir into something entirely new. Starting in the 1950s, Eichler homes “invited the outside in” by using structurally graded 4 X 10-inch fir beams and 6 X 4-inch fir posts for the housing frames. Eichler’s signature fir grid held the expansive floor to ceiling windows – a second distinctive feature of his architecture. This allowed natural light in creating an airy living space. Mahogany was also used for interior paneling. Eichler’s aesthetic was seen in San Francisco homes until the ‘70s. Today, Eichler homes are just as important to the progression of San Francisco architecture as the city’s turn of the century Victorians.

    Eichler’s use of exposed post and beam construction influenced many residential designs across the nation during this time. In AltruFir’s own backyard, Portland home-builder Robert Rummer, inspired by Eichler’s post and beam grid, constructed 750 Rummers throughout the city in the ‘60s and ‘70s. And, perhaps in response to the Eichler fir grid trend in the Bay Area, the Douglas Fir Plywood Association put together its 1958 Leisure-Time Homes in Fir Plywood. The book was popular among families looking to build a second vacation home. Was it coincidence that the five models featured in the book featured fir post and beam construction? We think not.

    In 1965, 77 Ideas For Remodeling Your Home With Fir Plywood was published. The Douglas Fir Plywood Association promoted a variety of “worthwhile leisure-living projects you can make with fir plywood,” including a built-in book rack, demountable music wall, and a potting bench. As an introduction, the association wrote, “For remodeling… inside, outside, all around the house – there’s a fir plywood panel for every job!” A black and white diagram was included to pinpoint the places fir plywood fit perfectly in the mid century home. It’s no doubt that Douglas fir helped define mid-century modernism.

    Postmodernism and New Modernism

    Interestingly, Postmodernism and its contextual aesthetic, starting in 1960, retracted from Eichler’s signature fir post and beam construction. Postmodern homes emphasized a maze of juxtapositions in layout, materials, and motif. This aesthetic relied less on the durability of natural materials such as Douglas fir and more on flamboyance and cut-out construction.

    In 1980, Third Bay Style and Eichler designs gave way to New Modernism, which emphasized the use of modern materials and technology to their greatest advantages. Humane Modernism reintroduced nature into living spaces, similar to Eichler’s architectural achievement. Wood cantilevers and wood trellises shaded windows. A post and beam both supported the entrance awning and added structural expression to a home’s front porch. Stone, wood paneling, and stucco were distinctive elements used purposefully in these façades. And conscious use of naturally energy-generating methods were incorporated into homes and buildings – photovoltaic panels.

    Today, Douglas fir is very much a part of the architectural and design movements in San Francisco. Victorian homeowners rely on Old Fir to renovate and maintain the authenticity of say, an 1890 Queen Anne dining room floor. An Eichler enthusiast knows how to treat the fir post and beam frame when stripping paint to reveal its natural grain. Homeowners of a wood-clad Third Bay Style home trust Douglas fir to bring their home’s vertical board siding back to life. And, savvy first time homebuyers expect to see Old Fir show up in the reclaimed flooring of an industrial loft, a trellis shading the front window of a LEED-certified complex, or on the paneling of a secluded yet sustainable private residence. Douglas fir is as versatile as the homes in San Francisco.

    - Nicole Morales

    This post was posted in Douglas Fir Flooring, Douglas Fir Trim, History and Interest and was tagged with Douglas fir flooring, douglas fir design, douglas fir beams

  • Reclaimed Douglas Fir: Remaking vintage timbers

    Posted on February 23, 2012 by Jennifer

    The process of recycling Douglas fir beams sounds so simple. It’s just an old piece of wood, right? Find an unused structure, dismantle it, put the timbers into a new structure. Piece of cake.

    Wrong. A great deal of work goes into making sure each individual beam is prepped and ready to take on its new life in your building project.

    Reclaimed Douglas Fir beams

    Each reclaimed beam must be examined by experienced woodworkers who can determine what kind of shape it’s in. A beam with a great deal of splitting or warping due to its years of exposure might be perfect for a weathered-looking mantelpiece, but it won't work for any use where it actually has to support a structure.

    Once a beam’s structural characteristics have been considered, you can move onto other preparation work. Do you want a beam in as-is condition, with its original surface completely intact? Or is a smoother surface what you want?

    Some very old timbers are hand-hewn--they still show the marks from where a long-ago craftsman squared off the logs with hand tools.

    Other Douglas fir beams might have a circle-sawn finish. This lends a textured look and feel, with marks from the circle saw used to mill the wood still visible. The saw marks lend a subtle striped appearance to the beam, perfect for a rustic look.

    A band-sawn beam will be cut along its length, removing the original face and revealing the wood underneath. It will have a relatively fresh-sawn look, which precedes any planing or sanding.

    If you want your beam to be sawn or re-shaped in any way, professionals will use metal detectors to make sure any nails or bolts that might be hidden within the beam have been removed; for a beam that doesn’t need re-sawing, simply removing any visible metal from the wood might be sufficient.

    Making sure the wood is clean is another important step. A beam that’s been living in a dusty barn or a grimy factory for 100 years is going to have a hundred years of dust and grime on it. You want that cleaned before you bring it into your home. Professionals use power washing, which is more powerful than the pressure washer you might get at your local home store for cleaning off your driveway. This is a commercial cleaning machine that will remove all dirt, debris, pollen and mold from the beam.

    Another important part of preparing reclaimed Douglas fir involves removing any stowaways that might have found a home inside your beam: beetles, ants, or other little creatures that you definitely don’t want to invite home with you. Professionals can apply a borate solution to the beam, which kills any insects within it. A chemical-free option is kiln-drying; heating up the beam will also kill any unfortunate critters and their eggs. Kiln-drying also reduces the moisture content of the wood and increases its stability.

    Once your beam is insect-free, there are still a few more things to consider. How do you want your Douglas fir beam to look? What color do you want to see? For instance, if the beam has been re-sawn or re-surfaced, some of the original patina it acquired during its previous life is lost. There are tricks to making sure your aged beam looks really aged. Ammonia fuming, for example, involves exposing the wood to ammonia, which reacts with the tannins in the wood, darkening it in the process. You can also brush it with a wire brush or other tool to bring back some of that distressed, aged, appearance.

    Finally, once each Douglas fir beam has been inspected, de-nailed, sawn to your specifications, cleaned, and de-bugged, it’s ready for sale. That’s a lot of work for something that’s just an old piece of wood.

    - Jennifer Rouse

    This post was posted in All Entries, History and Interest and was tagged with reclaimed douglas fir, recycled beams, reclaimed beams

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