Resourceful timber

By - , Build 132

Prone to earthquakes and with abundant native timber, New Zealand was quick to adopt timber as a building cladding. It could even replicate stone with design elements such as quoins.

Historic Nelson cottage with rusticated weatherboard and quoins in front and plain weatherboard on the side.
Historic Nelson cottage with rusticated weatherboard and quoins in front and plain weatherboard on the side.
NEW ZEALAND’S FIRST sealing gang landed at Dusky Sound on 14 September 1792. By the end of November that year, they had ‘completed a dwelling house, 40 ft. long, 18 ft. broad, and 15 ft. high’, probably the first European house constructed in New Zealand.

It was built and clad in the tradition of boat builders, not in stone but in wood cut from timber growing nearby. In early December, it was the first New Zealand European-style house to weather an earthquake.

Origins of weatherboard in 1500s

The term ‘weatherboard’ was first used in 1539–40 for external cladding made from boards nailed horizontally with overlapping edges. Terminology varies, with the US using ‘weatherboard’ for vertical board and battens, and ‘clapboard’ for horizontal cladding.

Early settlers here had access to books such as The colonist’s and emigrant’s handbook of the mechanical arts published in 1854. It provided guidance for the construction of log cabin, pisé, brick, stone and timber-frame houses. The ‘frame-house’ with posts driven directly into the ground was suggested for a first temporary house, using folded canvas, asphalted cloth or waterproof felt as internal lining to create a ‘very snug and quickly raised house’ in just 2 days.

The subsequent house could be covered with overlapped plain boards, with internal timber slabs. While tongue and groove board could be used in first-class work, for ordinary work, the boards could be ‘planed or, if preferred, left rough’.

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Weatherboard quickly gained a hold

New Zealand quickly became a country of weatherboard houses and buildings (see Build 126, pages 106–107), but the dreams of the solid stone house were not forgotten. Whether the 1913 Inglewood Town Hall or a worker’s cottage in Nelson (see Figure 1), timber could be dressed up to look like stone. Rusticated weatherboard coupled with corner quoins gave the appearance of stone.

Plain weatherboards could be split from suitable timber, sawn by hand or later sawn by machine. It was not until machinery was able to create more complex mouldings that the more detailed weatherboards were widely used. Table 1, based on Arden and Bowman’s 2004 book The New Zealand period house, shows that rusticated weatherboards were not widely used until the 1860s.

Weatherboard profiles included plain board, plain and rebated bevel-back, rebated skew-cut bevel-back, shiplap and variations on rusticated weatherboards. The profile names trace from the appearance of the weatherboard.

There was a wide range of weatherboard sizes and detailed designs. It took until 1948 for the publication of NZSS 3617 Profiles of weatherboards, flooring and matchlining to establish standard dimensions.

Table 1
1840s-1870s Plain board
1840s Vertical board and batten
1860s Rusticated
1910s Rebated bevel-back
1920s Splayed or bevel-back
1920s Vertical shiplap

Many native timbers proved to be ideal for weatherboards – heart rimu, matai, totara and miro were considered to be highly suitable, while tawa, tanekaha, pukatea and totara could be used with preservative treatment. Imported American redwood and western red cedar and Australian eucalypts were also used plus, with the reduction in native timbers, treated pine.

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The answer to draught control

Nowadays, weatherboards go together with building paper, but building paper is a comparatively recent invention.

In 1884, Californians J Pearch and MW Beardsly patented their process for dissolving the residue from distilling petroleum and a variation that could be applied to paper to form a waterproof, smoother, tougher and less flammable product used on roofs and surfaces exposed to the elements but not subject to abrasion. This material ultimately became bituminous building paper.

Building paper was advertised in New Zealand from 1898 when George Ross of Wellington promoted the use of ‘P & B building paper’ which was ‘waterproof and will not rot. Keeps the walls dry, and prevents draughts and excludes cold.’

This last benefit made building paper valuable. Interior linings of edge-butted sarking provided many gaps for wind to push against the hessian scrim and wallpaper and then leak into the room.

It took some time, but by the 1930s building paper was widely used. It was not until 1964 that its use became a requirement behind cladding, except brick veneer, under NZS 1900 Chapter 6.1 Construction requirements for buildings not requiring specific design.

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Articles are correct at the time of publication but may have since become outdated.

Historic Nelson cottage with rusticated weatherboard and quoins in front and plain weatherboard on the side.
Historic Nelson cottage with rusticated weatherboard and quoins in front and plain weatherboard on the side.