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Vitruvius on Timber Harvesting and Uses


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Vitruvius (D. 15B.C.) has some interesting thoughts on timber.  Palladio (A.D. 1508—1580) repeats some of it, without the Aristotelian four substances.


An unusual insight into lumbering, and the Classical mindset.  So, seal your cut ends with cow dung!   :)






1. Timber should be felled between early Autumn and the time when Favonius begins to blow. For in Spring all trees become pregnant, and they are all employing their natural vigour in the production of leaves and of the fruits that return every year. The requirements of that season render them empty and swollen, and so they are weak and feeble because of their looseness of texture. This is also the case with women who have conceived. Their bodies are not considered perfectly healthy until the child is born; hence, pregnant slaves, when offered for sale, are not warranted sound, because the fetus as it grows within the body takes to itself as nourishment all the best qualities of the mother's food, and so the stronger it becomes as the full time for birth approaches, the less compact it allows that body to be from which it is produced. After the birth of the child, what was heretofore taken to promote the growth of another creature is now set free by the delivery of the newborn, and the channels being now empty and open, the body will take it in by lapping up its juices, and thus[59] becomes compact and returns to the natural strength which it had before.
2. On the same principle, with the ripening of the fruits in Autumn the leaves begin to wither and the trees, taking up their sap from the earth through the roots, recover themselves and are restored to their former solid texture. But the strong air of winter compresses and solidifies them during the time above mentioned. Consequently, if the timber is felled on the principle and at the time above mentioned, it will be felled at the proper season.
3. In felling a tree we should cut into the trunk of it to the very heart, and then leave it standing so that the sap may drain out drop by drop throughout the whole of it. In this way the useless liquid which is within will run out through the sapwood instead of having to die in a mass of decay, thus spoiling the quality of the timber. Then and not till then, the tree being drained dry and the sap no longer dripping, let it be felled and it will be in the highest state of usefulness.
4. That this is so may be seen in the case of fruit trees. When these are tapped at the base and pruned, each at the proper time, they pour out from the heart through the tapholes all the superfluous and corrupting fluid which they contain, and thus the draining process makes them durable. But when the juices of trees have no means of escape, they clot and rot in them, making the trees hollow and good for nothing. Therefore, if the draining process does not exhaust them while they are still alive, there is no doubt that, if the same principle is followed in felling them for timber, they will last a long time and be very useful in buildings.
5. Trees vary and are unlike one another in their qualities. Thus it is with the oak, elm, poplar, cypress, fir, and the others which are most suitable to use in buildings. The oak, for instance, has not the efficacy of the fir, nor the cypress that of the elm. Nor in the case of other trees, is it natural that they should be alike; but the individual kinds are effective in building, some in one way, some in another, owing to the different properties of their elements.[60]
6. To begin with fir: it contains a great deal of air and fire with very little moisture and the earthy, so that, as its natural properties are of the lighter class, it is not heavy. Hence, its consistence being naturally stiff, it does not easily bend under the load, and keeps its straightness when used in the framework. But it contains so much heat that it generates and encourages decay, which spoils it; and it also kindles fire quickly because of the air in its body, which is so open that it takes in fire and so gives out a great flame.
7. The part which is nearest to the earth before the tree is cut down takes up moisture through the roots from the immediate neighbourhood and hence is without knots and is "clear." But the upper part, on account of the great heat in it, throws up branches into the air through the knots; and this, when it is cut off about twenty feet from the ground and then hewn, is called "knotwood" because of its hardness and knottiness. The lowest part, after the tree is cut down and the sapwood of the same thrown away, is split up into four pieces and prepared for joiner's work, and so is called "clearstock."
8. Oak, on the other hand, having enough and to spare of the earthy among its elements, and containing but little moisture, air, and fire, lasts for an unlimited period when buried in underground structures. It follows that when exposed to moisture, as its texture is not loose and porous, it cannot take in liquid on account of its compactness, but, withdrawing from the moisture, it resists it and warps, thus making cracks in the structures in which it is used.
9. The winter oak, being composed of a moderate amount of all the elements, is very useful in buildings, but when in a moist place, it takes in water to its centre through its pores, its air and fire being expelled by the influence of the moisture, and so it rots. The Turkey oak and the beech, both containing a mixture of moisture, fire, and the earthy, with a great deal of air, through this loose texture take in moisture to their centre and soon decay. White and black poplar, as well as willow, linden, and the agnus[61] castus, containing an abundance of fire and air, a moderate amount of moisture, and only a small amount of the earthy, are composed of a mixture which is proportionately rather light, and so they are of great service from their stiffness. Although on account of the mixture of the earthy in them they are not hard, yet their loose texture makes them gleaming white, and they are a convenient material to use in carving.
10. The alder, which is produced close by river banks, and which seems to be altogether useless as building material, has really excellent qualities. It is composed of a very large proportion of air and fire, not much of the earthy, and only a little moisture. Hence, in swampy places, alder piles driven close together beneath the foundations of buildings take in the water which their own consistence lacks and remain imperishable forever, supporting structures of enormous weight and keeping them from decay. Thus a material which cannot last even a little while above ground, endures for a long time when covered with moisture.
11. One can see this at its best in Ravenna; for there all the buildings, both public and private, have piles of this sort beneath their foundations. The elm and the ash contain a very great amount of moisture, a minimum of air and fire, and a moderate mixture of the earthy in their composition. When put in shape for use in buildings they are tough and, having no stiffness on account of the weight of moisture in them, soon bend. But when they become dry with age, or are allowed to lose their sap and die standing in the open, they get harder, and from their toughness supply a strong material for dowels to be used in joints and other articulations.
12. The hornbeam, which has a very small amount of fire and of the earthy in its composition, but a very great proportion of air and moisture, is not a wood that breaks easily, and is very convenient to handle. Hence, the Greeks call it "zygia," because they make of it yokes for their draught-animals, and their word for yoke is ξυγἁ. Cypress and pine are also just as admirable; for although they contain an abundance of moisture mixed with[62] an equivalent composed of all the other elements, and so are apt to warp when used in buildings on account of this superfluity of moisture, yet they can be kept to a great age without rotting, because the liquid contained within their substances has a bitter taste which by its pungency prevents the entrance of decay or of those little creatures which are destructive. Hence, buildings made of these kinds of wood last for an unending period of time.
13. The cedar and the juniper tree have the same uses and good qualities, but, while the cypress and pine yield resin, from the cedar is produced an oil called cedar-oil. Books as well as other things smeared with this are not hurt by worms or decay. The foliage of this tree is like that of the cypress but the grain of the wood is straight. The statue of Diana in the temple at Ephesus is made of it, and so are the coffered ceilings both there and in all other famous fanes, because that wood is everlasting. The tree grows chiefly in Crete, Africa, and in some districts of Syria.
14. The larch, known only to the people of the towns on the banks of the river Po and the shores of the Adriatic, is not only preserved from decay and the worm by the great bitterness of its sap, but also it cannot be kindled with fire nor ignite of itself, unless like stone in a limekiln it is burned with other wood. And even then it does not take fire nor produce burning coals, but after a long time it slowly consumes away. This is because there is a very small proportion of the elements of fire and air in its composition, which is a dense and solid mass of moisture and the earthy, so that it has no open pores through which fire can find its way; but it repels the force of fire and does not let itself be harmed by it quickly. Further, its weight will not let it float in water, so that when transported it is loaded on shipboard or on rafts made of fir.
15. It is worth while to know how this wood was discovered. The divine Caesar, being with his army in the neighbourhood of the Alps, and having ordered the towns to furnish supplies, the inhabitants of a fortified stronghold there, called Larignum, trusting in the natural strength of their defences, refused to obey his command. So the general ordered his forces to the assault.[63] In front of the gate of this stronghold there was a tower, made of beams of this wood laid in alternating directions at right angles to each other, like a funeral pyre, and built high, so that they could drive off an attacking party by throwing stakes and stones from the top. When it was observed that they had no other missiles than stakes, and that these could not be hurled very far from the wall on account of the weight, orders were given to approach and to throw bundles of brushwood and lighted torches at this outwork. These the soldiers soon got together.
16. The flames soon kindled the brushwood which lay about that wooden structure and, rising towards heaven, made everybody think that the whole pile had fallen. But when the fire had burned itself out and subsided, and the tower appeared to view entirely uninjured, Caesar in amazement gave orders that they should be surrounded with a palisade, built beyond the range of missiles. So the townspeople were frightened into surrendering, and were then asked where that wood came from which was not harmed by fire. They pointed to trees of the kind under discussion, of which there are very great numbers in that vicinity. And so, as that stronghold was called Larignum, the wood was called larch. It is transported by way of the Po to Ravenna, and is to be had in Fano, Pesaro, Ancona, and the other towns in that neighbourhood. If there were only a ready method of carrying this material to Rome, it would be of the greatest use in buildings; if not for general purposes, yet at least if the boards used in the eaves running round blocks of houses were made of it, the buildings would be free from the danger of fire spreading across to them, because such boards can neither take fire from flames or from burning coals, nor ignite spontaneously.
17. The leaves of these trees are like those of the pine; timber from them comes in long lengths, is as easily wrought in joiner's work as is the clearwood of fir, and contains a liquid resin, of the colour of Attic honey, which is good for consumptives.
With regard to the different kinds of timber, I have now explained of what natural properties they appear to be composed,[64] and how they were produced. It remains to consider the question why the highland fir, as it is called in Rome, is inferior, while the lowland fir is extremely useful in buildings so far as durability is concerned; and further to explain how it is that their bad or good qualities seem to be due to the peculiarities of their neighbourhood, so that this subject may be clearer to those who examine it.
1. The first spurs of the Apennines arise from the Tuscan sea between the Alps and the most distant borders of Tuscany. The mountain range itself bends round and, almost touching the shores of the Adriatic in the middle of the curve, completes its circuit by extending to the strait on the other shore. Hence, this side of the curve, sloping towards the districts of Tuscany and Campania, lies basking in the sun, being constantly exposed to the full force of its rays all day. But the further side, sloping towards the Upper Sea and having a northern exposure, is constantly shrouded in shadowy darkness. Hence the trees which grow on that side, being nourished by the moisture, not only themselves attain to a very large size, but their fibre too, filled full of moisture, is swollen and distended with abundance of liquid. When they lose their vitality after being felled and hewn, the fibre retains its stiffness, and the trees as they dry become hollow and frail on account of their porosity, and hence cannot last when used in buildings.
2. But trees which grow in places facing the course of the sun are not of porous fibre but are solid, being drained by the dryness; for the sun absorbs moisture and draws it out of trees as well as out of the earth. The trees in sunny neighbourhoods, therefore, being solidified by the compact texture of their fibre, and not being porous from moisture, are very useful, so far as durability goes, when they are hewn into timber. Hence the lowland firs,[65] being conveyed from sunny places, are better than those highland firs, which are brought here from shady places.
3. To the best of my mature consideration, I have now treated the materials which are necessary in the construction of buildings, the proportionate amount of the elements which are seen to be contained in their natural composition, and the points of excellence and defects of each kind, so that they may be not unknown to those who are engaged in building. Thus those who can follow the directions contained in this treatise will be better informed in advance, and able to select, among the different kinds, those which will be of use in their works. Therefore, since the preliminaries have been explained, the buildings themselves will be treated in the remaining books; and first, as due order requires, I shall in the next book write of the temples of the immortal gods and their symmetrical proportions.

Text from Gutenburg.org 

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Palladio says this:



Chap. II

Of Timber.

Timber, as Vitruvius tells us, in the ninth Chapter of his second Book, ought to be felled in the Autumn, and during all the Winter; for in those Seasons Trees have a Strength and Vigour conveyed to them from the Roots, which in Spring and Summer was diffused among the Leave and Fruits; they must be felled in the Wane of the Moon, for then a certain Moisture, very apt to engender Worms and rot in Timber, is spent and dried up.  Timber should at first be cut no further than the Pith, when it must be left till it be thoroughly dry, for the the moisture which engenders putrefaction will all sweat away.  Being felled, it must be laid up in a Place where it my be sheltered from warm Suns, high Winds and Rain; particularly those Trees which rise out of the Ground without being planted; and to prevent its splitting, you must daub it over with Cow-dung.  It must be never drawn in the Morning, the Dew then falling, but in the Afternoon; nor must it be worked, if very wet or very dry; for in the former Case it will be subject to rot, and in the latter will make very clumsy work; nor will it be dry enough, to be wrought into Planks, Doors, and Windows, under three Years.  Persons who build, would do well to advise with those who are skilled in Timber, by enquiring into the Nature thereof, and what kind of it is fit for such and such uses.  Vitruvius in the above-cited Chapter gives very useful instructions upon this Head, not to mention several others who have written copiously on the same Subject.

So, we have girdling, rafting, conveyance by ships, the river Po, quarter splitting, grading, aging for three years, coating of cut ends... all of this was a hot topic recently.   <_<

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Here is a superior rendering of De Architectura with versions in English, Latin, and maybe French and Italian available. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Vitruvius/home.html


Here's a very nice (but very large) PDF version of Palladio's Four Books On Architecture https://archive.org/details/architecturePal00Pall

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What Materials are to be provided for the Building, what Workmen to be chose, and in what Seasons, according to the Opinions of the Ancients, to cut Timber.

The Things to be prepared are these, Lime, Timber, Sand, Stone, as also Iron, Brass, Lead, Glass and the like. But the Thing of greatest Consequence is to chuse skilful Workmen, not light or inconstant, whom you may trust with the Care and Management of an Edifice well design' d, and who will compleat it with all Expedition. And in fixing upon all these, it will be of Use to you to be somewhat guided by the Consideration of other Works already finish' d in your Neighbourhood, and by the Information you receive from them to determine what to do in your own Case. For by observing the Faultsand Beauties in them, you will consider that the same may happen in yours. Nero the Emperor having form' d a Design of dedicacating a huge Statue of an hundred and twenty Foot high in Honour of the Sun at Rome, exceeding any Thing that had been done before in Greatness and Magnificence, as Pliny relates, before he gave final Orders for the Work to Zenodarus, a famous and excellent Sculptor in those Days, would first see his Capacity for such a Work by a Colossus of extraordinary Weight, which he had made in

the Country of Auvergne in France. These Things duly consider' d, we proceed to the others. We intend, then, in treating of the Materials necessary for Building, to repeat those Things which have been taught us by the most learned among the Ancients, and particularly Theophrastus, Ari otle, Cato, Varro, Pliny and Virgil, because they have learned more from long Observation than from any Quickness of Genius; so that they are best gathered from those who have observed them with the greatest Diligence. We shall therefore go on to collect those Rules which the most approved Ancients have left us in many and various Places, and to these, according to our Custom, we shall add whatever we ourselves have deduced from antique Works, or the Instructions of most experienced Artificers, if we happen to know any Thing that may be serviceable to our Purpose. And I believe it will be the best Method, following Nature herself, to begin with those Things which were sirst in Use among Men in their Buildings; which, if we mistake not, were Timber Trees which they fell' d in the Woods: Though among Authors, I find, some are divided

upon this very Subject. Some will have it, that Men at first dwelt in Caves, and that they and their Cattle were both sheltered under the same Roof; and therefore they believe what Pliny tells us, that one Gellius Texius was the first, that, in Imitation of Nature built himself a House of Mud. Diodorus says that Vesta, the Daughter of Saturn, was the first that invented Houses. Eusebius Pamphilus, an excellent Searcher into Antiquity, tells us from the Testimony of the Ancients, that the Grandsons of Protogenes first taught Men the Building of Houses, which they

patch' d up of Reeds and Bullrushes: But to return to our Subject. The Ancients, then, and particularly Theophrastus, inform us, that most Trees, and especially the Fir, the Pitchtree and the Pine, ought to be cut immediately, when they begin to put forth their young Shoots, when through their abundance of Sap you most easily strip off the Bark. But that there are some Trees, as the Maple, the Elm, the Ash, and the Linden, which are best cut after Vintage. The Oak if cut in Summer,

they observe is apt to breed Worms; but if in Winter, it will keep sound and not split.


And it is not foreign to our Purpose what they remark, that Wood which is cut in Winter, in a North Wind, though it be green, will nevertheless burn extremely well, and in a Manner without Smoak; which manifestly shews that their Juices are not crude, but well digested. Vitruvius is for cutting Timber from the beginning of Autumn, till such Time as the soft Westerly Winds begin to blow. And Hesiod says, that when the Sun darts his burning Rays directly upon our Heads, and turns Mens Complections to brown, then is the Time for Harvest, but that when the Trees drop their

Leaves, then is the Season for cutting of Timber. Cato moderates the Matter thus; let the Oak, says he, be felled during the Solstice, because in Winter it is always out of Season; other Woods that bear Seed may be cut when that

is mature; those that bear none, when you please. Those that have their Seeds green and ripe at the same Time, should be cut when that is fallen, but the Elm when the Leaves drop. And they say it is of very great Importance, what Age the Moon is of when you fell your Timber: For they are all of Opinion, and especially Varro, that the Influence of the Moon is so powerful over Things of this Nature, that even they who cut their Heir in the Wane of the Moon, shall soon grow bald; and for this Reason, they tell us, Tiberius observed certain Days for cutting his Hair. The Astrologers affirm, that your Spirits will always be oppressed with Melancholly, if you cut your Nails or Hair while the Moon is oppressed or ill disposed. It is to our present Purpose what they say, that such Things as are designed in their Uses to be moveable, ought to be cut and wrought when the Moon is in Libra or Cancer; but such as are to be fixed and immoveable, when she is in Leo, Taurus, or the like. But that Timber ought to be cut in the Wane of the Moon, all the Learned are agreed, because they hold that the flegmatick Moisture, so very liable to immediate Putrefaction, is then almost quite dried up, and it is certain, that when it is cut in such a Moon, it is never apt to breed Worms. Hence they say you ought to reap the Corn which you intend to sell, at full Moon; because then the Ears are full; but that which you intend to keep in the Wane. It is also evident, that the Leaves of Trees cropt in the Wane of the Moon do not rot. Columella thinks it best to fell Timber from the twentieth to the thirtieth Day of the Moon' s Age; Vegetius, from the fifteenth to the two and twentieth; and hence he supposes the religious Ceremony to arise, of celebrating all Mysteries relating to Eternity only on those Days, because Wood cut then lasted in a Manner for ever. They add, that we should likewise observe the Setting of the Moon. But Pliny thinks it a proper Time to fell Trees when the Dog−star reigns, and when the Moon is in Conjunction with the Sun, which Day is called an Interlunium, and says it is good to wait for the Night of that Day too, till the Moon is set. The Astronomers say, the Reason of this is, because the Action of the Moon puts the Fluids of all Bodies into Motion; and that therefore when those Fluids are drawn down, or left by the Moon in the lowest Roots, the Rest of the Timber is clearer and sounder. Moreover they think that the Tree will be much more serviceable, if it is not cut quite down immediately, but chopt round about, and so left standing upon the Stump to dry. And they say, that if the Fir (which is not the most unapt to suffer by Moisture) be barked in the Wane of the Moon, it will never afterwards be liable to be rotted by Water. There are some who affirm that if the Oak, which is so heavy a Wood that naturally it sinks in the Water, be chopt round the Bottom in the Beginning of Spring, and cut down when it has lost its Leaves, it will have such an Effect upon it, that it will float for the Space of ninety Days and not sink. Others advise to chop the Trees which you leave thus upon their Stumps, half way through, that the Corruption and bad Juices may distil through, and be carried off. They add, that the Trees, which are designed to be sawed or planed, should not be cut down till they have brought their Fruits and ripened their Seeds; and that Trees so cut, especially Fruit−bearers, should be barked, because while they are covered with the Bark, Corruption is very apt to gather between the Rind and the Tree.



Of preserving the Trees after they are cut, what to plaister or anoint them with, of the Remedies against their Infirmities, and of allotting them their proper Places in the Building.

After the Timber is cut, it must be laid where the scorching Heat of the Sun or rude Blasts of Winds never come; and especially, that which falls of itself, ought to be very well protected with Shade. And for this Reason, the ancient Architects used to plaister it over with Ox−Dung; which Theophrastus says they did, because by that Means all the Pores being stopped up, the superfluous Flegm and Humidity concreting within, distils and vents itself by Degrees through the Heart, by which Means the Dryness of the other Parts of the Wood is condensed by its drying equally throughout. And they are of Opinion that Trees dry better, if set with their Heads downward. Moreover, they prescribe various Remedies against their decaying and other Infirmities. Theophrastus thinks that burying of Timber hardens it extremely. Cato advises to anoint it with Lees of Oil, to preserve it from all Manner of Worms; and we all know that Pitch is a Defence to it against Water. They say that Wood, which has been soaked in the Dregs of Oil, will burn without the Offence of Smoak. Pliny writes, that in the Labyrinth of Egypt, there are a great many Beams made of the Egyptian Thorn rubed over with Oil, and Theophrastus says, that Timber dawbed over with Glue will not burn. Nor will I omit what we read in Aulus Gellius, taken out of the Annals of Quintus Claudius, that Archelaus, Mithridates ' s Præfect, having thoroughly debawbed a wooden Tower in the Piræum with Allum, when Sylla besieged it, it would not take Fire. Several Woods are hardened and strengthened against the Assaults of Storms in various Manners. They bury the Citron−wood under Ground, plaistered over with Wax, for seven Days, and after an Intermission of as many more, lay it under Heaps of Corn for the same Space of Time, whereby it becomes not only stronger but easier to be wrought, because it takes away a very considerable Part of its Weight; and they say too, that the same Wood thus dryed, being afterwards laid some time in the Sea, acquires a Hardness incredibly solid and incorruptible. It is certain the Chesnut Tree is purged by the Sea−water. Pliny writes, the Ægyptian Fig-tree is laid under Water to dry and grow lighter, for at first it will sink to the Bottom. We see that our Workmen lay their Timber under Water or Dung for thirty Days, especially such as they design for turning, by which Means they think it is better dried and more easily worked for all Manner of Uses. There are some who affirm, that all Manner of Woods agree in this, that if you bury them in some moist Place while they are green, they will endure for ever; but whether you preserve it in Woods, or bury, or anoint it, the Experienced are universally of this Opinion, that you must not meddle with it under three Months: The Timber must have Time to harden and to get a Kind of Maturity of Strength before it is applied to Use. After it is thus prepared, Cato directs, that it must not be brought out into the Air but in the Wane of the Moon, and after Mid−day, and even in the Wane of the Moon he condemns the four Days next after the fifteenth, and precautions us against bringing it out in a South Wind. And when we bring it out, we must take Care not to draw it through the Dew, nor to saw or cut it when it is covered with Dew or Frost, but only when it is perfectly dry in all Respects.



What Woods are most proper for Building, their Natures and Uses, how they are to be employed, and what Part of the Edifice each Kind is most fit for.

Theophrastus thinks that Timber is not dry enough for the making of Planks, especially for Doors, in less than three Years. The Trees of most Use for Building were reckoned to be these; the Holm, and all other Sorts of Oaks, the Beech, the Poplar, the Linden, the Willow, the Alder, the Ash, the Pine, the Cypress, the Olive, both Wild and Garden, the Chesnut, the Larch Tree, the Box, the Cedar, the Ebony, and even the Vine: But all these are various in their Natures, and therefore must be applied to various Uses. Some are better than others to be exposed without Doors, others must be used within; some delight in the open Air, others harden in the Water, and will endure almost for ever under Ground; some are good to make nice Boards, and for Sculptures, and all Manner of Joyner' s Work; some for Beams and Rafters; others are stronger for supporting open Terrasses, and Coverings; and the Alder, for Piles to make a Foundation in a River or marshy Ground, exceeds all other Trees, and bears the Wet incomparably well, but will not last at all in the Air or Sun. On the contrary, the Beech will not endure the Wet at all. The Elm, set in the open Air, hardens extremely; but else it splits and will not last. The Pitch Tree and Pine, if buried under Ground, are wonderfully durable. But the Oak, being hard, close, and nervous, and of the smallest Pores, not admitting any Moisture, is the properest of any for all Manner of Works under Ground, capable of supporting the greatest Weights, and is the strongest of Columns. But though Nature has endued it with so much Hardness that it cannot be bored unless it be soaked, yet above Ground it is reckoned inconstant, and to warp and grow unmanageable, and in the Sea−water quickly rots; which does not happen to the Olive, nor Holm Oak, nor Wild Olive, though in other Things they agree with the Oak. The MastHolm never consumes with Age, because it' s Inside is juicy, and as it were always green. The Beech likewise and the Chesnut do not rot in the Water, and are reckoned among the principal Trees for Works under Ground. The Cork Tree also, and the wild Pine, the Mulberry, the Maple, and the Elm are not amiss for Columns. Theophrastus recommends the Negropont Nut Tree for Beams and Rafters, because before it breaks it gives Notice by a Crack, which formerly saved the Lives of a great many People, who, upon the falling of the publick Baths at Andros, by Means of that Warning had Time to make their Escape. But the Fir is much the Best for that Use; for as it is one of the Biggest and Thickest of Trees, so it is endued with a natural Stiffness, that will not easily give way to the Weight that is laid upon it, but stands firm and never yields. Add besides, that it is easy to work, and does not lie too heavy upon the Wall. In short, many Perfections, and Uses, and great Praises are ascribed to this single Wood; nevertheless we cannot disown that it has one Fault, which is, that it is too apt to catch Fire. Not inferior to this for Roofs, is the Cypress, a Tree, in many other Respects so useful, that it claims a principal Rank among the most excellent. The Ancients reckoned it as one of the Best, and not inferior to Cedar or Ebony. In India the Cypress is valued almost equal with the Spice Trees, and with good Reason; for whatever Praises may be bestowed upon the Ammony or Cirenaic Field Pine, which Theophrastus says is everlasting, yet if you consult either Smell, Beauty, Strength, Bigness, Straitness, or Duration, or all these together, what Tree can you put in Competition with the Cypress? It is affirmed that the Cypress never suffers either by Worms or Age, and never splits of its own accord. For this Reason Plato was of Opinion, that the publick Laws and Statutes should be carved in sacred Tables of Cypress, believing they would be more lasting than Tables of Brass. This Topick naturally leads me to give an Account of what I myself remember to have read and observ' d of this Wood. It is related that the Gates of the Temple of Diana, at Ephesus, being of Cypress, lasted four hundred Years, and preserved their Beauty in such a Manner that they always seemed to be new. In the Church of St. Peter at Rome, upon the repairing of the Gates by Pope Eugenius, I found, that where they had not been injured by the Violence of the Enemy in stripping away the Silver with which they were formerly covered, they had continued whole and sound above five hundred and fifty Years; for if we examing the Annals of the Roman Pontiffs, so long it is from the Time of Hadrian the Third, who set them up, to Eugene the Fourth. Therefore, though the Fir is very much commended for making Rafters, yet the Cypress is preferred before it, perhaps only upon this one Account, namely, that it is more lasting; but

then it is heavier than the Fir. The Pine and Pitch Trees also are valued, for the Pine is supposed to have the same Quality as the Fir, of rising against the Weight that is laid upon it: But between the Fir and the Pine there is this Difference, among others, that the Firs is less injured by Worms, because the Pine is of a sweeter Juice than the Fir. I do not know

any Wood that is to be preferred to the Larch, or Turpentine Tree, which, within my Observation, has supported Buildings perfectly strong, and to a very great Age, in many Places, and particularly in those very ancient Structures in the Market−place at Venice, and indeed this one Tree is reckoned to be furnished with the Conveniences of all the Rest; it is nervous, tenacious of its Strength, unmoveable in Storms, not molested with Worms; and it is an ancient Opinion, that against the Injuries of Fire it remains invincible, and in a Manner unhurt, insomuch that they advise us, on whatever Side we are apprehensive of Fire, to place Beams of Larch by Way of Security. It is true I have seen it take Fire and burn, but yet in such a Manner that it seemed to disdain the Flames, and to threaten to drive them away. It has indeed one Defect, which is, that in Sea−water it is very apt to breed Worms. For Beams the Oak and Olive are accounted improper, because of their Heaviness, and that they give Way beneath the Weight that is laid upon them, and are apt to warp even of themselves; besides, all Trees that are more inclinable to break into Shivers than to split, are unfit for Beams; such are the Olive, the Fig, the Linden, the Sallow, and the like. It is a surprizing Property which they relate of the Palm Tree, that it rises against the Weight that is laid upon it, and bends upwards in spite of all Resistance. For Beams and Coverings exposed to the open Air, the Juniper is greatly commended; and Pliny says it has the same Properties as the Cedar, but is sounder. The Olive too is reckoned extreamly durable, and the Box is esteemed as one of the Best of all. Nor is the Chesnut, though apt to cleave and split, rejected for Works to the open Air. But the wild Olive they particularly esteem for the same Reason as the Cypress, because it never breeds Worms, which is the Advantage of all Trees that have oily and gummy Juices, especially if those Juices are bitter. The Worm never enters into such Trees, and it is certain they exclude all Moisture from without. Contrary to these are supposed to be all Woods that have Juices of a sweet Taste, and which easily take Fire; out of which, nevertheless, they except the sweet as well as the wild Olive. Vitruvius says, that the Holm Oak and Beech are very weak in their Nature against Storms, and do not endure to a great Age. Pliny says, that the Mast−holm soon rots. But the Fir, and particularly that which grows in the Alps, for Uses within Doors, as for Bedsteads, Tables, Doors, Benches, and the like, is excellent; because it is, in its Nature, very dry, and very tenacious of the Glue. The Pitch−Tree and Cypress also are very good for such Uses; the Beech for other Service is too brittle, but does mighty well for Coffers and Beds, and will saw into extreme thin Planks, as will likewise the Scarlet-Oak. The Chesnut, on the Contrary, the Elm, and the Ash are reckoned very unfit for Planks, because they easily split, and though they split slowly, they are very inclinable to it; though else the Ash is accounted very obedient in all Manner of Works. But I am surprized the Ancients have not celebrated the Nut Tree; which, as Experience shews us, is extremely tractable, and good for most Uses, and especially for Boards or Planks, They commend the Mulberry−Tree, both for its Durableness, and because by Length of it grows blacker and handsomer. Theophrastus tells us, that the Rich used to make their Doors of the Lote−Tree, the Scarlet−Oak, and of Box. The Elm, because it firmly maintains its Strength, is said to be very proper for Jambs of Doors, but it should be set with its Head downwards. Cato says, that Levers ought to be made of Holly, Laurel, and Elm: For Bars and Bolts, they recommend the Cornel−Tree; for Stairs, the wild Ash or the Maple. They hollowed the Pine, the PitchTree and the Elm for Aqueducts, but they say unless they are buried under Ground they presently decay. Lastly, the Female Larch−Tree, which is almost of the Colour of Honey, for the Ornaments of Edifices and for Tables for Painting, they found to be in a Manner eternal and never crack or split; and besides, as its Veins run short, not long, they used it for the Images of their Gods, as they did also the Lote, the Box, the Cedar, and the Cypress too, and the large Roots of the Olive, and the Egyptian Peach−Tree, which they say is like the Lote-Tree. IF they had Occasion to turn any Thing long and round, they used the Beech, the Mulberry, the Tree that yields the Turpentine, but especially the most close bodied Box, most excellent for Turning; and for very curious Works, the Ebony. Neither for Statues or Pictures did they despise the Poplar, both white and black, the Sallow, the Hornbeam, the Service−Tree, the Elder, and the Fig; which Woods, by their Dryness and Evenness, are not only good for receiving and preserving the Gums and Colours of the Painter, but are wonderfully soft and easy under the Carver' s Tool for expressing all Manner of Forms. Though it is certain that none of these for Tractableness can compare with the Linden. Some there are that for Statues chuse the Jubol Tree. Contrary to these is the Oak, which will never join either with itself or any other Wood of the same Nature, and despises all Manner of Glue: The same Defect is suppos' d to be in all Trees that are grained, and inclin' d to distil. Wood that is easily plain' d, and has a close Body, is never well to be fasten' d with Glue; and those also that are of different Natures, as the Ivy, the Laurel and the Linden, which are hot, if glued to those that grow in moist Places, which are all in their Natures cold, never hold long together. The Elm, the Ash, the Mulberry, and the Cherry−Tree, being dry, do not agree with the Plane Tree or the Alder, which are Moist. Nay, the Ancients were so far from joining together Woods different in their Natures, that they would not so much as place them near one another. And for this Reason Vitruvius advises us against joining Planks of Beech and Oak together.



Of Trees more summarily.

But to speak of all these more summarily. All Authors are agreed that Trees which do not bear Fruit are stronger and sounder than those which do; and that the wild ones, which are not cultivated either with Hand or Steel, are harder than the Domestick. Theophrastus says, that the wild ones never fall into any Infirmities that kill them, whereas the Domestick and Fruit−bearers are subject to very considerable Infirmities; and among the Fruit−bearers those which bear early are weaker than those which bear late, and the Sweet than the Tart; and among the tart ones, such are accounted the Firmest, that have the Sharpest and the least Fruit. Those that bear Fruit only once in two Years, and those which are entirely barren, have more Knots in them than those which bear every Year; the Shortest likewise are the Hardest, and the Barren grow faster than the Fruitful. They say likewise that such Trees as grow in an open Place, unshelter' d either by Woods or Hills, but shaken by frequent Storms and Winds, are stronger and thicker, but at the same Time shorter and more knotty than such as grow down in a Valley, or in any other Place defended from the Winds. They also believe that Trees which grow in moist shady Places are more tender than those which grow in a dry open Situation, and that those which stand exposed to the North are more serviceable than those which grow to the South. They reject, as abortive all Trees that grow in Places not agreeable to their Natures, and though such as stand to the South are very hard, yet they are apt to warp in their Sap, so that they are not strait and even enough for Service, Moreover, those which are in their Natures dry and slow growers, are stronger than those which are moist and fruitful; wherefore Varro suppos' d that the one were Male and the other Female, and that white Timber was less close and more tractable than that which has any other Colour in it. It is certain that heavy Wood is harder and closer than light; and the Lighter it is, the more Brittle; and the more Knotty the stronger. Trees likewise which Nature has endu' d with the longest Life, she has always endu' d with the Property of keeping longest from Decay when cut down, and the less Sap they have, so much they are the Stronger and more Hardy. The Parts nearest to the Sap are indeed

harder and closer than the rest; but those next the Bark have more binding Nerves, for it is suppos' d, in Trees just as in Animals, the Bark is the Skin, the Parts next under the Bark are the Flesh, and that which encloses the Sap, the Bone; and Aristotle thought the Knots in Plants were in the Nature of Nerves. Of all the Parts of the Tree, the worst is the Alburnum, or Juice, that nourishes it, both because it is very apt to breed Worms, and upon several other Accounts. To these Observations we may add, that the Part of the Tree which, while it was standing, was towards the South, will be dryer than the rest, and thinner, and more extenuated, but it will be firmer and closer; and the Sap will be nearer to the Bark on that Side than on the other. Those Parts also which are nearest to the Ground and to the Roots, will be heavier than any of the rest; a Proof whereof is that they will hardly float upon the Water; and the Middle of all Trees is the most knotty. The Veins too, the nearer they are to the Roots, the more they are wreath' d and contorted; nevertheless the lower Parts are reckoned always stronger and more useful than the Upper. But I find in good Authors some very remarkable Things of some Trees; they say that the Vine exceeds even the Eternity of Time itself. In Popolonia, near Piombino, there was a Statue of Jupiter made of that Wood to be seen in CSsar ' s Days, which had lasted for a vast Number of Years without the least Decay; and indeed i is universally allow' d that there is no Wood whatsoever more durable. In Ariana, a Province

of India, there are Vines so large, as Strabo informs us, that two Men can hardly embrace its Trunk. They tell us of a Roof of Cedar in Utica that lasted twelve Hundred and seventy eight Years. In a Temple of Diana in Spain they speak of Rafters o Juniper, that lasted from two Hundred Years before the Siege of Troy quite to the Days of Hanibal. The Cedar too is of a most wonderful Nature, if as they say it is the only Wood that will not retain the Nails. In the Mountains near the Lake Benacus, or the Lago di Garda, grows a Kind of Fir, which, if you make Vessels of it, will not hold the Wine, unless you first anoint them with Oil. Thus much for Trees.

Alberti, Book II, Chapters IV-VII.

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Vitruvius served in Julius Caesar's army in Larignum, Gaul in 59 BCE. He was assigned to artillery design and aqueduct management. He wrote one book in 10 volumes on Architecture. In F. Denis' book Vitruvius' discussion of a classical scroll design is presented.

Good discussion of Vitruvius' contributions to architecture in Wittkower's Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism (which I think was recommended by someone in another thread).  (I read this stuff to get an idea of the thinking on design issues in the time folks were working in Cremona's Golden Age and in the periods leading up to that time.  Another good one is Hersey's Architecture and Geometry in the Age of the Baroque.)

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That was a really great read!


How do I know if I've got enough fire in my wood? Air and moisture I understand, but not fire.


I thought that the mention of burying wood under dung was interesting, since I think bridge makers do/did this. There's a lot of information there, I'll need to read it all again. The penny might drop about the fire.

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Note the importance of astrology. (Emperor Tiberius, mentioned here, was an accomplished astrologer for instance.) So, some of the advice turns out to be a mixture of superstition mixed with practical experience. The problem for us is separating the nonsense from the factual advice.

FWIW, Sirius "reigns supreme" when it is a morning star - summer time - the so-called "dog days". I love this ancient mythology. I could write about this all day, but I have more fun at the bench working on a violin.


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