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Even in the concrete jungle wood is all around us, but usually not in the form of trees. Although it is very old fashioned material, it has become more popular in recent years and in the 21st century is considered to be a very low energy ecological resource compared to other traditional construction materials such as brick. It is versatile, relatively lightweight, yet very strong and easy to work using hand tools. This makes it a very useful DIY material.

Wood is referred to as softwood or hardwood. This is strictly speaking a botanical term rather than a description of its physical properties. Hardwood is from a deciduous tree, softwood is from an evergreen coniferous tree. Hardwoods tend to be more durable (resistant to decay) than softwoods. However this is not always the case, a perfect example being Western Red Cedar which comes from North America.

You will see this used in cladding and expensive garden sheds. Hardwoods generally take longer to grow and much of the indigenous forests of the UK were destroyed long ago. Today, most of the timber in common use which is referred to as ‘softwood’ is either European Redwood (Scots Pine) or European Whitewood (Norway Spruce). Both are creamy white/yellow in colour and the former is identifiable by also having a light red tint to it. It is also the only one of the two that is indigenous to the UK. These species are fast growing (as trees go) and on the whole the forests are not naturally occurring but are planted specifically to produce timber.

Wood has a set of characteristics all its own. Much of it is water and after felling it is usually dried before use in a steam kiln, or on an open to the air but covered from weather, stack. This is essential for in door use in dry environments. However, it is common for fencing and sheds to be produced out of ‘green’ or ‘wet’ freshly sawn timber. Why? It saves money by missing out the drying process. Wet wood is easy to spot by picking it up. It will be very heavy because it’s full of water!

Think of it as having similar properties to a sponge. It is very absorbent and therefore responds to environmental conditions. Here is a list of common defects that you will see in a piece of timber:
•wind – twisting across its length
•dead knots – loose knot caused by a branch breaking off and carrying the die off into the trunk
•checks – splitting, common at the ends
•cupping – warping across the width

Choose individual boards that have as few of these as possible to make their workability greater. The reality is that you will find few boards that are defect free. I think that cupping is perhaps the biggest threat to the usability of a plank of wood. Most tree trunks are sawn straight through from one side to the other (this is referred to as ‘through and through’ or plain sawn). This is the most economical method, but it increases the cupping effect. Look at the end of a plain sawn piece of wood. The rings you can see i.e. the annual growth rings have a natural tendency to straighten outwards from the long outer side of the ring and that is what causes cupping. Placing boards with this side down e.g. on floors or table tops will make the likelihood of them curling up and making ‘rockers’ much less. Of course, you can only make this choice with square edge boards, not with ready moulded tongue and groove.

The only real way to stop this is to plane the board flat and assemble it into your piece of work as soon as possible. It might be possible to bend a plank that is thin enough. The wider the board the more pronounced the effect. Very wide boards will most likely never remain flat. Wide boards are not that common, because it means growing the tree for longer.

Wood can be attacked by both fungus and insects. The former is the most common problem that you will encounter, in the form of ‘wet rot’, which is just a name for a type of fungus. As far as insects go, I believe that Berkshire and Surrey are renowned for the house longhorn beetle, but I’ve never encountered anything like that myself. Apparently, there are termites in Devon, so who knows what will happen in the future.

A bare piece of wood exposed to the elements with air flowing freely around it will not suffer from rotting fungus. This generally occurs where the circulation of air is restricted e.g. in a poorly ventilated loft, or in contact with the ground. The alternative way of stopping rot is by impregnating the timber with a preservative. This is simply a toxic (just to fungus, hopefully) substance which inhibits their growth.

The cheapest way of buying timber is to buy in bulk (obviously) and to buy wet wood if you have the means to dry it. You can buy a dehumidifier to put in your shed or workshop, to speed the process. I have found that 25mm/1 inch thick redwood dries to a usable level in my shed in the summer (that must be in Tenerife!) in about a month.

To buy wet wood you will probably have to look to your nearest country sawmill rather than a city timber merchant.