Winter and Wood: How the cold could affect your timber fixtures

Published Thursday 04th December 2014

Wood is a perennially popular fixture for both interior and exterior construction. It's durable and has the potential to last a long time – but it's far from invincible. 

In this article, we'll look at how cold temperatures can affect your timber and what steps you can take to protect it from the winter.


Going Quantum


To understand why exposure to hot or cold temperatures can alter wood, we have to go back to basics with chemistry.


At its most basic level, timber is made of particles. When these are imbued with energy (e.g. heat), they will move faster and further apart, which in turn increases the rate of reaction. On the other hand, when we detract energy, particles slow down – eventually joining together in a big group. We can see this principle in action when we boil or freeze water. 


As a natural material, wood will always contain some degree of moisture (even if it's been treated). How much water it contains plays a role in dictating how strong and dense the timber is, as well as several other properties.


As we've noted in previous blogs, wood can swell, shrink and warp when its moisture content changes. Exposure to differing temperatures, as well as the relative humidity of the surrounding air, can precipitate these changes and if they're allowed to occur regularly – can severely hamper the function of wood.


Winter and Interiors


There's a couple of ways that cold weather can affect wooden fixtures inside your home. When temperatures drop, most people will batten down the hatches – closing windows and doors, and cranking up their heating systems.


This tends to cause the internal air to dry out and has the knock-on effect of drawing moisture from your timber. You might notice exaggerated effects like cracking and shrinking in wood placed near heaters or vents.


When the weather drops below freezing point, much of the ambient moisture in the air is trapped as ice or frost, which can also intensify the rate of shrinking or cracking.


Other factors can also mitigate or exacerbate the rate at which this happens – such as whether or not the wood has been treated, the species of tree that it comes from, the width of the material and additions like paints or veneers.


To protect interior wood from the worst the elements have to throw at it, one quick fix is to install a humidifier, which will help you keep the ambient moisture in balance.


Exterior Wood


While the principle of moisture movement applies to exterior wood in the same way – it's typically exposed to a lot more of the elements than interior timber. From the delivery stage until its final placement – exterior wood is subject to an assault by moisture.


Location can also play a big role in how exposed wood is. For instance, effects can be exaggerated in places near to a large body of water or that receive regular deluges of rainfall.


And, while it's not possible to completely stop the movement of moisture in external timber – there are ways to slow it.


Finishes: Applying a finish is one way to slow the rate at which moisture moves, but these products can themselves be affected by temperature pre-application, so make sure to pay attention to storage instructions.


When dealing with wood that'll be used for the outdoors, it's a good idea to sand it down first to ensure primers and finishes will adhere properly. Similarly, make sure it's sealed completely – taking care to fill in every nook and cranny.


Kiln-Drying: Drying timber via kiln reduces its moisture content, but it'll still acclimatise to the ambient moisture content in the surrounding environment.


Acclimating: When transporting and storing your timber, be sure to give it a chance to acclimate to the surrounding climate. For more tips on this, check out our guide to on-site storage.


Treated Products: Specially treated products can be particularly resistant to the effects of the cold. For instance Accoya wood, which is modified using the chemical compound acetic anhydride, boasts high levels of durability and dimensional stability – even when exposed to the most inhospitable climates.


Natural Resilience


While repeated cycles of heat and cold can damage your wood, you can rest easy in the knowledge that timber intended for outdoor usage will typically be prepared for its role.


For example, outdoor wooden furniture will be built with thick pieces and joints that decrease how much is exposed to the elements.


Similarly, wood has something of a natural tolerance in terms of how much it can expand and contract before succumbing to warping or shrinkage.


And You?


If you've got any tips on protecting wood from the cold, or think we've missed anything obvious be sure to let us know on Twitter.


And if you're looking for treated wood that can stand up to the elements, be sure to get in touch today.

Image used courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.