In End Grain

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You, too, can determine moisture content simply by feeling a board.

Murphy had never bought lumber from us before. He watched his boards carefully as they were loaded onto his truck.

“They look good,” he said. He picked up a board and caressed the surface. “Yeah, this is really dry, about 7 percent. I can tell just by feeling it.” The loaders smirked. Later they were rubbing boards, guessing moisture contents and laughing.

“It’s true,” I told them. “You can tell the moisture content by feel when you’ve handled enough lumber. I’ll prove it.” I picked up a board from an air-drying pile, hefted it and felt the surface. “I estimate 16 percent.” I stuck the moisture meter in the board. It read 17 12 percent. They quit laughing.

Since then I’ve performed an exhaustive scientific study on at least a half-dozen samples from 4/4 red oak to 16/4 basswood and found my accuracy to vary by 1 to 5 percent of the actual moisture content. That compares favorably with some cheap moisture meters. While I wouldn’t adjust a kiln schedule based on the “feel” of the lumber, neither would I depend solely on a moisture meter.

Accurately guessing moisture content is a useful skill. Because lumber expands and contracts, knowing moisture content is critical to avoiding problems. Experience helps. I’ve handled more than a million board feet of lumber, dried hundreds of kiln loads and held thousands of kiln samples of known moisture content. While holding a sample and before a number magically pops into my head, I believe a number of factors subconsciously combine to form an estimate:

• Weight: During drying, a board can lose a third to half its weight. You can estimate weight pretty closely with practice.

• Distortion: Wood remains dimensionally stable as it dries until about 30 percent. Below 30 percent it begins to cup and twist. The more distortion, the drier the lumber.

• Temperature: As water evaporates, it absorbs heat. A damp board feels cooler.

• History: The longer a board dries, the lower the moisture content.

• Weather: The warmer and drier the air is, the faster wood dries. The cooler or damper the air is, the slower it dries. Below 40°, drying nearly stops.

• Brittleness: As lumber dries it hardens, stiffens and becomes more brittle. Kiln-dried lumber feels rougher or more abrasive than air dried because the fibers are stiffer.

A few months later, Eli came to pick up an order. He also wanted to know the moisture content of a piece of lumber he owned.

“Well, sure, I can stick the meter in it for you, but I can tell the moisture content just by feel,” I said. It was a dumb thing to say. Suddenly random conversations stopped.

“I’d like to see that,” Eli said, handing me the stock. I turned it over and hefted it. It felt heavier and looked darker than most walnut. Crotch or stump-figured wood is usually very dense.

“Beautiful figure here,” I said, trying to stall and extract a bit more information.

“Pain to work with though.” Eli’s face looked like a poker player’s.

“How long has it been drying?” I asked.

“I ain’t saying nothing.”

I hadn’t planned to risk my reputation as a sane lumber dealer on my gift of divining moisture content. A number formed in my head. Finally I blurted out, “12 percent.” I jabbed the meter pins into the stock.

The needle rested at 12 on the dot. Whether it was clairvoyance, mystic intuition or luck, Eli was impressed. I was relieved but not surprised. Twelve percent is pretty standard for any thoroughly air-dried lumber in this region.

That was my last public performance. I don’t need people coming to me for palm readings, healing or to locate underground veins of water. But I wonder what other hidden gifts a person might possess. I think I’ll try finding metal embedded in saw logs.  – Peter Sieling

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