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Author Topic: Balsam poplar/Cottonwood as building material?  (Read 486 times)

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Offline jake pogg

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Balsam poplar/Cottonwood as building material?
« on: October 20, 2021, 11:46:15 AM »
Has anyone here ever used Cottonwood in a log-wall,or T.F.?
(or maybe even just heard tell of such;from what i hear it wasn't unheard of,out West,to build with cottonwood logs...).

My own experience is limited,and inconclusive.I do inhabit a small t.f. house where the posts,and a couple of 12' long beams are cottonwood.
Some have opened up a fairly radical check,yet others dinnt...
The outer surface on all remained decent-planed reasonably smooth initially,it hardened some with time,and looks and behaves adequately...

My only serious wonderment has to do with that punky-ish heartwood...
Hereabouts,at least,it's large,and contrasting in color,and makes one doubt it's structural integrity...

Any thoughts at all?  
"You can teach a pig anything,it just takes time;but what's time to a pig?"
Mark Twain

Offline Joe Hillmann

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Re: Balsam poplar/Cottonwood as building material?
« Reply #1 on: October 21, 2021, 10:29:45 AM »
I don't have any long term experience with it but I am building my house with about 50% popple logs.  In the woods it rots very fast.  I have framed out buildings with popple before and in my experience it is a well behaved wood and as long as I keep it dry it shows no hint of degrading.

To keep the logs dry on my house I am keeping them 3 feet off the ground and a 10 foot eave all the way around.  I hope they will last nearly forever protected from the elements like that.

Some of my logs have been drying under cover for a bit over a year.  I don't see any excessive cracking in the popple compared to other logs. The worst behaved logs I have are some that I thought were ash but smell like butternut.  In some cases they have split almost to the point of ripping themself in half and in all cases they have twisted or bowed like a banana.  The bowed ones are 34 feet long so I will be able to use them in shorter lengths but the twisted and split ones will probably be made into temporary saw horses or ramps and then firewood.

Offline jake pogg

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Re: Balsam poplar/Cottonwood as building material?
« Reply #2 on: October 21, 2021, 01:12:37 PM »
Thanks for your reply,Joe,that's a lot of good info.

Good on you for those generous overhangs,Nothing like these will preserve the wooden house better.

"Popple",as you say(i've heard that before,but it can be confusing as it can apply to different poplar depending on the region,like Tulip p. in the S.Eastern US,and Poplars are a huge family....All's i have access to in AK is the Balsam p.,Aspen(not of any size in my area,alas,and of course Birch(another poplar relative,technically).

The cottonwood i used for posts and beams in my house i've treated in a weird way:As an experiment,following this obscure,ancient Eastern European practice,i left them in a pile,bark-on,for a year after harvesting(in winter).
They're supposed to undergo a certain chemical change,a conversion of starch to sugar and so on,to become more suitable for further seasoning.

I'm afraid to report that it didn't do them many favors structurally.Especially that (contrasting,here)heartwood has suffered,becoming of a weird/granular/some kind of decomposition texture...To the extent that any thought of cutting a solid tenon,or using the inside portion of a boxed-heart timber in many other ways became unthinkable.

Lumber cut from Balsam p. is said to harden very significantly in a year or two,and to continue to go that way(to the point where after a few years the boards would have to be drilled for nailing through them).

Very thin,1x-ish lumber flat-sawn from Balsam can be very unruly and require careful stickering,but eventually settles down and remains fairly civilized,even suitable for panelling as in wainscot and such applications...

"Traditionally"/historically,poplars were used for water or food-related applications,wash troughs,butter-churns,and other such uses being very alkaline,base in their chemical nature,"sweet" as they used to say,non-acidic...
"You can teach a pig anything,it just takes time;but what's time to a pig?"
Mark Twain

Offline Joe Hillmann

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Re: Balsam poplar/Cottonwood as building material?
« Reply #3 on: October 21, 2021, 01:45:13 PM »
Thanks for your reply,Joe,that's a lot of good info.

Good on you for those generous overhangs,Nothing like these will preserve the wooden house better.

"Popple",as you say(i've heard that before,but it can be confusing as it can apply to different poplar depending on the region,like Tulip p. in the S.Eastern US,and Poplars are a huge family....All's i have access to in AK is the Balsam p.,Aspen(not of any size in my area,alas,and of course Birch(another poplar relative,technically).

The cottonwood i used for posts and beams in my house i've treated in a weird way:As an experiment,following this obscure,ancient Eastern European practice,i left them in a pile,bark-on,for a year after harvesting(in winter).
They're supposed to undergo a certain chemical change,a conversion of starch to sugar and so on,to become more suitable for further seasoning.

I'm afraid to report that it didn't do them many favors structurally.Especially that (contrasting,here)heartwood has suffered,becoming of a weird/granular/some kind of decomposition texture...To the extent that any thought of cutting a solid tenon,or using the inside portion of a boxed-heart timber in many other ways became unthinkable.

Lumber cut from Balsam p. is said to harden very significantly in a year or two,and to continue to go that way(to the point where after a few years the boards would have to be drilled for nailing through them).

Very thin,1x-ish lumber flat-sawn from Balsam can be very unruly and require careful stickering,but eventually settles down and remains fairly civilized,even suitable for panelling as in wainscot and such applications...

"Traditionally"/historically,poplars were used for water or food-related applications,wash troughs,butter-churns,and other such uses being very alkaline,base in their chemical nature,"sweet" as they used to say,non-acidic...
I think our popple is very similar to what is called aspen further west, and looks almost the same as cotton wood but rarely gets as big.
The popple we have here is also supposed to get so hard you can't drive a nail in it once it has seasoned.  I can't say if that is true or not, I usually mill it one day and am building with it the next.  At the moment I have maybe a 1500 bdft of it stickered and drying for my roof deck.  I guess I will know next summer if it gets as hard as people say it does.
Eventually I assume most of the 10 foot eaves will be walled in to make 3 season porches or storage areas or a green house on the south side so the exterior log walls will end up being interior walls.
My original plan was only to have a 10 foot porch on the sides of the house and a 3 foot eave on the gable ends.  But as I started harvesting more and more popple instead of pine and I saw pictures of similar cabins with porches all the way around I decided to go with 10 foot overhangs/porches all the way around.

Offline barbender

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Re: Balsam poplar/Cottonwood as building material?
« Reply #4 on: October 21, 2021, 05:58:33 PM »
  In northern MN, aspen both quaking and bigtooth, are referred to as popple. Balsam Poplar (or Black Poplar) is called Balmy, Bam, and Balm of Gilead for it's fragrant buds. I've never sawn or worked with Balsam Poplar other than logging it. Aspen I've sawn a bit of. It tends to have a fair amount of tension in the wood that causes twisting. It can get considerable checks in timbers, it and white spruce have gotten the biggest checks in timbers I've sawn. I don't know how it gets as hard as it does when it's dry, because it isn't dense or strong. But it is legendary for repelling hand banged nails😊 If it sounds like I'm disparaging it, that's not my intent. It is a useful wood, and while it wouldn't be my first choice if I had other options, I've seen some nice log buildings made completely from hand scribed popple. I remember reading a book about log building by B. Allen Mackie once, and he was telling how some bn of the really old piece-en-piece log buildings out on the Saskatchewan prairie were made of cottonwood. His opinion was that the best logs were the logs that you had😊
Too many irons in the fire

Offline jake pogg

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Re: Balsam poplar/Cottonwood as building material?
« Reply #5 on: October 21, 2021, 10:36:30 PM »
Thanks for taking the time,great info.

Yes,Aspen(quaking only,for my area)is yet another curious tree.I'd dearly love to explore working with it,but it doesn't grow to any size anywhere close enough(+/- 300 miles away,up the same valley it does,but too far to transport.

Another species Way prone to rotting when left anywhere near the ground,but surprisingly holds up for many decades as roof shingles...
Below is the detail of a Karelian monastery complex restoration,(i mislaid the file of an overall view,an impressively competent job).
Also quite commonly used for flooring in utility-ish type buildings,warehouses et c.,apparently for that same mysterious hardening quality,once seasoned .



 
"You can teach a pig anything,it just takes time;but what's time to a pig?"
Mark Twain

Offline barbender

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Re: Balsam poplar/Cottonwood as building material?
« Reply #6 on: October 22, 2021, 12:03:28 AM »
Yes it seems to do fine getting wet, if it can dry immediately. I even put so.e on a flatbed trailer deck up the middle because I ran short of oak. Old timers told me it worked good for trailer decking. Well, it lasted 10 years. The bur oak I'd still on the trailer at 15 years and might outlast the steel, but I figured 10 years for the aspen was really good👍🏻
Too many irons in the fire

Online Don P

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Re: Balsam poplar/Cottonwood as building material?
« Reply #7 on: October 22, 2021, 12:12:41 AM »
Kizhi? That is some fascinating architecture. I have a coffee table picture book by Opalovnikov, the gentleman that did a lot of the restoration work there.
Kizhi

The future is a foreign country, they will do things differently there - Simon Winchester

Offline jake pogg

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Re: Balsam poplar/Cottonwood as building material?
« Reply #8 on: October 22, 2021, 01:14:52 AM »
Yes it seems to do fine getting wet, if it can dry immediately.


That's exactly right,the key to using some of these woods...Good for you to do something like that,and really impressive performance,judging by your avatar photo your trailers do pretty hard duty...

Kizhi? That is some fascinating architecture. I have a coffee table picture book by Opalovnikov, the gentleman that did a lot of the restoration work there. Kizhi


Don,that's excellent that you're aware of those architectural styles/details...No,the photo is not from Kizhi itself,but from a smaller complex not too far off,very similar buildings but on a humbler scale...

The way Barbender puts it,about having a chance to dry,is a very important thing to understand in designing and building wooden buildings.
The entirely-wooden roof systems are a witness to that,and so is the "gingerbread" work around the edges of the roof and the windows and other openings.

There's a fascinating town in RF,Tomsk,renown for it's wooden buildings,that is one of the last places where some of the classy examples have been preserved*:
Google

* "preserved",alas,it too strong a term.The modern RF,worse even than the USSR of old,is one Towering dysfunction,and it's a miracle that any monuments of wooden architecture still remain.
Most if not all buildings in Tomsk are in shape close to catastrophic...(indeed the Kizhi complex is also past the endangered stage,many buildings no longer even salvageable:(...).
I have the misfortune of being from that part of the world,taken out of there a a child but still fluent in Russian.I used to be in touch with some of the restoration folks there,they kinda hung in there for a while,but about a dozen years ago the putinist regime has dropped all pretenses of even trying to appear to be benign and investing in restoration or science of any kind,and Kizhi restorers were quitting en masse in desperation,and things have only gotten worse since:(... 

But yes,there's So much to be learned there about the principles of using wood,it's amazing. 
"You can teach a pig anything,it just takes time;but what's time to a pig?"
Mark Twain


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