Is building with wood "inferior" than building with stone?

Naomasa298

Forum Staff
Apr 2010
36,323
T'Republic of Yorkshire
The Japanese didn't use mortar when they built stone castle bases and defensive walls. That meant the stones could shift slightly during earthquakes.

It also meant they had plenty of handholds for ninjas.
 
Jan 2016
1,146
Victoria, Canada
All construction materials have their benefits and drawbacks, each more suitable in certain situations than others. Stone and brick constructions can be used (at least when employing Roman and post-Roman techniques) to create far larger interior spaces; can be far more permanent (when done right) than wooden structures; stand up much better to the ravages of water and waste (depending on the mortar); are far less flammable than wooden buildings; and, as far as foundations and other underground elements are concerned, can support much greater loads more consistently and with far less maintenance than wooden equivalents. These factors make stone and brick superior materials for the construction of lasting prestige buildings, major infrastructure, and dense urban cores. Wooden structures, on the other hand, are in many cases less (sometimes far less) expensive, more resistant to earthquakes, lighter, and far more cheaply and easily modifiable to suit various needs. These elements make wood, when relatively plentiful, a superior (or at least more sensible) material for the construction of lower-density or -importance buildings, most elements of rural infrastructure, and structures in regions particularly vulnerable to natural disasters -- if your fancy stone building is going to be taken out by a flood within a lifetime anyway, it's probably best to just build in wood.

It's also worth noting that many structures were built out of combinations of each material, with a result superior to either employed on their own. The piers of a bridge may be built out of stone while the superstructure is constructed of wood, as in Trajan's famous bridge over the Danube, and the foundation and/or ground floor of a building might be of brick and/or stone while wood was employed in those above. Many buildings, especially Roman-style apartments and multi-level palaces, also had walls of stone or brick filled in and tied together by wooden roofs, floors, and associated supports, each part reliant on the other to function. The Byzantines even reinforced their brick and stone domes with wooden (and iron) chains embedded in their bases, using the tensile strength of the latter to augment the compressive strength of the former -- a similar technique was later employed in the dome of the Duomo in Florence. As in anything else designed by humans for their benefit, matters can be more complicated than whether a tradition relies more on the quarry, kiln, or forest.

Ultimately, which material, or combination of materials, was "superior" or "inferior" came down mostly to the context in which they were employed -- economic, social, environmental (both built and natural), and otherwise. Stone and brick might have had a number of advantages when used properly in a suitable context, but such contexts were rare in much of the pre-modern world, and their proper exploitation reliant on readily available expertise of a kind either prohibitively expensive or simply nonexistent in many times and places (the development of stone and brick architecture in Scandinavia is an interesting case-study in this regard). Though more rare, there are also cases where advanced carpentry expertise was or could have been useful to a society which found itself pressured to use more wood than previously (a newly-reforested 7th-8th century Anatolia could have probably benefited from contemporary Chinese expertise, for instance). In whatever case, it's indeed unproductive to try to judge the architectural "skills" of societies based on the materials they use to create their built environments -- humans always make do to the best of their ability with the available knowledge and resources at their disposal, excelling at whatever they do most, whether you're talking about Rome, China, or anywhere else.
 
Dec 2015
370
NYC
hard to call a building material 'inferior' to another. Different materials may be far more suited for different situations.
I agree, but there were a couple of members on some past threads said that Chinese and Indians started using stone in later dynasties because "they lacked the skill", and the Romans built incredible feats of architecture because they used stone and concrete, which suggests that you can't build incredible feats of architecture with wood and it takes "more skill" to use stone. Chinese build more complex architectures using wood, and I don't recall anywhere in Europe having wood architecture as complex as those the Chinese built. The only con I see with wood is that it doesn't last very long unless maintained while stone tends to be long-lasting (at least compared to wood).
 
Dec 2015
370
NYC
Nah, it is because the Romans used mortar. It is not easy to come by the ingredients when trade has come to a standstill. That is why in the east they happily continued with their building spree in Constantinople.
Romans easily had access to volcanic ash
 

sparky

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
5,783
Sydney
Can't build ships with stones ,
wooden ships require an astounding level of expertise of the forces involved
as for earthquakes , the near east has plenty and plenty of stone structure
sometimes cost and availability prime any other considerations
 
May 2018
176
On earth.
I agree, but there were a couple of members on some past threads said that Chinese and Indians started using stone in later dynasties because "they lacked the skill", and the Romans built incredible feats of architecture because they used stone and concrete, which suggests that you can't build incredible feats of architecture with wood and it takes "more skill" to use stone. Chinese build more complex architectures using wood, and I don't recall anywhere in Europe having wood architecture as complex as those the Chinese built. The only con I see with wood is that it doesn't last very long unless maintained while stone tends to be long-lasting (at least compared to wood).
I'll tell you point blank that this is a poor way of viewing history and past cultures, steeped in out-dated ways of viewing past societies and the world. The idea that stonework is inherently superior and requires more 'skill' and is more 'incredible' comes from a train of thought where, among other thngs, the assumption is that architecture is meant to last forever. Since stoneworking is more permanent, the conclusion is that it is better architecture. It is reliant on a euro-centric view of the ways inwhich societies evolve aswell, since, as far as I know, European societies and their derivatives were the ones who really ramped up stone-working. Therefore, since 'more developped' european societies used more stone, the thinking goes, stone must be ubiquitous with 'higher development'. The thinking ignores that 'heavily developped' societies around the world did not use stone on a widescale for a variety of reasons, and is, again, heavily centered around European trajectories while ignoring that not everyone follows those trajectories.

It is incorrect to say you need 'more skill' to use stone when compared to wood - each requires their own individual skillset, and one must be highly proficient in the use of one or the other, requiring immense levels of skill to build grand structures. One may argue that stoneworking (generally) takes more time than woodworking, but that doesn't point to a higher skillset.
You can build 'incredible feats' of architecture with Stone, Wood, or even Mud if you know what you're doing with each of them. They all require their own skill thresholds.
 
Last edited:
Jan 2009
1,285
I'll echo the availability of materials. In the olden times, Finland was covered in forests (still is), and it is relatively easy to find nice, long, straight almost limbless pine trees. Chop some of them down and leave them to dry a summer or two, and you can assemble your very own log cabin with rather low investment in carpentry skills and time. Also, while the volcanic rock in Italy and limestone are very easy to cut and shape, and sandstone is pretty soft, too, a lot of the Finnish rock formations are granite. So good luck quarrying that with muscle powered tools.

Finally, timber is a fine insulator against cold winters (when you have compressed moss between the timbers sealing any gaps), which was definitely a consideration in Finland prior to modern insulators. Also, stone by itself is a piss-poor insulator, and would turn any stone building into a freezer during the winter without lots and lots of fires burning. No (really noticeable) earthquakes, though, so earthquake-proofing is not really necessary. :)