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Historic Building Materials and Methods

Historic Building Materials and Methods | Wisconsin Historical Society

Your historic house was constructed in a very different way than modern houses. When you plan a rehabilitation project, make repairs and do maintenance on your house, you are likely to make fewer costly mistakes if you are able to identify the building methods and materials used to construct your historic house.

The building products sold today at big lumberyards are intended primarily for new construction and remodeling, not historic rehabilitation. Most of these products will not adapt well to your historic house. For instance, new lumber has smaller dimensions than historic lumber. New lumber is cut from new-growth trees and is less rot resistant than historic wood, so it will not hold up as well over time. Another example is modern bricks. The size and hardness of today’s bricks are different than those of historic bricks.

Historic Wood House Construction in Wisconsin

Historic wood houses in Wisconsin were constructed with one of these three techniques:

  • Log construction. Early Wisconsin pioneers built log houses using trees from the surrounding land. The round and sometimes squared logs were laid horizontally. The logs were then connected at the corners with various notching techniques. Gaps between the logs were filled with different combinations of mud, clay and straw called daubing. In most cases, owners installed wood siding over the logs within the first few years after a log house was built. It was not considered fashionable to live in an exposed-log house, and the wood siding protected the logs.
  • Timber frame. Timber framing was generally done with lumber from the surrounding land. The logs were hand-hewn to create a flat face and edges. Timbers were assembled using wood joinery such as mortise and tenon joints, wood pegs and notching. Generally, no nails were used in the structural frame. The structural framing was then covered with wood siding.
  • Wood frame. Wood frame houses were built with uniform, dimensional lumber cut at a saw mill. The structural frame sat on top of a masonry foundation. Wood siding materials, trim and shingles were installed over the frame and roof. Two basic framing techniques were used to construct wood-framed houses.

Wood Framing Techniques

EnlargeBalloon framing

Balloon framed buildings are identifiable by the fact that the exterior wall framing is continuous past each floor. Source: WHS - State Historic Preservation Office

From the 1860s until about 1920, carpenters framed houses with balloon framing. Balloon framing consisted of stud walls that extended from the foundation all the way to the roof rafters. The wall studs in a two-story house had to be between 20 and 30 feet long. These open stud cavities created a fire hazard. If a fire started on the first floor, there was nothing to stop it from quickly rising through the open cavity to the upper floors and roof.

EnlargePlatform framing

Platform framing is when the exterior wall framing is terminated at each floor. Source: WHS - State Historic Preservation Office

By 1920, builders had switched to the newer western platform framing. This framing technique made each story independent of the other — almost like the second floor was another house on top of the first floor. This technique was safer, faster and cheaper to use. The wall studs used with this technique could be shorter, 8 to 12 feet long. A horizontal wooden plate was attached to the top of the vertical studs. This top plate could prevent a first-floor fire from leaping quickly to the upper floors. This type of framing is still used today.

Up until about 1900, framing was assembled with cut nails. Cut nails, sometimes called square nails, were stamped out of sheets of steel. Around 1900, round wire nails became cheaper and more readily available. Some carpenters were reluctant to make the change from cut nails to wire nails. As a result, cut nails appear in some houses built up to about 1905. 

Lumber Use from 1850 to 1960

From the mid-1800s through about 1900, the industrial revolution and steam power helped make uniform building materials cheaper and more readily available. As a result, more and more people could afford to own a home. This housing boom was the beginning of the American dream of home ownership. Because of the great demand for new housing, the lumber industry boomed. By 1930, most of the old-growth forests were logged out in the upper Midwest. The old-growth trees in these forests ranged from 100 to 500 years old.

Old-growth wood is structurally stronger and more rot-resistant than today’s lumber. As a tree gets older, it becomes hardier and its growth rings become tighter. The density of old-growth forests allowed the trees to grow more slowly, making these older trees even sturdier. After 1940, older growth lumber was generally not available for house construction. Today's building lumber is made from trees that are between 12 and 20 years old. These trees have fewer growth rings per inch than old-growth trees. 

Your historic house has wood everywhere, and much of it could be original old-growth wood. A few of the obvious uses include the flooring, structural materials (framing), wainscoting, interior trim, exterior trim, siding, shingles, windows, doors and cabinetry. You should make repair and maintenance decisions that will keep as much of the original wood in your house as possible.

Changes in Lumber Sizes

Lumber size is described in two ways:

  • Nominal lumber size refers to the actual dimensions of lumber before it is dried and milled.
  • Dimensional lumber size refers to the dimensions of lumber after it has been dried and milled—that is, the size of the lumber when it is delivered to a job site.

Lumber sizes have changed since historic houses were built. In most historic houses built before the 1920s, a 2 x 4-inch wall stud was actually 2 x 4 inches when it was installed. However, even this size varied a bit up or down, depending on what the local builders expected. By the 1930s, dimensional lumber sizes began to shrink. By the 1960s, lumber with a nominal size of 2 x 4 inches was 1-1/2 x 3-1/2 inches in actual finished dimensions. These dimensional standards still exist today:

  • For any nominal lumber size up to 6 inches, the dimensional size is ½ inch smaller.
  • For any nominal lumber dimension over 6 inches, the dimensional size will be ¾ inch smaller.

Based on these standards, a 6x6-inch nominal lumber board is actually 5½ x 5½ inches. An 8 x 8-inch nominal board is actually 7¼ x 7¼ inches. And a 2 x 8-inch board is 1½ x7¼ inches.

Historic Masonry Construction

From the mid-1800s through about 1900, the industrial revolution and steam power also helped make masonry building materials cheaper and more readily available. As a result, more and more people could afford to own a brick or stone home. Historic masonry houses were constructed in two ways:

  • Masonry. A masonry house is built with solid brick, stone or concrete walls on top of a masonry foundation. A masonry house has wood-framed flooring and a wood roof.
  • Masonry veneer. A house with a masonry veneer has a wood frame made of uniform dimensional lumber. One layer of brick, stone or stucco is attached to the exterior walls of the wood frame.

Like the lumber industry, brick manufacturing and stone quarrying also boomed between 1850 and 1900. Bricks became more uniform in size. As brick kiln technology improved, bricks became harder and denser. These improvements gave the newer bricks a major structural advantage over the softer bricks of the previous eras.

Stone quarries were revolutionized by steam-operated machinery. This technology allowed the quarries to produce more stone and create uniform and custom pieces. Most stone used in Wisconsin houses and commercial buildings was limestone; however, granite, sandstone and river stone was used as well.