“Isn’t it good, Norwegian Wood?”

So, a colleague of mine here in the Historic Resources Management Branch recently returned from a course on wood conservation in Oslo, Norway.

While he didn’t find out why John Lennon lit a former lover’s house on fire as the song strangely suggests, he did attend the 2018 International Course on Wood Conservation Technology (ICWCT). A biennial course that gathers academics, professors and scientists from around the world (including two from Canada) to deliver lectures, ICWCT also combines this with field work and theory centered on the practice of wood conservation.

The Borgund Stave Church in Lærdalen, Norway was built just before 1150. From the Middle Ages up until the beginning of the twentieth century the use of pine tar was restricted to the protection of churches, since it was both time-consuming  and expensive to produce. This goes a long way towards explaining why outdoor woodwork on the stave churches from the twelfth century which has been protected with pine tar is preserved in an excellent condition. Norwegian church accounts reveal that the local farmers and villagers were obliged to apply fresh tar to the external walls of the stave churches at ten yearly intervals*. Photo by: AzaToth

Heritage Conservation Technologist Evan Oxland went to Norway to learn more about technical and theoretical aspects of wood conservation, as well as what other contemporary international approaches there are out there. He was the only representative from Canada, and shared his experiences with, and learned from, 20 other wood conservation professionals from places like Turkey, Zimbabwe, Brazil and the Philippines. Whether it was specific technical information or more philosophical and holistic thoughts about conservation and the values we attach to built heritage, Oxland can bring that knowledge back to see if it can help in preserving Alberta’s historic structures and objects.

world map_ICWCT2018
That tiny circle in the top-left is Alberta and Canada’s only representative at the 2018 International Course on Wood Conservation Technology. Image courtesy of the ICWCT.

There are always wood conservation-related projects on the go at various government-owned historic sites, museums and structures around the province. For most wood, “it’s not a question of if wood will deteriorate,” he says, “but when it will deteriorate.” Techniques like thermal treatment for pest eradication or dynamic structure modeling are all used in an effort to preserve historic wood structures or objects, something Oxland and his colleagues at Conservation and Construction Services (CCS) do on a regular basis. For example, at the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village (UCHV) alone, there are over 80 individual structures that require constant care and attention if they want to be properly preserved.

Right now the CCS Conservation Crew that Oxland works with is in the process of restoring the facades on Kiev Hall and the Radway Livery barn, both at the UCHV. As well, the conservation technologists also have time for some testing and research: there are currently two “test walls” being used to test both different paints and penetrating oils with the goal of finding practical, efficient ways to keep Alberta’s historic wood structures preserved for future generations.

One of the biggest takeaways from the ICWCT was the emphasis countries like Japan and Norway, eminent global leaders in wood conservation, place on the role of the craftsman. These countries’ architects, project managers and specifiers often share the responsibilities of documentation and design solutions because of the intimate relationship and knowledge a craftsperson gains in interacting with a wooden building or object.


“The drop-siding of Radway Livery Barn is beyond its serviceable life in portions of its elevations. This is primarily on its south and westerly elevations where they are subjected to wind, rain and sun. So we need to intervene by removing historic material and replacing it in-kind. However, where we can save some boards we will shift them up closer to the shadow line of the eaves to make them last as long as possible. Some exhausted pieces will also be saved as they bear remnant paint samples, which could be of interest to future research, what we would call building archaeology. We have a solid team of conservation craftsmen to work on this project who thoroughly understand our approach as seen in the Standards and Guidelines for Historic Places in Canada.” –Evan Oxland, Heritage Conservation Technologist

When it comes to wood conservation here in Alberta, the smaller number of historic buildings compared to larger provinces means there are fewer dedicated wood conservation firms and a small number of highly skilled craftsmen. Good thing some of those very craftsman work for the CCS conservation crew.

“The CCS conservation crew (Restoration Foreman Mike Murray and Restoration Craftsmen Jerry Jensen and Vince Van Ulden) is integral to the preservation of our buildings. They represent a deep and long continuity of knowledge of the buildings that would be impossible to replicate by contracting. They are the hands-on site-stewards of the provincially owned and managed historic sites and museums who often find new deficiencies because they interact with the buildings so much.”

Caption:  Restoration Foreman Mike Murray chiseling out a mortise. The original displayed evidence of an old hand drill and chisel marks, so Murray used the same tools and techniques on the replacement piece. Doing this is in and of itself an example of living heritage, where replication of traditional craft is also valued. Photo by: Evan Oxland

Written by: Jared Majeski, Historic Resources Management Branch


*Larsen, Knut Einar, Marstein, Nils, 2000. Conservation of Historic Timber Structures, Butterworth-Heinemann Series in Conservation and Museology, 95.

One thought on ““Isn’t it good, Norwegian Wood?”

  • This is fabulous. We always had a strong bent toward our log and timber structures, but this is a huge step forward, and with this foresight I am guessing that we would never have lost the Cochrane Ranche structures when the branch dismantled them in 1978-79 and then invited the townsfolk to haul them away for firewood. And I am guessing that if this approach to wood conservation in Alberta had been current twenty years ago we would never have lost the John Glenn Cabin from Fish Creek (1873) when the U of C Archaeology department dismantled it and then decided there was nothing worth conserving (only the oldest extant settlement structure in Calgary).

    Well done. Keep it up.

    Ian Clarke

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