Dealing with Uneven Shrinkage or Swelling of Woods

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Every woodworker has experienced the problems that accompany uneven shrinkage or swelling of wood stock. When wood dries unevenly, it can warp, cup, bow, twist, kink or check. The key to building quality woodworking projects is to recognize when any of these problems might affect your work and to prepare for the inevitable.

Keep in mind that the following information relates to dimensional wood stock, both hardwoods and softwoods.

Plywood and other manufactured wood stocks are less susceptible to moisture related movement.

Why Does Wood Shrink or Swell?

When it is still alive as part of a tree trunk, wood is basically a series of thin tubes that circulate sap & fluids from the roots of the tree to the upper branches. As we discussed in our article on Heartwood and Sapwood, stock found closer to the outer portions of the trunk are more active and pass more sap than the heartwood found closer to the center of the trunk.

Your woodworking projects will react accordingly. Projects built from heartwood are going to be far less susceptible to shrinking and swelling than projects made from sapwood, as the heartwood is less likely to retain moisture.

Acclimatization of Wood

Ideally, wood should not only be dried properly before building a project, but it should become acclimatized to the environmental surroundings in which the project will be used permanently.

For instance, a project that is built in a humid environment like Florida will likely react quite severely if it is to be put to use in a dry environment like the Arizona desert.

Instead, the wood should be purchased and stored for a few weeks in the location where the final project will be used before beginning the project.

This way, the wood will be far less likely to move after the project is completed.

Radial, Longitudinal and Tangential Shrinkage

All wood stock is three dimensional, and knowing how wood shrinks and swells along these three dimensions will help you prepare for problems.

Longitudinal (along the long axis of the stock) shrinkage is very minimal. In most cases, from freshly-cut green wood to properly oven-dried, you can expect only a very slight amount of movement along the length of a board.

To determine the radial and tangential directions of a piece of stock, you need to look at the end grain. The radial direction is perpendicular to the growth rings, where tangential is parallel to the rings.

Keep in mind that movement along the tangential axis is almost always going to be greater than along the radial direction. By looking at the direction that the growth rings are oriented in the board, you can get an idea of how the board will react as the tangential movement exceeds the radial movement.

Tip: Movement is one of the many reasons why quarter-sawn lumber is so sought after (and expensive). Because of the way quarter-sawn wood is hewn from a log, the growth rings are relatively square to the sides of the board.

As such, the board will swell or shrink relatively evenly across the entire board.

How Does This Information Help?

Knowing how a board may shrink or swell will help you determine where (or whether) a board should be used on a woodworking project. For instance, if you're gluing up a table-top from a series of tangentially-cut boards, you're likely to experience some cupping (the center rising away from the ends, causing a slight arc in the width of the board) as the wood swells or shrinks.

If you have a number of tangentially-cut boards that may experience similar cupping, flipping every other board upside down (so that one will cup upwards while the next will cup downwards), you can diminish the possibility of a large bow in the table top.

Another clue to watch for is the distance between the growth rings.

Stock with tighter growth rings are much less susceptible to movement. So, a tangentially-cut board with wide growth rings can expect much more uneven movement, often resulting in cracking (called checking) when cupping becomes excessive.

When you have such a board that looks like it may eventually check in the center (particularly if the center portion is cut from the pith, or center, of the trunk), you may wish to cut smaller parts out of the edges of this board and discard the center portion. Nothing will ruin the aesthetics of a project faster than a crack in a prominent piece of wood in the project.

Where to Learn More

There is a definitive, classic work on the properties of wood and how wood moves when it shrinks or swells. Learn more by reading Understanding Wood: A Craftsman's Guide to Wood Technology by R. Bruce Hoadley. This book is more of a reference material than a "page turner," but I know of no other text that covers the properties of wood better. Hoadley includes a very useful full-page chart that shows the approximate shrinkage of numerous types of wood stock as it dries from green to oven-dry, along all three dimensions. This is one book that I'd recommend every woodworker have at least one copy in their shop.