Here's what a 74-year-old beam can teach us about using wood effectively in our homes.
Wood is a wonderful material for siding homes, provided we use the best quality wood and that we install the siding correctly.
"Could you please take a look at that beam for me?"
Her classic older home on Miami Beach, built in the late '30s, had a balcony that extended out from the second floor and overlooked the street.
From it, if you looked between the live oak trees in the yard across the way, you could see Biscayne Bay and the skyscrapers across the water in downtown Miami.
The balcony was supported by beams that were cantilevered out from the second-floor framing through holes cut in the block wall.
As a carpenter, residential builder and contractor, I love wood. And the story of why this beam is still in as good a shape as it is today, and conversely why it deteriorated at all, can teach us a lot about using wood — whether it be to side our homes as exterior trim on stuccoed Spanish and Mediterranean style homes or as the structural material for post and exposed beam back porches.
This particular beam did not have a nice home. Wood is happiest when it stays dry or dries out quickly after being wetted. Situated as this beam was on the east side of the balcony, it was exposed to wind driven rain (winds generally blow from the east and southeast in Miami) and shaded from the afternoon sun, which helps to dry wood that has gotten wet in our late in the day thunderstorms.
Additionally, the roof of both the main house and the balcony had no overhangs, so water coming off the roof above the beam contributed to keeping the beam wet or at least damp a good bit of the time.
It took a lot of work to rebuild this beam — cutting out the rotten portion, fitting and gluing new wood of the same species to replace the rotted wood and then making it all look good — but it turned out just fine.
One reason the repair work on this beam turned out just fine is because the beam was virgin heart cypress. The heartwood (wood from the center of a tree, as opposed to the sapwood, or wood from the outer portion of a tree) of redwood, cedar and cypress trees (all three of which are kissing cousins, biologically), have built in chemical resistance to decay.
As the tree gets older and older, more and more of these chemicals are deposited in the heartwood. “Virgin,” surprisingly in this case actually referring to trees that are very old, is the term used to describe trees that have never been touched, as opposed to the “second growth” trees, which come along after the virgin trees have been logged.
Second-growth lumber comprises the majority of what is available to us today. This is unfortunate, because the older trees have more of the decay resistant property that makes them as desirable as siding.
Very likely, the beam on this home came from a virgin cypress tree that was logged out of the Big Cypress Swamp west of Miami. All of those virgin trees, some of them a thousand years old, were logged out of the swamp by the early 1950s.
Given the disadvantaged location, the fact that this beam lasted 74 years before it needed serious attention shows the importance of using the best wood you can afford to side your home. Choose from the best grades of cedar, cypress, or redwood. For instance, if you are choosing cedar siding, use select and tight knot kiln dried cedar.
About this Experts Contributor
Tom Southern Builder, in business since 1974, is a residential contractor serving Dade, Broward and northern Monroe County in Southern Florida. Whether it's creating white pine closet shelves that are classy in simplicity, a kitchen that works for the way you live and cook [or don't], a post and beam back porch, a new energy efficient home or addition or repairing an old cypress beam, the company is driven to “do it right.”
As of April 27, 2012, this service provider was highly rated on Angie’s List. Ratings are subject to change based on consumer feedback, so check AngiesList.com for the most up-to-date reviews. The views expressed by this author do not necessarily reflect those of Angie’s List.