Big wood

Counting the rings on legacy timber

Paul Epp

I was sitting in a bar recently, with my son. We were in Vancouver, at the lower level of a large, late 19th century brick building. As nice as the decorations were, what was most conspicuous to me was the wooden structure. The column we were near was probably two feet square and the joists were six by 12s (or more). This was all unlaminated, so it came from big trees. Fir trees. While we refer to these type of buildings as brick, they are actually post-and-beam wooden buildings. The brick is only an external envelope. It’s a real treat for me to be able to see the wood at work.

It’s still possible to find the big trees, but they are likely to be in a protected area, like Cathedral Grove on Vancouver Island, or in Stanley park in Vancouver. But there are still a lot of trees, however diminished they are as second or third growth. And they remain very valuable to us. We have a long history of harvesting them. My father had a sawmill when I was born.

The Pinto Creek Sawmill. By some happenstance, I worked for another sawmill in the same area of northern Alberta 20 years later. As the last man hired, I naturally got the worst job. That was pulling lumber off of the green chain. The ones I was assigned to look for were the big ones: two by 12s, two by 14s, up to 16 feet long. It wasn’t so bad when I was just starting a lift, but once the stack got to be higher than my shoulders, it was a killer.

My wrists, elbows and shoulders still hurt. Luckily for me, we weren’t sawing anything thicker than two inches.

In the absence of the big trees, various forms of laminated timber have been developed. Some are held together by wooden dowels but most use adhesives. It’s very impressive and what I find the most exciting are the big CLT laminated sheets of lumber.

This material along with the oversize CAD machines that work it are capable of very dynamic structures. Mass timber is how it’s described. Collectively, we have been very clever.

Stanley Park in Vancouver, B.C.

There are still times when the big trees are critical. I’m wondering how the French will find the timber to rebuild the roof of Notre Dame in Paris? The Japanese have a tradition of rebuilding certain of their most valuable temples from time to time. They must set trees aside for this, looking ahead many years and exercising an admirable logging restraint.

Sculptors, and furniture designers have their own version of mass timber.

I’ve been particularly impressed by the big benches of Brent Comber in Vancouver, along with his other big pieces of wooden furniture and art.

Also in B.C. is the impressive work of the late Bill Reid. I recall him telling me that his Raven and the First Men (now at the Museum of Anthropology in Victoria) was the largest wooden sculpture in the world. That may not be exactly accurate: his own totem poles are certainly larger, and then there are the big canoes of his Haida culture. The American Wendell Castle, in the 1960s, developed a technique of stack-laminating large assemblies of wood and then carving them into exceptionally creative pieces of furniture.

Many others have followed his lead. Before this, the Eames’s made a trio of designs for solid laminated and turned wooden stools. I made a large sculpture for the 1981 Jeux Canada Games in Thunder Bay, 10 feet tall and 40 feet long, out of white pine timber.

Bigger is not always better, but it can help to impress.

There are competing notions about timber use. Some of us protest the use of wood, thereby claiming to save the planet by saving the trees. An alternate view is that using wood (and lots of it) is a way of capturing and sequestering carbon, keeping it out of the atmosphere and out of harm’s way. I think that the logic here is that the better and most intelligent use to which wood is put will increase its chances of survival as a built item.

Lots of work for designers here.

Paul Epp is professor emeritus at OCAD University, and former chair of its Industrial Design department.