Wood is an organic material; in the strict sense wood is produced as secondary xylem in the stems of woody plants, notably trees but also shrubs, etc. In a living tree it conducts water and nutrients to the leaves and other growing tissues, and has a support function, enabling plants to reach large sizes. Wood may also refer to other plant materials and tissues with comparable properties, and to material engineered from wood, or wood chips or fiber.
People have used wood for millennia for many purposes, primarily as a fuel or as a construction material for making houses, tools, weapons, furniture, packaging, artworks, and paper. Wood can be dated by carbon dating and in some species by dendrochronology to make inferences about when a wooden object was created. The year-to-year variation in tree-ring widths and isotopic abundances gives clues to the prevailing climate at that time.
» Growth rings
» Heartwood and sapwood
» Different woods
» Monocot wood
» Water content
» In the arts
» See also
Wood surface, showing several features
A tree increases in diameter by the formation, between the existing wood and the inner bark, of new woody layers which envelop the entire stem, living branches, and roots. Technically this is known as secondary growth; it is the result of cell division in the vascular cambium, a lateral meristem, and subsequent expansion of the new cells.
Where there are clear seasons, this can happen in a discrete pattern, leading to what is known as growth rings, as can usually most clearly be seen on the end of a log. If these seasons are annual these growth rings are annual rings. Where there is no seasonal difference growth rings are likely to be indistinct or absent.
It is customary to make a distinction between two parts of a growth ring. The part nearest the center of the tree is usually composed of wider elements. It is almost invariably lighter in color than that near the outer portion of the ring. The inner portion is formed early in the season, when growth is comparatively rapid; it is known as early wood or spring wood. The outer portion is the late wood or summer wood, being produced in the summer. In white pines there is not much contrast in the different parts of the ring, and as a result the wood is very uniform in texture and is easy to work. In hard pines, on the other hand, the late wood is very dense and is deep-colored, presenting a very decided contrast to the soft, straw-colored early wood. In ring-porous woods each season's growth is always well defined, because the large pores of the spring abut on the denser tissue of the fall before. In the diffuse-porous woods, the demarcation between rings is not always so clear and in some cases is almost (if not entirely) invisible to the unaided eye.
A knot is a particular type of imperfection in a piece of timber, which reduces its strength, but which may be exploited for artistic effect. In a longitudinally-sawn plank, a knot will appear as a roughly circular "solid" (usually darker) piece of wood around which the grain of the rest of the wood "flows" (parts and rejoins).
A knot is actually a portion of a side branch (or a dormant bud) included in the wood of the stem or larger branch. The included portion is irregularly conical in shape (hence the roughly circular cross-section) with the tip at the point in stem diameter at which the plant's cambium was located when the branch formed as a bud. Within a knot, the fibre direction (grain) is up to 90 degrees different from the fibres of the stem, thus producing local cross grain.
A knot on a tree at the Garden of the Gods public park in Colorado Springs, Colorado (October 2006).
During the development of a tree, the lower limbs often die, but may persist for a time, sometimes years. Subsequent layers of growth of the attaching stem are no longer intimately joined with the dead limb, but are grown around it. Hence, dead branches produce knots which are not attached, and likely to drop out after the tree has been sawn into boards.
In grading lumber and structural timber, knots are classified according to their form, size, soundness, and the firmness with which they are held in place. This firmness is affected by, among other factors, the length of time for which the branch was dead while the attaching stem continued to grow.
Knots materially affect cracking (known in the industry as checking) and warping, ease in working, and cleavability of timber. They are defects which weaken timber and lower its value for structural purposes where strength is an important consideration. The weakening effect is much more serious when timber is subjected to forces perpendicular to the grain and/or tension than where under load along the grain and/or compression. The extent to which knots affect the strength of a beam depends upon their position, size, number, and condition. A knot on the upper side is compressed, while one on the lower side is subjected to tension. If there is a season check in the knot, as is often the case, it will offer little resistance to this tensile stress. Small knots, however, may be located along the neutral plane of a beam and increase the strength by preventing longitudinal shearing. Knots in a board or plank are least injurious when they extend through it at right angles to its broadest surface. Knots which occur near the ends of a beam do not weaken it. Sound knots which occur in the central portion one-fourth the height of the beam from either edge are not serious defects.
Knots do not necessarily influence the stiffness of structural timber, this will depend on the size and location. Stiffness and elastic strength are more dependent upon the sound wood than upon localized defects. The breaking strength is very susceptible to defects. Sound knots do not weaken wood when subject to compression parallel to the grain.
In some decorative applications, to add visual interest, wood with knots is preferred.
The traditional style of playing the Basque xylophon txalaparta involves hitting the right knots to obtain different tones.
Heartwood and sapwood
Heartwood is wood that has died and become more resistant to decay as a result of deposition of chemical substances (a genetically programmed process). It appears in a cross-section as a usually colored circle, usually following the annual rings in shape. Heartwood is usually much darker than living wood, and forms with age. Many woody plants do not form heartwood, but other processes, such as decay, can discolor wood in similar ways, leading to confusion. Some uncertainty still exists as to whether heartwood is truly dead, as it can still chemically react to decay organisms, but only once (Shigo 1986, 54).
Sapwood is the wood that is not heartwood. In the growing tree it is living wood. All wood in a tree is first formed as sapwood. Its principal functions are to conduct water from the roots to the leaves and to store up and give back according to the season the food prepared in the leaves. The more leaves a tree bears and the more vigorous its growth, the larger the volume of sapwood required. Hence trees making rapid growth in the open have thicker sapwood for their size than trees of the same species growing in dense forests. Sometimes trees grown in the open may become of considerable size, 30 cm or more in diameter, before any heartwood begins to form, for example, in second-growth hickory, or open-grown pines.
A section of a Yew branch showing 27 annual growth rings, pale sapwood and dark heartwood, and pith (centre dark spot). The dark radial lines are small knots.
The term heartwood derives solely from its position and not from any vital importance to the tree.
This is evidenced by the fact that a tree can thrive with its heart completely decayed. Some species begin to form heartwood very early in life, so having only a thin layer of live sapwood, while in others the change comes slowly. Thin sapwood is characteristic of such trees as chestnut, black locust, mulberry, osage-orange, and sassafras, while in maple, ash, hickory, hackberry, beech, and pine, thick sapwood is the rule. Others never form heartwood.
There is no definite relation between the annual rings of growth and the amount of sapwood. Within the same species the cross-sectional area of the sapwood is very roughly proportional to the size of the crown of the tree. If the rings are narrow, more of them are required than where they are wide. As the tree gets larger, the sapwood must necessarily become thinner or increase materially in volume. Sapwood is thicker in the upper portion of the trunk of a tree than near the base, because the age and the diameter of the upper sections are less.
When a tree is very young it is covered with limbs almost, if not entirely, to the ground, but as it grows older some or all of them will eventually die and are either broken off or fall off. Subsequent growth of wood may completely conceal the stubs which will however remain as knots. No matter how smooth and clear a log is on the outside, it is more or less knotty near the middle. Consequently the sapwood of an old tree, and particularly of a forest-grown tree, will be freer from knots than the inner heartwood. Since in most uses of wood, knots are defects that weaken the timber and interfere with its ease of working and other properties, it follows that a given piece of sapwood, because of its position in the tree, may well be stronger than a piece of heartwood from the same tree.
It is remarkable that the inner heartwood of old trees remains as sound as it usually does, since in many cases it is hundreds of years, and in a few instances thousands of years, old. Every broken limb or root, or deep wound from fire, insects, or falling timber, may afford an entrance for decay, which, once started, may penetrate to all parts of the trunk. The larvae of many insects bore into the trees and their tunnels remain indefinitely as sources of weakness. Whatever advantages, however, that sapwood may have in this connection are due solely to its relative age and position.
If a tree grows all its life in the open and the conditions of soil and site remain unchanged, it will make its most rapid growth in youth, and gradually decline. The annual rings of growth are for many years quite wide, but later they become narrower and narrower. Since each succeeding ring is laid down on the outside of the wood previously formed, it follows that unless a tree materially increases its production of wood from year to year, the rings must necessarily become thinner as the trunk gets wider. As a tree reaches maturity its crown becomes more open and the annual wood production is lessened, thereby reducing still more the width of the growth rings. In the case of forest-grown trees so much depends upon the competition of the trees in their struggle for light and nourishment that periods of rapid and slow growth may alternate. Some trees, such as southern oaks, maintain the same width of ring for hundreds of years. Upon the whole, however, as a tree gets larger in diameter the width of the growth rings decreases.
Different pieces of wood cut from a large tree may differ decidedly, particularly if the tree is big and mature. In some trees, the wood laid on late in the life of a tree is softer, lighter, weaker, and more even-textured than that produced earlier, but in other trees, the reverse applies. This may or may not correspond to heartwood and sapwood. In a large log the sapwood, because of the time in the life of the tree when it was grown, may be inferior in hardness, strength, and toughness to equally sound heartwood from the same log. In a smaller tree, the reverse may be true.
There is a strong relationship between the properties of wood and the properties of the particular tree that yielded it. For every tree species there is a range of density for the wood it yields. There is a rough correlation between density of a wood and its strength (mechanical properties). For example, while mahogany is a medium-dense hardwood which is excellent for fine furniture crafting, balsa is light, making it useful for model building. The densest wood may be black ironwood.
It is common to classify wood as either softwood or hardwood. The wood from conifers (e.g. pine) is called softwood, and the wood from dicotyledons (usually broad-leaved trees, e.g. oak) is called hardwood. These names are a bit misleading, as hardwoods are not necessarily hard, and softwoods are not necessarily soft. The well-known balsa (a hardwood) is actually softer than any commercial softwood. Conversely, some softwoods (e.g. yew) are harder than most hardwoods.
Wood products such as plywood are typically classified as engineered wood and not considered raw wood.
In species which show a distinct difference between heartwood and sapwood the natural colour of heartwood is usually darker than that of the sapwood, and very frequently the contrast is conspicuous. This is produced by deposits in the heartwood of chemical substances; these usually have no dramatic effect on the mechanical properties of the wood.
Some experiments on very resinous Longleaf Pine specimens indicate an increase in strength, due to the resin which increases the strength when dry. Such resin-saturated heartwood is called "fat lighter". Structures built of fat lighter are almost impervious to rot and termites; however they are very flammable. Stumps of old longleaf pines are often dug, split into small pieces and sold as kindling for fires. Stumps thus dug may actually remain a century or more since being cut. Spruce impregnated with crude resin and dried is also greatly increased in strength thereby.
The wood of Coast Redwood is distinctively red in colour
Since the late wood of a growth ring is usually darker in colour than the early wood, this fact may be used in judging the density, and therefore the hardness and strength of the material. This is particularly the case with coniferous woods. In ring-porous woods the vessels of the early wood not infrequently appear on a finished surface as darker than the denser late wood, though on cross sections of heartwood the reverse is commonly true. Except in the manner just stated the colour of wood is no indication of strength. Abnormal discolouration of wood often denotes a diseased condition, indicating unsoundness. The black check in western hemlock is the result of insect attacks.
The reddish-brown streaks so common in hickory and certain other woods are mostly the result of injury by birds. The discolouration is merely an indication of an injury, and in all probability does not of itself affect the properties of the wood. Certain rot-producing fungi impart to wood characteristic colours which thus become symptomatic of weakness; however an attractive effect known as spalting produced by this process is often considered a desirable characteristic. Ordinary sap-staining is due to fungous growth, but does not necessarily produce a weakening effect.
Wood is a heterogeneous, hygroscopic, cellular and anisotropic material. It is composed of fibers of cellulose (40% – 50%) and hemicellulose (15% – 25%) impregnated with lignin (15% – 30%).
In coniferous or softwood species the wood cells are mostly of one kind, tracheids, and as a result the material is much more uniform in structure than that of most hardwoods. There are no vessels ("pores") in coniferous wood such as one sees so prominently in oak and ash, for example.
The structure of the hardwoods is more complex. They are more or less filled with vessels: in some cases (oak, chestnut, ash) quite large and distinct, in others (buckeye, poplar, willow) too small to be seen plainly without a small hand lens. In discussing such woods it is customary to divide them into two large classes, ring-porous and diffuse-porous. In ring-porous species, such as ash, black locust, catalpa, chestnut, elm, hickory, mulberry, and oak, the larger vessels or pores (as cross sections of vessels are called) are localized in the part of the growth ring formed in spring, thus forming a region of more or less open and porous tissue. The rest of the ring, produced in summer, is made up of smaller vessels and a much greater proportion of wood fibres. These fibres are the elements which give strength and toughness to wood, while the vessels are a source of weakness.
In diffuse-porous woods the pores are scattered throughout the growth ring instead of being collected in a band or row. Examples of this kind of wood are basswood, birch, buckeye, maple, poplar, and willow. Some species, such as walnut and cherry, are on the border between the two classes, forming an intermediate group.
If a heavy piece of pine is compared with a light specimen it will be seen at once that the heavier one contains a larger proportion of late wood than the other, and is therefore considerably darker. The late wood of all species is denser than that formed early in the season, hence the greater the proportion of late wood the greater the density and strength. When examined under a microscope the cells of the late wood are seen to be very thick-walled and with very small cavities, while those formed first in the season have thin walls and large cavities. The strength is in the walls, not the cavities. In choosing a piece of pine where strength or stiffness is the important consideration, the principal thing to observe is the comparative amounts of early and late wood. The width of ring is not nearly so important as the proportion of the late wood in the ring.
It is not only the proportion of late wood, but also its quality, that counts. In specimens that show a very large proportion of late wood it may be noticeably more porous and weigh considerably less than the late wood in pieces that contain but little. One can judge comparative density, and therefore to some extent weight and strength, by visual inspection.
No satisfactory explanation can as yet be given for the real causes underlying the formation of early and late wood. Several factors may be involved. In conifers, at least, rate of growth alone does not determine the proportion of the two portions of the ring, for in some cases the wood of slow growth is very hard and heavy, while in others the opposite is true. The quality of the site where the tree grows undoubtedly affects the character of the wood formed, though it is not possible to formulate a rule governing it. In general, however, it may be said that where strength or ease of working is essential, woods of moderate to slow growth should be chosen. But in choosing a particular specimen it is not the width of ring, but the proportion and character of the late wood which should govern.
In the case of the ring-porous hardwoods there seems to exist a pretty definite relation between the rate of growth of timber and its properties. This may be briefly summed up in the general statement that the more rapid the growth or the wider the rings of growth, the heavier, harder, stronger, and stiffer the wood. This, it must be remembered, applies only to ring-porous woods such as oak, ash, hickory, and others of the same group, and is, of course, subject to some exceptions and limitations.
In ring-porous woods of good growth it is usually the middle portion of the ring in which the thick-walled, strength-giving fibers are most abundant. As the breadth of ring diminishes, this middle portion is reduced so that very slow growth produces comparatively light, porous wood composed of thin-walled vessels and wood parenchyma. In good oak these large vessels of the early wood occupy from 6 to 10 per cent of the volume of the log, while in inferior material they may make up 25 per cent or more. The late wood of good oak, except for radial grayish patches of small pores, is dark colored and firm, and consists of thick-walled fibers which form one-half or more of the wood. In inferior oak, such fiber areas are much reduced both in quantity and quality. Such variation is very largely the result of rate of growth.
Sections of tree trunk
A tree trunk as found at the Veluwe, The Netherlands
Black locust end grain, showing the ring-porous structure.
Magnified cross-section of a diffuse-porous hardwood (Black Walnut), showing the vessels, rays (white lines) and annual rings
The twisty branch of a Lilac tree
Wide-ringed wood is often called "second-growth", because the growth of the young timber in open stands after the old trees have been removed is more rapid than in trees in the forest, and in the manufacture of articles where strength is an important consideration such "second-growth" hardwood material is preferred. This is particularly the case in the choice of hickory for handles and spokes.
Here not only strength, but toughness and resilience are important. The results of a series of tests on hickory by the U.S. Forest Service show that:
"The work or shock-resisting ability is greatest in wide-ringed wood that has from 5 to 14 rings per inch (rings 1.8-5 mm thick), is fairly constant from 14 to 38 rings per inch (rings 0.7-1.8 mm thick), and decreases rapidly from 38 to 47 rings per inch (rings 0.5-0.7 mm thick). The strength at maximum load is not so great with the most rapid-growing wood; it is maximum with from 14 to 20 rings per inch (rings 1.3-1.8 mm thick), and again becomes less as the wood becomes more closely ringed. The natural deduction is that wood of first-class mechanical value shows from 5 to 20 rings per inch (rings 1.3-5 mm thick) and that slower growth yields poorer stock. Thus the inspector or buyer of hickory should discriminate against timber that has more than 20 rings per inch (rings less than 1.3 mm thick). Exceptions exist, however, in the case of normal growth upon dry situations, in which the slow-growing material may be strong and tough."
The effect of rate of growth on the qualities of chestnut wood is summarized by the same authority as follows:
"When the rings are wide, the transition from spring wood to summer wood is gradual, while in the narrow rings the spring wood passes into summer wood abruptly. The width of the spring wood changes but little with the width of the annual ring, so that the narrowing or broadening of the annual ring is always at the expense of the summer wood. The narrow vessels of the summer wood make it richer in wood substance than the spring wood composed of wide vessels. Therefore, rapid-growing specimens with wide rings have more wood substance than slow-growing trees with narrow rings. Since the more the wood substance the greater the weight, and the greater the weight the stronger the wood, chestnuts with wide rings must have stronger wood than chestnuts with narrow rings. This agrees with the accepted view that sprouts (which always have wide rings) yield better and stronger wood than seedling chestnuts, which grow more slowly in diameter."
In diffuse-porous woods, as has been stated, the vessels or pores are scattered throughout the ring instead of collected in the early wood. The effect of rate of growth is, therefore, not the same as in the ring-porous woods, approaching more nearly the conditions in the conifers. In general it may be stated that such woods of medium growth afford stronger material than when very rapidly or very slowly grown. In many uses of wood, strength is not the main consideration. If ease of working is prized, wood should be chosen with regard to its uniformity of texture and straightness of grain, which will in most cases occur when there is little contrast between the late wood of one season's growth and the early wood of the next.
Structural material that roughly (in its gross handling characteristics) resembles ordinary, 'dicot' or conifer wood is produced by a number of monocot plants, and these are also usually called wood. Of these, bamboo, botanically a member of the grass family, has considerable economic importance, larger culms being widely used as a building and construction material in their own right and, these days, in the manufacture of engineered flooring, panels and veneer. Another major plant group that produce material that often is called wood are the palms. Of much less importance are plants such as Pandanus, Dracaena and Cordyline. With all this material, the structure and composition of the structural material is quite different from ordinary wood.
Trunks of the Coconut palm, a monocot, in Java. From this perspective these look not much different from trunks of a dicot or conifer
The churches of Kizhi, Russia are among a handful of World Heritage Sites built entirely of wood, without metal joints.
Water occurs in living wood in three conditions, namely: (1) in the cell walls, (2) in the protoplasmic contents of the cells, and (3) as free water in the cell cavities and spaces. In heartwood it occurs only in the first and last forms. Wood that is thoroughly air-dried retains from 8-16% of water in the cell walls, and none, or practically none, in the other forms. Even oven-dried wood retains a small percentage of moisture, but for all except chemical purposes, may be considered absolutely dry.
The general effect of the water content upon the wood substance is to render it softer and more pliable. A similar effect of common observation is in the softening action of water on paper or cloth. Within certain limits, the greater the water content, the greater its softening effect.
Drying produces a decided increase in the strength of wood, particularly in small specimens. An extreme example is the case of a completely dry spruce block 5 cm in section, which will sustain a permanent load four times as great as that which a green (undried) block of the same size will support.
The greatest increase due to drying is in the ultimate crushing strength, and strength at elastic limit in endwise compression; these are followed by the modulus of rupture, and stress at elastic limit in cross-bending, while the modulus of elasticity is least affected.
Wood is burned as a fuel mostly in rural areas of the world. Hard wood is preferred over softwood because it creates less smoke and burns longer. Adding a woodstove or fireplace to a home adds ambiance and warmth.
Wood has been an important construction material since humans began building shelters, houses and boats. Nearly all boats were made out of wood until the late 19th century, and wood remains in common use today in boat construction. New domestic housing in many parts of the world today is commonly made from timber-framed construction. In buildings made of other materials, wood will still be found as a supporting material, especially in roof construction, in interior doors and their frames, and as exterior cladding. Wood to be used for construction work is commonly known as lumber in North America. Elsewhere, lumber usually refers to felled trees, and the word for sawn planks ready for use is timber. Wood is also commonly used as shuttering material to form the mould into which concrete is poured during reinforced concrete construction.
Wood unsuitable for construction in its native form may be broken down mechanically (into fibres or chips) or chemically (into cellulose) and used as a raw material for other building materials such as chipboard, engineered wood, hardboard, medium-density fiberboard (MDF), oriented strand board (OSB). Such wood derivatives are widely used: wood fibers are an important component of most paper, and cellulose is used as a component of some synthetic materials. Wood derivatives can also be used for kinds of flooring, for example laminate flooring.
Wood is also used for cutlery, such as chopsticks, toothpicks, and other utensils, like the wooden spoon.
In the arts
Wood can be cut into straight planks and made into a hardwood floor (parquetry).
The Saitta House, Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, New York built in 1899 is made of and decorated in wood.
Artists can use wood to create delicate sculptures.
Wood has long been used as an artistic medium. It has been used to make sculptures and carvings for centuries. Examples include the totem poles carved by North American indigenous people from conifer trunks, often Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata), and the Millenium clock tower , now housed in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
It is also used in woodcut printmaking, and for engraving.
Certain types of musical instruments, such as those of the violin family, the guitar, the clarinet and recorder, the xylophone, and the marimba, are made mostly or entirely of wood. The choice of wood may make a significant difference to the tone and resonant qualities of the instrument, and tonewoods have widely differing properties, ranging from the hard and dense (african blackwood used for the bodies of clarinets to the light but resonant European spruce (Picea abies)) traditionally used for the soundboards of violins. The most valuable tonewoods, such as the ripple sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus), used for the backs of violins, combine acoustic properties with decorative colour and grain which enhance the appearance of the finished instrument.
- K. Briffa et al. (2008) Trends in recent temperature and radial tree growth spanning 2000 years across northwest Eurasia. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 363, 2271-2284.
- Record, Samuel J (1914). The Mechanical Properties of Wood. J. Wiley & Sons. pp. 165.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Products Laboratory. The Wood Handbook: Wood as an engineering material. General Technical Report 113. Madison, WI.
- Hoadley, R. Bruce (2000). Understanding Wood: A Craftsman’s Guide to Wood Technology. Taunton Press.
- Shigo, Alex. (1986) A New Tree Biology Dictionary. Shigo and Trees, Associates.