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Wood as construction Material


1. Wood Construction

Wood is the oldest material used by humans for constructional purposes, after stone. Despite its complex chemical nature, wood has excellent properties which lend themselves to human use. It is readily and economically available; easily machinable; amenable to fabrication into an infinite variety of sizes and shapes using simple on-site building techniques; exceptionally strong relative to its weight; a good heat and electrical insulator; and—of increasing importance—it is a renewable and biodegradable resource. However, it also has some drawbacks of which the user must be aware. It is a “natural” material and, as

2. Problems in wood construction:

Wood and wood products are relatively simple engineering materials, but the conception, design, and construction process is fraught with problems and places to err. In using wood in its many forms and with its unique inherent characteristics, there are problem areas which seem to present easily overlooked pitfalls. As gentle reminders for caution, some of these areas are discussed below.

Wood and water do not mix well:

Wood is hygroscopic and, unless preservative-treated, rots when its MC rises above 20%. It must be protected in some way. Minor roof leakage often leads to pockets of decay, which may not be noticed until severe decay or actual failure has occurred. Stained areas on wood siding or at joints may indicate metal fastener rust associated with a wet spot or decay in adjoining, supporting members. In many cases what appears to be a minor problem ends up as major and sometimes extensive repair is required. Improper installation or lack of an adequate vapor barrier can result in serious decay in studs within a wall as well as paint peel on exterior surfaces. Ground contact of wood members can lead to decay as well as providing ready access to wood-deteriorating termites. Placement of preservative-treated members between the ground and the rest of the structure (as a bottom sill in a residence) is usually a code requirement. Timber arches for churches, office buildings, and restaurants are usually affixed to a foundation by steel supports; if the supports are not properly installed, they may merely form a receptacle for rain or condensation to collect, enter the wood through capillary action, and initiate decay. Once decay is discovered, major repair is indicated; preservative treatment to a decayed area may prevent further decay, but it will not restore the strength of the material. Elimination of the causal agent (moisture) is paramount. Visible decay usually means that significant fungal deterioration has progressed for 1 to 2 feet along the grain of a member beyond where it is readily identifiable.

Pay attention to detail:

In an area that has high relative humidity, special precautions should be taken. A structure that is surrounded by trees or other vegetation or that prevents wind and sun from drying action, is prone to high humidity nearly every day, particularly on a north side. Likewise, if the structure is near a stream or other source of moisture, it may have moisture problems. Home siding in this type of atmosphere may warp or exhibit heavy mildew or fungal stain.

Buildings with small (or nonexistent) roof overhangs are susceptible to similar siding problems if the siding is improperly installed, allowing water or condensation to enter and accumulate behind the siding. Inadequate sealing and painting of a surface can add to the problem. In a classic example, a three-story home on a tree-shaded area next to a small stream and with no roof overhang had poorly installed siding, which subsequently warped so badly that numerous pieces fell off of the home. Poor architecture, poor site, poor constructional practice, and poor judgment combined to create a disaster. This type of problem becomes magnified in commercial structures, where large surfaces are covered with wood panel products that tend to swell in thickness at their joints if they are not properly sealed and protected from unusual moisture environments. If properly installed, these materials provide economical, long-term, excellent service.

Wood is viscoelastic and will creep under load:

This has created widespread problems in combination with clogged or inadequate drains on flat roofs. Ponding, with increasing roof joist deflection, can lead to ultimate roof failure. In situations where floor or ceiling deflection is important, a rule of thumb to follow is that increased deflection due to long-term creep may be assumed to be about equal to initial deflection under the design loading. In some cases the occupants of a building will report that they can hear wood members creaking, particularly under a snow load or ponding action. This is a good indication hat the structure is overstressed and failure, or increasing creep deformation with impending failure, is imminent. Deflection measurements over a several-week period can often isolate the problem and lead to suitable reinforcement.

Repair structural members correctly:

Epoxy resin impregnation and other techniques are often used to repair structural members. These methods are said to be particularly effective in repairing decayed areas in beams and columns. Removal of decayed spots and replacement by epoxy resin is acceptable only if the afflicted members are also shielded from the original causal agent—excess moisture or insect attack. Likewise, if a wood adhesive must be used as a fastener in an exposed area, use a waterproof adhesive; “water-resistant” or carpenter’s glue won’t do. Although several wood adhesives will produce a wood-to- wood bond stronger than the wood itself, most of these adhesives are formulated for, and used in, furniture manufacture, where the wood is dry (about 6 to 7% MC) at time of fabrication and is presumed to be kept that way. Structural-use adhesives (unless they are specially formulated epoxy or similar types) may be used where the wood is not above about 20% MC. Structural-use adhesives must also be gap-fillers; i.e., they must be able to form a strong joint between two pieces of wood that are not always perfectly flat, close-fitting surfaces. In addition, the adhesive should be waterproof. The most common and readily available adhesive that meets these criteria is a phenol-resorcinol-formaldehyde adhesive, a catalyzed, dark purple-colored adhesive which is admirably suited to the task.

Protect materials at the job site:

Failure to do so has caused plywood and other panel products to become wet through exposure to rain so that they delaminate, warp severely, or swell in thickness to the point of needing to be discarded. Lumber piled on the ground for several days or more, particularly in hot, humid weather, will pick up moisture and warp or acquire surface fungi and stain. This does not harm the wood if it is subsequently dried again, but it does render it esthetically unfit for exposed use. To repeat, wood and water do not mix.

Take time to know what species and grades of lumber you require, and then inspect it:

Engineers and architects tend to order the lumber grade indicated by mathematical calculations; carpenters use what is provided to them. Unlike times past, no one seems to be ultimately responsible for appropriate quality until a problem arises and expensive rework is needed. Case in point: a No. 2 grade 2-by, which is tacitly presumed to be used in conjunction with other structural members to form an integrated structure, is not satisfactory for use as scaffolding plank or to serve a similar, critical function on the job site where it is subjected to large loads independent of neighboring planks.

Inspect the job site:

Make sure that panel products, such as plywood, OSB, or flakeboard, are kept under roof prior to installation. Stacked on the ground or subjected to several weeks of rainy weather, not only will these panels warp, but they may lose their structural integrity over time. “An ounce of prevention,” etc. Be aware of wood and within-grade variability due to the uniqueness of tree growth and wood defects — It is often wise to screen lumber to cull out pieces that have unusually wide growth rings or wood that is from an area including the pith (center) of the tree. This material often tends to shrink along its length as much as ten times the normal amount due to an inherently high microfibrillar angle in growth rings close to the pith. In truss manufacture this has resulted in the lower chords of some trusses in a home (lower chords in winter being warmer and drier) to shorten as they dry, while the top chords do not change MC as much. The result is that the truss will bow upward, separating by as much as an inch from interior partitions — very disconcerting to the inhabitants and very difficult to cure. A good component fabricator is aware of this phenomenon and will buy higher-quality material to at least minimize the potential problem. Conversely, avoid the expensive, “cover all the bases” approach of ordering only the top grade of the strongest species available.

Inspect all timber connections during erection:

Check on proper plate fasteners on trusses and parallel chord beams after installation; plates should have sufficient teeth fully embedded into each adjoining member. Occasionally in a very dense piece the metal teeth will bend over rather than penetrate into the wood properly. A somewhat similar problem arises if wood frames or trusses are not handled properly during erection; avoid undue out-of-plane bending in a truss during transport or erection since this will not only highly stress the lumber but may also partially remove the plates holding the members together. Bolted connections must be retightened at regular intervals for about a year after erection to take up any slack due to subsequent lumber drying and shrinkage.

Perhaps one of the major causes of disaster is the lack of adequate bracing during frame erection — This is a particularly familiar scenario on do-it-yourself projects, such as by church groups or unskilled erection crews. Thin, 2-by lumber is inherently unstable in long lengths; design manuals and warning labels on lumber or product shipments testify to this, yet the warnings are continually disregarded. Unfortunately, the engineer, designer, or architect and materials supplier often are made to share the resulting financial responsibility.

Be aware of wood’s orthotropicity:

A large slope of grain around a knot or a knot strategically poorly placed can seriously alter bending or compressive strength and are even more limiting in tension mem- bers. Allowable design values for tension parallel to the grain are dictated by an ASTM standard (ASTM, 1992) as being 55% of allowable bending values because test results have indicated that slope of grain or other defects greatly reduce tensile properties. Different orthotropic shrinkage values, due to grain deviations or improper fastening of dissimilar wood planes, can lead to warpage and subsequent shifts in load-induced stresses. Care must be taken when using multiple fasteners (bolts, split rings, etc.) to avoid end splits as wood changes MC, particularly if the members are large and only partially dried at the time of installation. When installing a deep beam that is end-supported by a heavy steel strap hanger, it is often best to fasten the beam to the hanger by a single bolt, installed near the lower edge of the beam. This will provide the necessary restraint against lateral movement, whereas multiple bolts placed in a vertical row will prevent the beam from normal shrinkage in place and often induce splits in the ends of the beam as the beam tries to shrink and swell with changes in relative humidity. Not only are the end splits unsightly, but they also reduce the horizontal shear strength of the beam at a critical point. In addition, if the beam has several vertically aligned bolts and subsequently shrinks, the bolts will become the sole support of the beam independent of the strap hanger, as shrinkage lifts the beam free of the supporting strap hanger.

Use metal joist hangers and other fastening devices; they add strength and efficiency in construction to a job:

Toe-nailing the end of a joist may restrain it from lateral movement, but it does little to prevent it from overturning if there is no stabilizing decking. Erection stresses caused by carpenters and erection crews standing or working on partially completed framework are a leading cause of member failure and job site injury.

In renovating old structures, as long as decay is not present, the old members can be reused — However, because large sawn timbers tend to crack as they dry in place over a period of time, the members must be regraded by a qualified grader. The dried wood (usually well below 19% MC) has increased consid- erably in strength, perhaps counterbalancing the decrease in strength due to deep checking and/or splitting. End splits over supports should be carefully checked for potential shear failure.

Wood and fire pose a unique situation:

Wood burns, but in larger sizes—15 cm (6 in.) and larger — the outer shell of wood burns slowly and, as the wood turns to charcoal, the wood becomes insulated and ceases to support combustion. Once the fire has been extinguished, the wood members can be removed, planed free of char, and reused, but at a reduced section modulus. Smaller members can also be fire retardant–treated to the degree that they will not support combustion. However, treating companies should be consulted in regard to any possible strength-reducing effects due to the treatment, particularly where such members are to be subjected to poorly ventilated areas of high temperature and high relative humidity, as in attic spaces. In recent years newly developed fire retardant treatments have reacted with wood when in a high temperature–high relative humidity environment to seriously deteriorate the wood in treated plywood or truss members.

These chemicals, presumably withdrawn from the marketplace, act slowly over time, but have contributed to structural failure in the attics of numerous condominium - type buildings. Preventive measures where such problems may be anticipated include the addition of thermostatically controlled forced-air venting (the easiest and probably most effective measure); the addition of an insulation layer to the underside of the roof to reduce the amount of heat accumulation in the attic due to radiant heat absorption from the sun; and the installation of a vapor barrier on the floor of the attic to reduce the amount of water vapor from the underlying living units. In using preservative-treated wood it is always best—certainly so when dealing with larger me bers—to make all cuts to length, bore holes, cut notches, etc., prior to treatment. Depth of preservative treatment in larger members is usually not complete, and exposure of untreated material through cutting may invite decay. Determination of the depth of penetration of a preservative by noting a color change in the wood is hazardous; penetration may be more or less than is apparent to the eye. Deep checking as a large member dries will often expose untreated wood to fungal organisms or insects. Periodic treatment by brushing preservative into exposed cracks is highly recommended. This is particularly true for log home–type-construction. Modern log home-construction utilizes partially seasoned materials with shaped sections, which not only increase the insulative quality of the homes but also tend to balance, or relieve, shrinkage forces to reduce cracking. Treated or raised nonwood foundations are recommended.

Wood is an excellent construction material, tested and used effectively over the years for a myriad of structural applications — provided one takes the time to understand its strengths and weaknesses and to pay appropriate attention to detail. Knowing species and lumber grade characteristics and how a member is to be used, not only in a structure but also during erection, can go a long way toward trouble-free construction, avoiding misconstruction.

3. Wood defects:

The major problems that arise in wood use may be attributed either to the effects of grain distortions (cell orientation or alignment), to the effects of excess moisture, or to defects that occur as a result of the drying process. The specific defects taken into account in the grading of lumber products include:


The result of cutting across a branch in lumber manufacture. If the branch is cut perpendicular to its axis, the knot is round or oblong and presents a miniature aspect of a tree with visible growth rings. Knots may be live (cut through a living branch with intact tissue) or dead (cut through a dead branch stub with loose bark, usually resulting in a knothole). If the saw is oriented so as to cut along the length of a branch, the knot is greatly elongated and is termed a spike knot. Due to the obvious grain distortion around knots, they are areas of severe strength reduction. The lumber grading process takes this into account by classifying lumber grade by knot size, number, type, and location within the member. Knots located along the edge of a piece are, for example, restricted in size more than are knots located along the centerline of the member.

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Slope of grain:

A deviation of cell orientation from the longitudinal axis of the member. Slope of grain may be a natural phenomenon wherein the grain is at some angle to the tree axis (termed spiral grain), or it may be the result of sawing the member nonparallel to the tree axis. Slope of grain has a negative effect upon wood strength properties. A slope of 1:20 has minimal effect, but a slope of 1:6 reduces strength to about 40% in bending and to about 55% in compression parallel to the grain. Tensile strength is even more adversely affected.


Lack of wood. Wane occurs whenever a board is sawn so as to intersect the periphery of the tree, resulting in one edge or portion of an edge of a board being rounded or including bark. Limited amounts of wane are permitted, depending upon lumber grade. The effect of wane on wood strength or nailing surface is obvious.


A lengthwise separation of the wood, which usually occurs between or through the annual growth rings. Shakes are limited in grading since they present a plane of greatly reduced shear strength. Shake may occur as a result of severe wind that bends a tree to produce an internal shear failure, or as a result of subsequent rough handling of the tree or its products.

Splits and cracks:

Separations of the wood cells along the grain, most often the result of drying stresses as the wood shrinks. Cracks are small, whereas splits extend completely through the thickness of a piece. Splits at the ends of the member, particularly along the central portion of a beam, are limited in grading.

Insect attack:

Insect attack may range from small blemishes that do not affect strength to large voids or extensive damage in the wood as the result of termite or other insect infestation. Insect attack is usually treated as equivalent to the effect of similarly sized knotholes.


Decay, caused by wood-destroying fungi, is precluded from wood use except for certain species in lower grades because the strength-reducing effects of fungal attack are quite significant even before visible evidence (wood discoloration, punkiness) appears. It is important to note that decay organisms require moisture to live and grow; hence, the presence of active decay or mold implies
access to a source of moisture. Moist wood will always decay, unless the wood is preservative-treated or is of a very durable species

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