Monday, 5 October 2009

Gathering wood to build our house

Donald at home, with his horse, self-built round house and in his woodland

We need chunky beams to build our roof, and others to hold up our floors. Joists I think they call them. Anyway, we need loads and we don't want to use concrete beams, covered in a concrete floor, which mystifies all our local builder friends: it's what everyone does. Why not, it's resistant, cheap, etc.

Where to begin? There are so many reasons why not: the environmental impact of the evil grey powder, horrible material to work with (wrecks your tools and your hands), doesn't perform well in terms of breathability: it's like wrapping your room in plastic so the vapours inside can't escape. Build your roof with it and you live in a plastic bag. Do we need any more reasons to choose wood?

Anyway, a wooden floor or roof beam can be exposed and look nice, maybe even curved a bit like the tree was. Maybe we can insert long bolts and swing from it. And so on.

So we meet Donald and Eleanor who live near Valença in their very own forest. Donald is a vet, and worked in his local community for 17 years or so. Now he looks after the ranch. Donald said we could take some oak trees from his place if we needed to build a roof.

So in August we decided it was time. August because we've heard so much about cutting trees at the right time considering the movement of sap in the tree. These are called the the "menguinte" and you are supposed to cut most trees only in the menguite de Agosto o Janeiro. It make sense: mid summer or mid-winter with be the stillest time for the sap.

The menguinte refers to the waning phase of the moon. As usual other things were happening and we got on to it a bit late, but we got started.

Within a week we had cut 17 of Donald and Eleanor's fine trees. It was quite hard to make the decision to end their eager lives, but Donald tells us that the roots remain full of energy and burst up through the stumps creating many new shoots. He cuts most of these, leaving say four, which grow quickly and in about 8 years are a good chunky size, useful for posts, fencing or firewood. Oak coppicing in other words.

Meanwhile, everywhere we looked we saw baby oak trees growing in every possible space. This is a truly native species and seems to grow at a tremendous speed. The biggest trees we cut were only 25 years old (counting the rings). In Scotland, a tree this size would sure take twice that long!

We arrived in teams. At first myself and Paulo. Then we picked up Shawn for the bread oven and he joined in. Heather and Sophia joined us the next day as we realised how much work clearing the branches and brash was taking. A few days later we increased the pace bringing out our heavy artillery: Machado (local everything worker), Nikita, Logan and Cyreeta and Mary.

After this onslaught we had whole trees strew across the land. Firewood and brash piles rose in newly illuminates glades. Our desired length for most joists was 6m.
This meant leaving extremely heavy chunks of tree lying around in mostly hard to access bit of woodland. How were we going to move it all?

Machado said we needed a "tractor do monte" (a mountain tractor). We called Pedro and he brought his quite amazing hill moving machine.

Fitted with two massive winches, he puts this scary looking tractor in a strategic position, pulls out chains and ties them around the base of trunks. Then stands back and lets the machine do the work: on remote control! Yes, as if by magic half a dozen of these enormous trees move obediently towards this vision of future mooon-scaping. Mary, Donald, Eleanor and I stood like fascinated villagers who had seen a car for the first time. We got lifts in the wagon and played God with the remote. Within a few hours we'd shifted around 20 tonnes of oak to the road side.

Next day, Pedro brings his techno-truck. Awed by the tractor, we were blown by "The Claw". This is a mechanical arm controlled from a precarious looking cockpit above the back of the truck. It moved with the speed and accuracy of your arm. It had the delicacy too: it could pick up small branches and gently relocate them. Or grab whole car-size lumps of earth that were in the wrong place and lob them, like a gormless cricketer, into the beyond.

Once again, we googled open-mouthed. I wondered how I can have missed all this technology development. I suppose I don't work around modern technology in forestry. My only experience with moving wood was in Romania, where we did it all by horse and cart. Seemed to work pretty well too, and would have done here. But moving all the wood the 20 odd miles to the sawmill would have taken forever by cart. Anyway, this is the space age, and we borrowed kit from the Mars programme and enjoyed the show.

Senhor Jorge, at the sawmill was a bit dismissive, saying most of was "lenha" (firewood). He is used to working with massive trees as wide as his own barrel-like girth. He says the heart wood is the only usuable bit, the white outer wood is vulnerable to rotting, bugs and so on. Wish someone had told us this before. We had been hoping he could cut one edge of it for us, leaving the rest in the round (as floor joists would rest of these beams). I'm still sure he can get a few rafters or joists out if it all, if not major beams. And there's plenty of posts for building sheds and the like (chicken coups come to mind).

1 comment:

Rupert Wolfe Murray said...

When we built our roof extentsion in Romania, using modern non-green technology we were told not to use concrete beams as it would add lots of weight to the building at be considered a major risk in earthquakes; so we used timber frame. And I know someone in Italy with the same issue; he has to strip out his concrete beams as they represent a major risk for quakes