Why Build With Wood?
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN JAPAN
GLISTENING like silvery fish scales in the cool sun of northwest Russia are 22 onion-shaped cupolas sitting atop a wooden church. A closer look reveals that the cupolas are covered with thousands of wooden tiles, now weathered by age. For almost three hundred years, this wooden building on an island in Lake Onega has been defying the country’s harsh winters. Silently it testifies to the amazing durability of wood.
Other buildings give even stronger testimony. Scattered throughout northern Europe are wooden structures that have been in use far longer. For instance, the handiwork of Norwegians who went on a wood-building spree about the 12th century can still be seen dotting the countryside. Over in England, still braving the notorious weather, is a wooden building near Ongar, Essex, constructed about 1013. But what seems to be the grandfather of all of them is a wooden temple in Japan that is centuries older.
The Oldest Wooden Building
How is it possible for this wooden Horyuji Temple to stand so long? Basically it is because of the original carpenters’ superb knowledge of wood. They knew which wood to choose and which parts to use for specific functions. Their choice in this case was hinoki (Japanese cypress), which had been growing for at least a thousand years before it was cut.
Master carpenter Tsunekazu Nishioka, who died recently, spent much of his life working on the temple’s renovations. He claimed that the nails—which were made in the same way as samurai swords, using repeated hammering-and-heating techniques—have also played an important part in the temple’s longevity. In the renovation work, the old nails were used because, as he said, “modern nails don’t last 20 years.”
Some may question whether the Horyuji Temple is really 1,300 years old, since 35 percent of it has been replaced this century. However, many major pillars, main beams, and eaves are of the original wood. Nishioka said: “I think the temple will last another 1,000 years.”
With wood of this quality growing all around them, it is little wonder that the ancient Japanese developed a love for timber. Even today their homes reflect that this love has been passed down.
Indoors, wood is used extensively, but it is not painted. Pillars, doors, furniture, and so forth, are given a finish that allows for the natural grain and color to be admired. Wooden planks on the veranda are given no finish at all. The unfinished wood provides a natural link to the trees and shrubs in the garden. The effect is one of harmony and tranquillity rather than stimulation.
Many Japanese say that this is the kind of house they dream of owning. However, good quality timber to build such a home is now far too expensive for the ordinary worker. Even so, the Japanese like to use wood where they can because history has taught them that besides looking good, wood suits their environment, which includes frequent earthquakes, typhoons, hot humid summers, and cold winters.
Wood is a boon to earthquake-prone countries, since it obligingly bends and twists under strain when materials such as stone would crack. Wood also has the splendid properties of moisture maintenance and insulation. Despite the rain and dampness in Japan from June through August, houses do not rot. Wood adapts and provides a measure of comfort at this time because it can absorb moisture from the air and afterward dry out. Nonetheless, wood is appealing to the ordinary person for far different reasons.
The Beauty of Wood
Throughout the world most people choose wood because of its looks. Albert Jackson and David Day in their Collins Good Wood Handbook explain: “Since wood is a product of nature, each piece is unique. Each section of wood taken from a tree, or even from the same board, will be different. It may have the same strength or colour, but not the same grain pattern. It is this diversity of character, strength, colour, workability and even scent that makes wood so appealing.”
Why can so much variety be seen in wood grains? Well, for a start, while some trees grow straight grains, others form knotty grains, and still others produce wavy or even curly grains. Then, as trees grow they often twist or change their direction of growth, they send out branches, and insects come and go. All of this makes for interesting patterns. In addition, the pattern looks different according to the direction in which the wood is cut. One reddish-brown wood that is cut to have a pronounced pattern of almost-black streaks has been named zebrawood in some countries and tigerwood in others.
Further enhancing the beauty of wood is the tremendous variety in color. Not all wood is brown. Black heartwood of ebony comes from India and Sri Lanka, red to purple-brown camwood from West Africa, and deep red mahogany from Central and South America. The bright orange-red brazilwood, which on exposure turns to a rich red-brown, originates in Brazil. Some woods are green, and some are pink. Alaska provides the pale yellow wood of yellow cedar, and the European sycamore is even paler. At the end of the spectrum are the whitewoods, so pale as to be almost colorless.
Also attractive to many is the scent of wood. One fragrant wood is juniper, which Solomon’s carpenters used to overlay the floor of the temple. (1 Kings 6:15) Perhaps the scent of the juniper wood permeated the air and mingled at times with that of the incense. (2 Chronicles 2:4) Juniper is famed not just for being fragrant but also for being long-lasting and resisting decay.
Much, much more could be said in the praise of wood. Its virtues are so many that we may wonder what could possibly be said against it.
The Gift of Wood
True, not all wood resists pests, nor does all resist decay or last hundreds of years. The major concern in building with wood is fire. Yet, in extreme heat heavy wood chars slowly, loses its strength slowly, and takes longer to fall down than steel. Few houses today, however, have the old-type heavy wood beams and pillars. So a person would have to escape a burning house as fast as possible.
Wood is not a cheap shoddy building material. Rather, wood that is chosen and treated correctly can become a well-insulated building that will provide hundreds of years of use. Some authorities claim that it would never decay if we took care of it properly. Be that as it may, wood is certainly one of the finest building materials the Creator has given us.
[Picture on page 17]
Onion-shaped cupolas atop wooden church on island in Lake Onega
[Pictures on page 18]
The wooden Horyuji Temple in Japan