The Mechanical Properties of Wood Part 5

In hard pine, on the other hand, the late wood is very dense and is deep-colored, presenting a very decided contrast to the soft, straw-colored early wood. (See Fig. 23.) In ring-porous woods each season's growth is always well defined, because the large pores of the spring abut on the denser tissue of the fall before. In the diffuse-porous, the demarcation between rings is not always so clear and in not a few cases is almost, if not entirely, invisible to the unaided eye. (See Fig. 22.)

[Illustration: FIG. 23.--Cross section of longleaf pine showing several growth rings with variations in the width of the dark-colored late wood. Seven resin ducts are visible. X 33.

_Photomicrograph by U.S. Forest Service_]

If one compares a heavy piece of pine with a light specimen it will be seen at once that the heavier one contains a larger proportion of late wood than the other, and is therefore considerably darker. The late wood of all species is denser than that formed early in the season, hence the greater the proportion of late wood the greater the density and strength.

When examined under a microscope the cells of the late wood are seen to be very thick-walled and with very small cavities, while those formed first in the season have thin walls and large cavities. The strength is in the walls, not the cavities. In choosing a piece of pine where strength or stiffness is the important consideration, the principal thing to observe is the comparative amounts of early and late wood. The width of ring, that is, the number per inch, is not nearly so important as the proportion of the late wood in the ring.

It is not only the proportion of late wood, but also its quality, that counts. In specimens that show a very large proportion of late wood it may be noticeably more porous and weigh considerably less than the late wood in pieces that contain but little. One can judge comparative density, and therefore to some extent weight and strength, by visual inspection.

The conclusions of the U.S. Forest Service regarding the effect of rate of growth on the properties of Douglas fir are summarized as follows:

"1. In general, rapidly grown wood (less than eight rings per inch) is relatively weak. A study of the individual tests upon which the average points are based shows, however, that when it is not associated with light weight and a small proportion of summer wood, rapid growth is not indicative of weak wood.

"2. An average rate of growth, indicated by from 12 to 16 rings per inch, seems to produce the best material.

"3. In rates of growths lower than 16 rings per inch, the average strength of the material decreases, apparently approaching a uniform condition above 24 rings per inch. In such slow rates of growth the texture of the wood is very uniform, and naturally there is little variation in weight or strength.

"An analysis of tests on large beams was made to ascertain if average rate of growth has any relation to the mechanical properties of the beams. The analysis indicated conclusively that there was no such relation. Average rate of growth [without consideration also of density], therefore, has little significance in grading structural timber."[18] This is because of the wide variation in the percentage of late wood in different parts of the cross section.

[Footnote 18: Bul. 88: Properties and uses of Douglas fir, p.


Experiments seem to indicate that for most species there is a rate of growth which, in general, is associated with the greatest strength, especially in small specimens. For eight conifers it is as follows:[19]

[Footnote 19: Bul. 108, U. S. Forest Service: Tests of structural timbers, p. 37.]

Rings per inch Douglas fir 24 Shortleaf pine 12 Loblolly pine 6 Western larch 18 Western hemlock 14 Tamarack 20 Norway pine 18 Redwood 30

No satisfactory explanation can as yet be given for the real causes underlying the formation of early and late wood. Several factors may be involved. In conifers, at least, rate of growth alone does not determine the proportion of the two portions of the ring, for in some cases the wood of slow growth is very hard and heavy, while in others the opposite is true. The quality of the site where the tree grows undoubtedly affects the character of the wood formed, though it is not possible to formulate a rule governing it. In general, however, it may be said that where strength or ease of working is essential, woods of moderate to slow growth should be chosen. But in choosing a particular specimen it is not the width of ring, but the proportion and character of the late wood which should govern.

In the case of the ring-porous hardwoods there seems to exist a pretty definite relation between the rate of growth of timber and its properties. This may be briefly summed up in the general statement that the more rapid the growth or the wider the rings of growth, the heavier, harder, stronger, and stiffer the wood.

This, it must be remembered, applies only to ring-porous woods such as oak, ash, hickory, and others of the same group, and is, of course, subject to some exceptions and limitations.

In ring-porous woods of good growth it is usually the middle portion of the ring in which the thick-walled, strength-giving fibres are most abundant. As the breadth of ring diminishes, this middle portion is reduced so that very slow growth produces comparatively light, porous wood composed of thin-walled vessels and wood parenchyma. In good oak these large vessels of the early wood occupy from 6 to 10 per cent of the volume of the log, while in inferior material they may make up 25 per cent or more. The late wood of good oak, except for radial grayish patches of small pores, is dark colored and firm, and consists of thick-walled fibres which form one-half or more of the wood.

In inferior oak, such fibre areas are much reduced both in quantity and quality. Such variation is very largely the result of rate of growth.

Wide-ringed wood is often called "second-growth," because the growth of the young timber in open stands after the old trees have been removed is more rapid than in trees in the forest, and in the manufacture of articles where strength is an important consideration such "second-growth" hardwood material is preferred. This is particularly the case in the choice of hickory for handles and spokes. Here not only strength, but toughness and resilience are important. The results of a series of tests on hickory by the U.S. Forest Service show that "the work or shock-resisting ability is greatest in wide-ringed wood that has from 5 to 14 rings per inch, is fairly constant from 14 to 38 rings, and decreases rapidly from 38 to 47 rings. The strength at maximum load is not so great with the most rapid-growing wood; it is maximum with from 14 to 20 rings per inch, and again becomes less as the wood becomes more closely ringed. The natural deduction is that wood of first-class mechanical value shows from 5 to 20 rings per inch and that slower growth yields poorer stock. Thus the inspector or buyer of hickory should discriminate against timber that has more than 20 rings per inch. Exceptions exist, however, in the case of normal growth upon dry situations, in which the slow-growing material may be strong and tough."[20]

[Footnote 20: Bul. 80: The commercial hickories, pp. 48-50.]

The effect of rate of growth on the qualities of chestnut wood is summarized by the same authority as follows: "When the rings are wide, the transition from spring wood to summer wood is gradual, while in the narrow rings the spring wood passes into summer wood abruptly. The width of the spring wood changes but little with the width of the annual ring, so that the narrowing or broadening of the annual ring is always at the expense of the summer wood. The narrow vessels of the summer wood make it richer in wood substance than the spring wood composed of wide vessels. Therefore, rapid-growing specimens with wide rings have more wood substance than slow-growing trees with narrow rings.

Since the more the wood substance the greater the weight, and the greater the weight the stronger the wood, chestnuts with wide rings must have stronger wood than chestnuts with narrow rings. This agrees with the accepted view that sprouts (which always have wide rings) yield better and stronger wood than seedling chestnuts, which grow more slowly in diameter."[21]

[Footnote 21: Bul. 53: Chestnut in southern Maryland, pp.


In diffuse-porous woods, as has been stated, the vessels or pores are scattered throughout the ring instead of collected in the early wood. The effect of rate of growth is, therefore, not the same as in the ring-porous woods, approaching more nearly the conditions in the conifers. In general it may be stated that such woods of medium growth afford stronger material than when very rapidly or very slowly grown. In many uses of wood, strength is not the main consideration. If ease of working is prized, wood should be chosen with regard to its uniformity of texture and straightness of grain, which will in most cases occur when there is little contrast between the late wood of one season's growth and the early wood of the next.


Examination of the end of a log of many species reveals a darker-colored inner portion--the _heartwood_, surrounded by a lighter-colored zone--the _sapwood_. In some instances this distinction in color is very marked; in others, the contrast is slight, so that it is not always easy to tell where one leaves off and the other begins. The color of fresh sapwood is always light, sometimes pure white, but more often with a decided tinge of green or brown.

Sapwood is comparatively new wood. There is a time in the early history of every tree when its wood is all sapwood. Its principal functions are to conduct water from the roots to the leaves and to store up and give back according to the season the food prepared in the leaves. The more leaves a tree bears and the more thrifty its growth, the larger the volume of sapwood required, hence trees making rapid growth in the open have thicker sapwood for their size than trees of the same species growing in dense forests. Sometimes trees grown in the open may become of considerable size, a foot or more in diameter, before any heartwood begins to form, for example, in second-growth hickory, or field-grown white and loblolly pines.

As a tree increases in age and diameter an inner portion of the sapwood becomes inactive and finally ceases to function. This inert or dead portion is called heartwood, deriving its name solely from its position and not from any vital importance to the tree, as is shown by the fact that a tree can thrive with its heart completely decayed. Some, species begin to form heartwood very early in life, while in others the change comes slowly. Thin sapwood is characteristic of such trees as chestnut, black locust, mulberry, Osage orange, and sassafras, while in maple, ash, gum, hickory, hackberry, beech, and loblolly pine, thick sapwood is the rule.

There is no definite relation between the annual rings of growth and the amount of sapwood. Within the same species the cross-sectional area of the sapwood is roughly proportional to the size of the crown of the tree. If the rings are narrow, more of them are required than where they are wide. As the tree gets larger, the sapwood must necessarily become thinner or increase materially in volume. Sapwood is thicker in the upper portion of the trunk of a tree than near the base, because the age and the diameter of the upper sections are less.

When a tree is very young it is covered with limbs almost, if not entirely, to the ground, but as it grows older some or all of them will eventually die and be broken off. Subsequent growth of wood may completely conceal the stubs which, however, will remain as knots. No matter how smooth and clear a log is on the outside, it is more or less knotty near the middle. Consequently the sapwood of an old tree, and particularly of a forest-grown tree, will be freer from knots than the heartwood. Since in most uses of wood, knots are defects that weaken the timber and interfere with its ease of working and other properties, it follows that sapwood, because of its position in the tree, may have certain advantages over heartwood.

It is really remarkable that the inner heartwood of old trees remains as sound as it usually does, since in many cases it is hundreds of years, and in a few instances thousands of years, old. Every broken limb or root, or deep wound from fire, insects, or falling timber, may afford an entrance for decay, which, once started, may penetrate to all parts of the trunk.

The larvae of many insects bore into the trees and their tunnels remain indefinitely as sources of weakness. Whatever advantages, however, that sapwood may have in this connection are due solely to its relative age and position.

If a tree grows all its life in the open and the conditions of soil and site remain unchanged, it will make its most rapid growth in youth, and gradually decline. The annual rings of growth are for many years quite wide, but later they become narrower and narrower. Since each succeeding ring is laid down on the outside of the wood previously formed, it follows that unless a tree materially increases its production of wood from year to year, the rings must necessarily become thinner. As a tree reaches maturity its crown becomes more open and the annual wood production is lessened, thereby reducing still more the width of the growth rings. In the case of forest-grown trees so much depends upon the competition of the trees in their struggle for light and nourishment that periods of rapid and slow growth may alternate. Some trees, such as southern oaks, maintain the same width of ring for hundreds of years. Upon the whole, however, as a tree gets larger in diameter the width of the growth rings decreases.

It is evident that there may be decided differences in the grain of heartwood and sapwood cut from a large tree, particularly one that is overmature. The relationship between width of growth rings and the mechanical properties of wood is discussed under Rate of Growth. In this connection, however, it may be stated that as a general rule the wood laid on late in the life of a tree is softer, lighter, weaker, and more even-textured than that produced earlier. It follows that in a large log the sapwood, because of the time in the life of the tree when it was grown, may be inferior in hardness, strength, and toughness to equally sound heartwood from the same log.

After exhaustive tests on a number of different woods the U.S.

Forest Service concludes as follows: "Sapwood, except that from old, overmature trees, is as strong as heartwood, other things being equal, and so far as the mechanical properties go should not be regarded as a defect."[22] Careful inspection of the individual tests made in the investigation fails to reveal any relation between the proportion of sapwood and the breaking strength of timber.

[Footnote 22: Bul. 108: Tests of structural timber, p. 35.]

In the study of the hickories the conclusion was: "There is an unfounded prejudice against the heartwood. Specifications place white hickory, or sapwood, in a higher grade than red hickory, or heartwood, though there is no inherent difference in strength. In fact, in the case of large and old hickory trees, the sapwood nearest the bark is comparatively weak, and the best wood is in the heart, though in young trees of thrifty growth the best wood is in the sap."[23] The results of tests from selected pieces lying side by side in the same tree, and also the average values for heartwood and sapwood in shipments of the commercial hickories without selection, show conclusively that "the transformation of sapwood into heartwood does not affect either the strength or toughness of the wood.... It is true, however, that sapwood is usually more free from latent defects than heartwood."[24]

[Footnote 23: Bul. 80: The commercial hickories, p. 50.]

[Footnote 24: _Loc. cit._]

Specifications for paving blocks often require that longleaf pine be 90 per cent heart. This is on the belief that sapwood is not only more subject to decay, but is also weaker than heartwood. In reality there is no sound basis for discrimination against sapwood on account of strength, provided other conditions are equal. It is true that sapwood will not resist decay as long as heartwood, if both are untreated with preservatives. It is especially so of woods with deep-colored heartwood, and is due to infiltrations of tannins, oils, and resins, which make the wood more or less obnoxious to decay-producing fungi. If, however, the timbers are to be treated, sapwood is not a defect; in fact, because of the relative ease with which it can be impregnated with preservatives it may be made more desirable than heartwood.[25]

[Footnote 25: Although the factor of heart or sapwood does not influence the mechanical properties of the wood and there is usually no difference in structure observable under the microscope, nevertheless sapwood is generally decidedly different from heartwood in its physical properties. It dries better and more easily than heartwood, usually with less shrinkage and little checking or honeycombing. This is especially the case with the more refractory woods, such as white oaks and _Eucalyptus globulus_ and _viminalis_. It is usually much more permeable to air, even in green wood, notably so in loblolly pine and even in white oak. As already stated, it is much more subject to decay. The sapwood of white oak may be impregnated with creosote with comparative ease, while the heartwood is practically impenetrable. These facts indicate a difference in its chemical nature.--H.D. Tiemann.]

In specifications for structural timbers reference is sometimes made to "boxheart," meaning the inclusion of the pith or centre of the tree within a cross section of the timber. From numerous experiments it appears that the position of the pith does not bear any relation to the strength of the material. Since most season checks, however, are radial, the position of the pith may influence the resistance of a seasoned beam to horizontal shear, being greatest when the pith is located in the middle half of the section.[26]

[Footnote 26: Bul. 108, U.S. Forest Service, p. 36.]


From data obtained from a large number of tests on the strength of different woods it appears that, other things being equal, the crushing strength parallel to the grain, fibre stress at elastic limit in bending, and shearing strength along the grain of wood vary in direct proportion to the weight of dry wood per unit of volume when green. Other strength values follow different laws. The hardness varies in a slightly greater ratio than the square of the density. The work to the breaking point increases even more rapidly than the cube of density. The modulus of rupture in bending lies between the first power and the square of the density. This, of course, is true only in case the greater weight is due to increase in the amount of wood substance. A wood heavy with resin or other infiltrated substance is not necessarily stronger than a similar specimen free from such materials. If differences in weight are due to degree of seasoning, in other words, to the relative amounts of water contained, the rules given above will of course not hold, since strength increases with dryness. But of given specimens of pine or of oak, for example, in the green condition, the comparative strength may be inferred from the weight. It is not permissible, however, to compare such widely different woods as oak and pine on a basis of their weights.[27]

[Footnote 27: The oaks for some unknown reason fall below the normal strength for weight, whereas the hickories rise above.

Certain other woods also are somewhat exceptional to the normal relation of strength and density.]

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