Anticipate Wood Deteriorating

Old lumber that recently came off of the building is always more solid than anything that has been stacked around a while or laying in the dirt. Almost every time that it sits in a stack with no airflow it will dry rot. Lumber that is stacked outside with stickers (wood spacers) between each layer to allow airflow will last much longer than a un-stickered stack with a sheet of plastic over it. The lumber that cannot dry out easily will begin rotting immediately. The same goes for an old barn. It can stand out in the elements getting beat with rain, wind, sun, snow, and anything else that nature throw at it. It will last for what seems like forever unprotected like this, but the moment it falls down it will start to decompose. Material that stood upright unprotected for a century would be better than a painted board that laid in the mud for one year. Salvaging decaying barns is important to do before they fall into a heap and become a worthless pile of scrap.

If one does not have covered lumber storage, stack in a yard with stickers between each layer to let the wood breath. They will get wet, but the next day the wind will dry them out. All wood brought in from storage should go through a process of denailing, metal detecting, air drying, and finely kiln drying before being milled.

So, how do we recommend building gates or doors that are to be exposed to the elements? Customers often ask if reclaimed wood is tougher, more resilient, more stable, and drier than virgin wood. Some reclaimed lumber dealers may lead you to believe this, but honestly that can be a little bit of smoke and mirrors. Wood is wood whether it was harvested last year or a hundred years ago. It will still absorb moisture, rot, or crack. The biggest difference about older wood is that it came from old growth forest and on average may have tighter growth rings than fresh cut virgin wood. Also one can be assured that all of the green moisture is out of reclaimed lumber if it has had time to dry properly; the only moisture still present is ambient moisture which is easier to get out. Reclaimed lumber can still warp and twist in new ways, but if properly used it may not have the surprises that green virgin lumber may have. Finally, whichever kind of lumber one uses, they still need to take the same precautions to protect the piece that they are building. This means that using either reclaimed or virgin lumber one needs to plan ahead to protect the wood from the elements.

Our standard way of constructing doors is with solid wood pieces that have multiple laminations to maintain flatness. This method uses 1/4″ veneers on each side of a laminated stave core. Our joinery is very tight with close tolerances. This quality of craftsmanship is great if the door is to finish and protected from the elements. No amount of finish and maintenance, though, is going to protect a door from direct rain and sun. That door will soak up the water and the finish will peel off; for this reason your exterior doors need overhang protection. Even with the laminations to lend stability a solid wood door that soaks up moisture can swell and blow itself apart.

If the customer wants a wood door but doesn’t have the proper location to install it, a lot of questions and soul searching must be asked. For example, let’s say the installation is for a South-West facing location with no eaves. The sun actually will do more damage than the direct rain. Is it ethical to sell a door that is going to be a maintenance nightmare and possible be destined to fail? No amount of proper planning and quality construction techniques can fight the elements indefinitely. Sometimes not every location is suitable for an exterior wood door, and maybe alternative materials should be used.

Occasionally we are asked to build doors and gates that will be exposed to the elements. It is important to manage customers’ expectations of how the wood will perform. If it is a door that does not lead to a conditioned space or an outside gate we recommend using solid wood boards and mechanical fasteners such as bolt and nuts. In these instances we recommend against using lamination or any glued joints. No matter how waterproof the glue is the wood will swell and move, and thus break the joint. To keep the door relatively flat wood braces can be bolted on (a nice touch here is to use authentic old rusty bolts) or an even stronger method is to introduce a steel framework. These solid wood/ non-glued plank doors are typically built with looser tolerances that allows for wood expansion or movement; they resemble the doors built for old barns.

In these non-laminated doors and gates built without glue joints that are fully exposed to the elements we recommend against using any finish or paint on them. For the same reasons outlined above about how wood will rot when it is not allowed to dry, the finish will trap the moisture in the board. For example, if one were to build a fence with lumber, it would last longer with no finish ever applied to it than one with paint applied but not maintained yearly. No matter what the finish manufacturer’s claims are there is no finish that lasts ten years or a lifetime like some claim. The wood underneath moves and cracks, therefore opening up new holes for moisture penetration. Also, no matter what the owner’s good intentions of maintaining the finish, as time goes by it is often forgotten. We would rather use old wood and let it naturally weather with no finish. Let nature install it owns beauty, and the piece can look like it belongs in its spot.