14

I know that wood expands due to seasonal changes in humidity and temperature, but that's the extent of my knowledge about it.

In which direction do wood boards expand? In the same direction as the grain? Perpendicular to the grain direction? Both? Does it matter if it's a quarter sawn board or not?

Thanks!

  • 1
    all directions, some more than others – ratchet freak Apr 19 '17 at 16:37
  • 1
    The majority of the expansion -- the part you have to worry about, for the most part -- is tangent to the growth rings. – Charlie Kilian Apr 19 '17 at 18:22
8

Wood is made of fibers. Think of wood as a bunch of soda straws or flexible rubber tubes bundled together. When you add water, the fibers expand to hold the extra water. When it dries, they contract. So you will see expansion across the width of the grain, and very little along its length.

There are two types of wood, heartwood and sap wood. Sap wood is what actively carries the water, and heart wood which is 'dead' wood does not. So the fibers in the sapwood expand much more readily than the fibers in the heartwood.

All boards will expand as moisture increases, the difference between plainsawn and quartersawn wood is the direction of the expansion. Plainsawn wood will tend to cup, while quartersawn wood will just get wider.

Here is an image of how a log can be cut up to make boards: enter image description here

The end grain shows the story. Here is the end grain of a plainsawn board. enter image description here

If you look at the plainsawn, the outer sapwood will expand faster than the heartwood, causing the board to cup.

By contrast, a quartersawn board has this endgrain. enter image description here

As these fibers expand, the board simply gets wider.

Here are some links for additional reading

What Is the Difference Between Sapwood and Heartwood?

Have You Heard About Shrinkage?

6

In which direction do wood boards expand?

Short answer: across the grain.

Wood does move along its length but the amount is negligible and can almost always be ignored.

This has been posted before but it's worth reposting as it shows the differences so clearly:

Grain direction and movement

As you can see radial movement is only half that of tangential (approximately, much greater detail given on this in one of the links below) which is one reason why quarter-sawn wood is more stable than most flat-sawn wood.

Not just expansion
Note that wood expands and contracts, it's not all expansion. There is a natural expansion/contraction cycle that happens to wood through the year as humidity rises and falls.

Wood naturally tries to get its moisture content or MC into equilibrium with the surroundings and it takes up moisture from humid air and expands, loses moisture to dry air and contracts. When you bring wood into the workshop or home and leave it for a while before use as often recommended what you're waiting for is for the wood to reach an equilibrium with the local conditions, a process called acclimation.

Why it's important
So as you can see the more stable the environment the less movement you can expect in any piece of wood, which is why in a house with climate control you can get away with certain things that you wouldn't in another house elsewhere with no aircon and minimal heating. Note: this is so important in the Internet age because many beginner projects that are posted online built from 2x material are very poorly constructed (for example the majority of things on Ana White), and one of the only reasons some makers are getting away with it is because of the stability of the conditions in their homes. Others aren't getting away with it because there are wider swings in temp and humidity inside theirs.

The take-home message here for furniture plans is that everything should make appropriate allowances for movement, regardless of whether it is expected or not. Someone building the project will require it even if the person drawing up the plan does not.

Why pay more for quarter-sawn/radial-sawn wood?
It is radial grain that is across the width of a quarter-sawn board (ditto radial-sawn1) and the much smaller expected movement of such a board is one reason it is so favoured by furniture makers. In addition to the substantially smaller expected movement QS wood can also feature distinctive grain features, e.g. the striking medullary rays (AKA "ray figure") in all species of oak. Beech has a much smaller-scale version of the same thing, not so easily seen at a distance but very attractive up close.

Further reading from previous Q&As:
What is the maximum width for a full cross grain glue up?
What general considerations do I need to take into account for wood movement?
Thick tabletop movement


1 Radially-sawn wood is also sometimes referred to rift-sawn although it doesn't mean quite the same thing. Strictly speaking radial sawing refers exclusively to how the log was converted into boards, literally in a radial fashion. While rift-sawn can refer to grain orientation in a board only, which is also true of quarter-sawn wood, regardless of the method used to saw the boards from the log.

  • That is indeed the image I referred to OP to in my answer. I hesitated porting the image here in case of any copyright issues. This is not a problem? – bpedit Apr 20 '17 at 16:47
  • @bpedit Fair Use clause of copyright law means we can use any image we find since it's for educational purposes. – Graphus Apr 21 '17 at 6:50
  • Sheesh... I'd never heard of Ana white before. Watching her work made me cringe. None of that furniture is going to hold together more than a couple years... – Isaac Kotlicky May 23 '17 at 0:07
  • @Graphus The image of this answer: does it have a source from where it draws its expansion percentages? – Santropedro Mar 24 at 22:20
  • @Santropedro, these were probably averaged out from available info from industry, or from the data published by the Forest Products Laboratory. If you want more accurate numbers for different species do check out the first Answer linked to above, it includes a table from an FPL publication with specific figures for many woods. Just to mention in case you don't know, as comprehensive and authoritative as these numbers seem they (in fact all published numbers of this type) are still effectively approximations because wood varies so much. – Graphus Mar 25 at 6:46
2

Wood expands far less in the longitudinal direction than across the grain. To be clear, this means along the direction of the xylem conduits in the wood which are parallel to the trunk. So, typically the length of a board "moves" less than 1/100 as much as the width of the board on a per-inch basis.

There is also variation in movement across the width depending on whether the board is quarter sawn or slab sawn. A quarter sawn board will, on average, shrink or expand only 1/2 as much as a slab sawn board.

Below is a link that will help you visualize. http://workshopcompanion.com/KnowHow/Design/Nature_of_Wood/2_Wood_Movement/2_Wood_Movement.htm

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