Wood And Its Uses

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The use of wood by humans for fuel, clubs, and other purposes dates back into antiquity, and present uses are so numerous that it would be impossible to list in a work of this type more than the most important ones. Before discussing the economic importance of wood, let's take a brief look at its properties.

In a living tree, up to 50% of the weight of the wood comes from the water content. Before the wood can be used, seasoning reduces the moisture content to 10% or less, either by air-drying it in ventilated piles or stacks or by drying it in special ovens known as kilns. The seasoning has to be done gradually and under carefully controlled conditions, or the timber may warp and split along the rays, making it unfit for most uses. The dry part of wood is composed of 60% to 75% cellulose and about 15% to 25% lignin, an organic substance that makes the walls of xylem cells tough and hard. Other substances present in smaller amounts include resins, gums, oils, dyes, tannins, and starch. The proportions and amounts of these and other substances determine how various woods will be used (Fig. 6.16).


The density of wood is among its most important physical properties. Technically, the density is the weight per unit volume. The weight is compared with that of an equal volume of water and is stated as a fraction of 1.0. Because of the considerable air space within the cells, most woods have a specific gravity, as the comparative density is called, of less than 1.0. The range of specific gravities of known woods varies from 0.04 to 1.40, the lightest commercially used wood being balsa with a specific gravity of about 0.12. Woods with specific gravities of less than 0.50 are considered light; those with specific gravities of above 0.70 are considered heavy. Among the heaviest woods are the South American ironwood and lignum vitae, with specific gravities of over 1.25. Lignum vitae, obtained from West Indian trees, is extremely hard wood and is used instead of metal in the manufacture of main bearings for drive shafts of submarines because it is self-lubricating and less noisy.


A wood's ability to withstand decay caused by organisms and insects is referred to as its durability. Moisture is needed for the enzymatic breakdown of cellulose and other wood substances by decay organisms, but the seasoning process usually reduces the moisture to a level below that necessary for the fungi and other decay organisms to survive. Other natural constituents of wood that repel decay organisms include tannins and oils. Wood with a tannin content of 15%

Wood And Its Uses
Figure 6.17 How the surfaces of plain-sawed, quarter-sawed, and transversely sawed wood appear. (See also Fig. 6.8.)

or more may survive on a forest floor for many years after diseases of the phloem and other causes have toppled it. Among the most durable of American woods are cedar, catalpa, black locust, red mulberry, and Osage orange. The least durable woods include cottonwood, willow, fir, and basswood.

Types of Sawing

Logs are usually cut longitudinally in one of two ways: along the radius or perpendicular to the rays (Fig. 6.17). Radially cut, or quartersawed, boards show the annual rings in side view; they appear as longitudinal streaks and are the most conspicuous feature of the wood. Only a few perfect quartersawed boards can be obtained from a log, making them quite expensive. Boards cut perpendicular to the rays (tangentially cut boards) are more common. In these, the annual rings appear as irregular bands of light and dark alternating streaks or patches, with the ends of the rays visible as narrower and less conspicuous vertical streaks. Lumber cut tangentially is referred to as being plain-sawed, or slab cut. Slabs are the boards with rounded sides at the outside of the log; they are usually made into chips for pulping.


Knots are the bases of lost branches that have become covered, over a period of time, by new annual rings of wood produced by the cambium of the trunk. They are found in greater concentration in the older parts of the log toward the center, because in the forest, the lowermost branches of a tree (produced while the trunk was small in girth) often die from insufficient light. When a branch

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dies and falls off, the cambium at its base also dies, but the cambium of the trunk remains alive and increases the girth of the tree, slowly enveloping the dead tissue of the branch base until it may be completely buried and not visible from the surface. Knots usually weaken the boards in which they occur.

Wood Products

In the United States and Canada, about half of the wood produced is used as lumber, primarily for construction; the sawdust and other waste formed in processing the boards is converted to particle board and pulp. A considerable amount of lumber goes into the making of furniture, which may be constructed of solid wood or covered with a veneer. A veneer is a very thin sheet of desirable wood that is glued to cheaper lumber; it is carefully cut so as to produce the best possible view of the grain (Fig. 6.18).

The next most extensive use of wood is for pulp, which among other things is converted by various processes to paper, synthetic fibers, plastics, and linoleum. In recent years, it has been added as a filler to commercial ice cream and bread. Some hardwoods are treated chemically or heated under controlled conditions to yield a number of chemicals, such as wood alcohol and acetic acid, but other sources of these products are now usually considered more economical. Charcoal, excelsior, cooperage (kegs, casks, and barrels), railroad ties, boxes and crates, musical instruments, bowling pins, tool handles, pilings, cellophane, photographic film, and Christmas trees are but a few of the additional wood products worth billions of dollars annually on the world market (see Fig. 6.16).

In developing countries, approximately half of the timber cut is used for fuel, but in the United States and Canada, a little less than 10% is currently used for that purpose. In colonial times, wood was the almost exclusive source of heating energy. In the 1990s, Brazil's major cities were still using scrub timber from the surrounding forests to energize their utilities, but rapidly depleting supplies and problems related to the greenhouse effect (discussed in Chapter 25) have pointed to the need for alternate sources of energy. Many types of coal are wood that has been compressed for millions of years until nearly pure carbon remains. The formation of coal and other fossils is discussed in Chapter 20. Although the world's supply of coal is still plentiful, the rate at which this fossil fuel is being consumed makes it obvious that resources will eventually be exhausted unless our energy demands find renewable or less destructive alternatives.

Some of the vast array of secondary products from stems, including dyes, medicines, spices, and foods, are discussed in later chapters and in the appendices.

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    What is the most conspicuous feature of a plane or slab board?
    8 years ago

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