Creating a Happy, Colorful, Handmade Home & life on the shores of lake superior

April 14, 2014

Wood Behaving Badly - Understanding and Dealing with Wood Movement

Hubby and I installed the kitchen sink and faucet over the weekend (photos Wednesday).  Maybe it's because I spent a couple of days inhaling the cloud of sawdust generated by cutting a giant hole for the sink, but I've been thinking a lot about wood.  In fact, a lot of woodsy things have caught my eye recently:

This streamlined credenza I'm confident we could build (welded legs and all):

This striking front door:

These mod bathroom vanities (which are a lot like what I'm planning for our phase II bathroom reno):

This nature-inspired table (as tacky as it sounds, I'd like to make a knock-off version for the dining room):

This impossibly chic kitchen:

This painstaking wood plank ceiling:

This inventive take on the DIY tree stump table:

This agate-topped solid wood table I can't stop thinking about:

Wood Movement

We actually have quite a few woodsy projects on the horizon, and while I was huffing sawdust I dreamed up a few more.  The tricky thing about wood, though, is that you can't just slap it together.  Wood expands and contracts (primarily across the grain - width wise) and it can't be forced to stay put.  It sometimes has a mind of its own, which needs to be accounted for during construction.  It was once a living thing, after all, and the cells that held onto moisture for its survival still move moisture, so in humid conditions wood can expand as it sucks in moisture while in dry conditions it can shrink as wood cells release moisture.  Plus, if it hasn't been properly seasoned, even if construction allows for wood movement, wood can still crack or split or warp.  (Of course, this is a simplistic account from a simple DIYer).  Last week I spotted a couple examples of W.B.B. (wood behaving badly, my term for the more accepted "wood movement"). 

Although they rebuilt it, Scott and Kim found that their farmhouse table split along the grain:

Jenny made wood floors from plywood planks (what a neat idea!) but in an instagram shot it looks like one board might have split (to the left of Evelyn) . . . although I might be seeing things because plywood doesn't behave the same as solid wood.  It should be more resistant to W.B.B.

Edit: After posting, I spotted Daniel's DIY kitchen counters, which had sadly warped and developed gaps.

I don't even need to go online to see W.B.B. - our hardwood floors have gaps!

Tongue and groove hardwood flooring, which is seemingly straightforward to install, also experiences wood movement.  When Hubs replaced the hardwood flooring in the closet, he realized the flooring in the lakehouse had been improperly installed.  Typically, hardwood flooring is installed so that there is expansion room around the edge grain.  The baseboard hides any gaps, and the quarter round attaches to the floor, so as the wood swells and shrinks the quarter round moves with it (no gaps!).  In our case, the edges of the hardwood planks were shaved down on an angle to facilitate wedging them tightly against the wall - the drywall was even dented from the force with which the hardwood was pushed down.  We're lucky we don't have any buckling that should accompany this kind of mistake (drywall is soft-ish, so it's likely smooshing to accept the swell of the wood).  Instead, we have gaps, which is kind of the opposite problem we expected. 


The gaps might have occurred because the wood wasn't allowed to acclimatize in the house prior to installation.  Maybe it was installed during a humid spell and our dry winter sucked the moisture out of the wood.  Luckily the gaps aren't really prominent, and hopefully they will disappear come summer.  But after the incredible effort Hubby and his Dad put into installing the townhouse hardwood floors, which looked perfect and never behaved badly, I'm crabby about inheriting gaps.

The townhouse floors, I miss you!
These musings on wood movement are relevant to our counter project because wood movement made planning our DIY wood kitchen counters tricky.  On a surface that butts up to a wall, like a counter, it could cause major problems.  If the wood isn't given room to expand, it could push against the walls and cause the cabinet to buckle.  If a wood counter is installed close to the wall in humid conditions, it could shrink and cause gaps between the counter and backsplash in dryer months.  When Hubby shares the how-to of our wood counters, we'll explain how we accounted for wood movement and what our solutions were.

I am by no means knowledgeable about wood, but I've learned enough from Hubs to know what wood movement is, and to be wary of it.  In the meantime, for anyone planning a wood project, here are some tips and, more importantly, resources to prevent W.B.B.

  • Bottom line: you can't stop wood from moving (glue and nails can only do so much)
  • Opt for joinery that allows for wood movement, like elongated screw holes
  • Allow wood to acclimatize to its environment before use
  • Ideally, construct a wood project in an environment with the same kind of humidity level as where it will be positioned once completed
  • Factor in the species, the way it was cut from the log, and the humidity, which all impact wood movement (this widget might help, talking with the pros at the lumber yard will too)

  • Realize that the smaller the panel, the less it will move overall
  • Research any project to get advice from the pros (not necessarily fellow DIYers), about how to address wood movement for your project's particular circumstances
  • Consider plywood (and other manufactured panels), which are more stable than solid wood and are better for beginner projects 

How you deal with wood movement varies from project to project, so it's difficult to provide more troubleshooting tips.  Click here for a great article about why wood moves and how to estimate wood movement.  This article is even more in depth with great photos to illustrate wood movement.  Finally, this article lists which kinds of wood experience more, or less, movement.  There are a LOT of woodsy DIY tutorials out there, but not all of them account for wood movement so I thought I'd chat about it a bit today. 

Worst case scenario, there's always the option to just work with a split and make something totally bad-ass:



  1. Replies
    1. Insanely gorgeous, isn't it? I've only seen smaller tables on the site and they are around $5-6,000 . . . So lovely to ogle though.

  2. I'm a devoted fan of Nakashima, so live edge is always a solution in my books.

    1. Nakashima takes live edge to the most elegant, earthy places. This desk is unbelievable:

  3. Love the table with the glass down the center, I've had it pinned on pinterest for a while now. I'm not a wood fan really unless it's dark. I have light wood looking cabinets and light laminate floors and I hate it. Hopefully a dark counter top and and plain back splash will distract from it. Not sure if bamboo is considered a wood but I have a bamboo island I love. I guess the different grain is what I like over wood. I had no clue it needed care like wood and it now has a split....mineral oil would have prevented that. *le sigh*

    1. I'm frustrated for you that you have light wood and hate it! It took me forever to weed out my light wood and now I have a light maple dresser again. Grrr, Two steps forward, one step back. I love maple, just either stained lighter or darker - not au natural.

      But then again, I change my mind every few years. At one point I LOVED it. Maybe I will again. It makes me scared to invest because I can't commit for more than a few years.

      A dark counter should certainly pull the attention away from the cabinets. What about a more striking backsplash, though? A plain one might not take the focus away as much as you'd like. I've seen some beautiful tile in neutral colours but unusual shapes which could be nice for drawing the eye but not being too wild. Even if you go with a straightforward subway tile, there's a slightly faceted white version that has a pretty gleam to it. Simple, but still noteworthy.

      Bamboo is really pretty, I can understand why you favor your island. It's a shame it split! Le sigh indeed. Can it be fixed?

    2. I'd love a glass tile back splash in those long thin tiles........*drools of the thought of them in blues and turquoises*......or you can even get stainless steel tiles now that are quite cool......but I just rent the house and my brother is the owner. So I can have a little bit of say but since I'm not paying......I don't get that much say lol. Clean fresh white subway tiles was exactly the look I was thinking about....maybe even laying then diagonally like the ones you did in the townhouse or even just stacked in columns for a different look........they are cheap and will go with whatever color the walls get painted. I also like the trim edge you did, it fancies it up a bit and I can't imagine it cost too much more to do it. As for the bamboo island.....well it's more of a butcher block on wheels but it's an island to us....I haven't really looked into fixing it yet, I just found it not long ago. If I can keep it oiled maybe the wood will relax some and it will close the gap a bit.

    3. I totally understand. It's nice that you have some say, though. Subway tiles are a classic choice. The herringbone pattern was a bit tricky, but worth the extra effort. The idea of columns sounds cool too - that has a mid-century vibe to me, which I love. The trim wasn't expensive, but I don't remember how much. $20 for a 8ft length, maybe? It was worth it, because it also protected the edge of the tile.

      I'd love a turquoise backsplash too . . .


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