When researching what wood to use for a project, you may have come across a lot of discussion about new growth wood versus old growth wood. But what is the difference between the two? And which should you use for your project?
Old growth wood comes from trees grown naturally in virgin (undisturbed) forests and is over 200 years old. New growth wood usually comes from man-made tree farms or by hand plantings and is much younger. The most distinctive difference between the two is the space between the growth rings. Each has its own benefits that lend itself well to different projects and aesthetics. But accessibility and cost will also be a factor in determining which to use.
Which wood is right for your project and where can you find it? Let’s discuss what the distance between growth rings means and how it affects the quality and look of your project.
What They Are
Old Growth Wood
Old growth wood is typically considered to be anything over 200 years old, and the forests these trees grow in are mostly undisturbed by humans. These forests are so dense that it causes very slow growth due to limited light and competition with surrounding trees.
Growth rings, or annual rings, occur after each year of growth. Since these trees are growing so slowly, there is less space between each annual ring. This results in a very thick, dark, textural wood. It can be ideal for projects that call for a unique, rustic quality. It is also very durable and more resistant to rot and warping.
However, due to forest depletion, it can also be costly and hard to find. You won’t find true old growth wood in lumber yards or hardware stores. The wood you find on most shelves these days is new growth wood.
New Growth Wood
New growth wood comes from tree farms where trees grow much faster than in natural forests. With trees spaced further apart, there is less competition for light. Allowing for faster harvesting, before they have fully matured, to meet the high demand for lumber.
That’s why in these types of woods you’ll see more space between growth rings – they grew a lot more in one year than a tree in a natural forest would. Therefore there is more space between each annual ring.
New growth wood can be less desirable for a variety of reasons, including environmental and sustainability concerns, but it also has its benefits. It is much easier to find and very cost effective. Aesthetically speaking it is a lighter color wood, and sometimes that large gap between the growth rings, which are also lighter in color, is the preferred look.
To determine if what you’re working with is new growth or old growth, mark off an inch-sized section and count the growth rings. Old growth can have eight rings within one inch, but will sometimes have as many as fifty or more. Some are too dense to even count. While a new growth wood will have as few as two or fewer rings within an inch.
Which Wood To Use
Old growth is beautiful, durable, and resilient. It is environmentally friendly and perfect for a more rustic look. These woods are preferred for guitars and other instruments because of the resonance and tone they provide.
They are also ideal for repairs and renovations. Older houses and structures are likely to be made with old growth, so for purposes of matching the look of the older surrounding surfaces, you’ll need to use old growth. It’s also preferred for repair work because of its durability and resistance to rot.
New growth wood has a number of drawbacks. They are not resistant to cracking, splintering, or rot as much as old growth wood is, and they’re usually not as attractive. However because it is so much more attainable and affordable, you’ll want to know what kinds of projects this wood is ideal for.
New growth woods work especially well for times when the aesthetic of the grain pattern is not a concern. Another very important thing to note about the differences between the woods is the matter of conformity and consistency. New growth wood is very uniform from piece to piece, making it perfect for projects that require great accuracy. Old growth is typically not ideal for anything that requires cutting precision beyond a sixteenth of an inch. But that inconsistency is often what makes it so desirable for its aesthetic qualities.
For example, if building a piece of furniture, you could use new growth for the skeletal structure where precise measurements are important but use old growth for the exposed, surface elements of the piece. This will make for a beautiful, rustic, unique finished piece that is also more cost-effective.
The look you are going for in your piece will be a huge determining factor in what to use. For a cleaner, more modern look, the coloring and smoothness of new growth works well. But for a vintage, rustic look, the unique qualities of old growth can’t be beat.
When it comes to decorative pieces such as wall hangings or accent furniture, old growth can bring an artistic, eclectic quality to your work along with a sense of history. Because of their age, old growth woods have a story to them that brings heart and soul to whatever projects you use them for. It’s also ideal for ornate carvings because of its softness and less-likelihood of splintering or cracking. Old growth is also the only kind of wood to have heartwood at its center – the beautiful oval-shaped center that can only found in old trees.
Environmental Factors and Concerns
Just as we are conscious of our use of paper and try to use less of it or recycled products when we can, we should be doing the same with our use of new growth woods. The less consumption, the less demand there will be. If loggers continue harvesting trees faster than they can be regrown, our forests risk becoming scarce or extinct. This would be extremely damaging to both our economy and environment. Forests provide us with more than just materials, they also provide habitats for wildlife and are important and necessary to our ecosystem.
It’s not likely or easy to find old growth wood that came direct from a virgin forest because of depletion and what’s left is often protected land. So old growth woods are usually repurposed or reclaimed and can be a more eco-friendly choice.
So now that you have an idea of what kind of wood you might want to use, where are you going to find what you need?
Where to Find Your Wood
While we’ve established that old growth wood can be a superior choice for a variety of reasons, it is also going to be a lot harder to find.
New growth is attainable and more affordable. Any hardware or DIY store or lumber yard is going to have shelves stocked with new growth woods. But you’ll have to be more creative in obtaining old growth woods.
You’ll also need to do your research on the source of old growth woods if you’re purchasing them from a company. Because they are so rare and valuable, many less-reputable sources will illegally harvest old trees from protected areas.
But along the way, you can also find some cheaper alternatives for your new growth woods as well while still being environmentally conscious through upcycling and repurposing. While the following options for finding both types of woods are easier on your wallet, they will require more time, legwork, and research into your local resources. But finding woods in more unconventional ways can also add some fuel to your creativity and provide some inspiration you wouldn’t have found with the convenience of the hardware store.
Salvage and Reclaim Yards
You’ll find a variety of scrap lumber and things to repurpose at salvage and reclaim yards. And they will often be more affordable than lumber off of store shelves. While you’ll probably find plenty of new growth scraps or pieces to repurpose, you may also find some vintage old growth woods.
Old Barns, Homes, and Other Vintage Buildings
Old buildings, barns, and vintage homes can be great for finding old growth woods. Reclaimed wood from these sites is perfect for repairs when you’re needing to match the grain and size of an older source of wood. You’ll also have the added visual benefit of weathered wood. Keep this in mind when you or someone you know is doing renovations as well. Depending on the age of the home, you may be dealing with old growth wood that you can salvage for other uses.
Lakes and Rivers
Another good option for finding old growth woods is by pulling fallen logs from the bottoms of lakes and rivers. Many logs found in the beds of rivers come from the trees of old virgin forests. Logs and limbs fell off into the water during tree harvesting. This wood will be very dense, because of how old it is but also because the outer layer is saturated with water.
Yard Sales and Flea Markets
Hunting through yard sales, flea markets, and vintage shops will give you a mixed bag of old and new growth woods. You can repurpose these finds in many ways. Larger antique pieces of furniture will give you more material to work with and the potential of old growth wood. But keep your eye on smaller pieces as well such as wooden trunks or trays. These have uses in a variety of projects when combined or repurposed.
Wood Palettes and Spindles
Palettes and spindles are affordable (often free), fairly easy to find, and they have a wide variety of uses. You can disassemble them and use the material. Or incorporate the existing structure into the design of your project. You can use the shape and construction in many ways, especially with some creative tweaking. They will most likely be made from new growth wood, but depending on where you’re obtaining them you may stumble upon something really old.
Construction Sites and Lumber Yards
Construction sites and lumber yards will often have an excess of scraps. They’ll offer these to anyone who is able to come and pick it up, depending on the company. Newer constructions will offer new growth woods. But if you find a site that is demolishing or renovating a vintage home, you’ll probably be able to snag some old growth wood.
Whenever there is a storm or natural disaster, there will often be plenty of fallen trees that need clearing out of roads or residential areas. You can volunteer your time to help people clear these items. And you can snag some free wood, potentially old growth, in the process.
Shipping or Boat Yards
Seek out shipping yards for their crates or boatyards for their old retired boats. Both offer the potential for old growth woods. Just be sure to inquire about the prior uses of the shipping crates. You’ll want to ensure there hasn’t been exposure to certain chemicals that are undesirable.
So now you know the differences between these woods, what their uses are, and some ideas for where to find both. Your access to these materials will always depend on where you’re located. But in researching what’s available you learn a lot and make connections to your local community. And these methods of obtaining either type of wood will give you unique, finished pieces with a history.