You'd think this stuff was made of dead trees or something
January 15, 2013 1:01 PM   Subscribe

If you've ever had a door or drawer that sticks during some parts of the year but not others, you have received a practical lesson in seasonal wood movement due to humidity. As the humidity changes, so do the dimensions of a piece of wood - sometimes to the breaking point.

So is all furniture doomed to self destruct? Not if you're smart about things.

One way you can cope with these changes is with a frame and a floating panel. If the stiles and rails of the frame are narrow enough, they will be fine and if the panel moves a little more freely in the winter, who cares. (If you do care, there's a product for that.) When designing a table, rather than firmly affixing the top to the rails you can buy special clips to attach it with, so that it can move with the changing seasons (or just make your own). You can pit thin layers of wood against other thin layers of wood, either by brute force, or with amazing elegance. Or, you can be like two St. Louis brothers, who went to California to make it big, and turn you're coping strategies into design elements.

And if you think you might be playing close to the edge, well, there's a Java app for that.
posted by Kid Charlemagne (23 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
This is in response to an observation I started to make in this FPP, but then thought I might be leading people the wrong way.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 1:11 PM on January 15, 2013

Funny thing about Greene and Greene is that in Pasadena the humidity is so constant you probably don't need any of these tricks.
posted by benito.strauss at 1:12 PM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Amazing interest in a unique subject. At least now I know why my teeth swell in the summer.
posted by breadbox at 1:18 PM on January 15, 2013

You're George Washington?
posted by edgeways at 1:19 PM on January 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Man, I clicked on that "coping strategies" link certain you were making a pun about their way of making coped joints. But a fascinating read, nonetheless--thank you.
posted by yoink at 1:30 PM on January 15, 2013

And, Kid Charlemagne, great information to move me forward with crown trim. Everything gets thinner in the winter.
posted by breadbox at 1:33 PM on January 15, 2013

These Greene and Greene Arts and Crafts-style pieces are beautiful.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 1:38 PM on January 15, 2013

Yeah, I have no interest in DIY at all -- and do have a hardwood floor that bellies in the summer -- but I'd never heard of Greene and Greene before this post, so thanks for that.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 1:42 PM on January 15, 2013

Well then, you're in for a treat: Gamble House.
posted by notyou at 1:48 PM on January 15, 2013

There could easily be a fpp (an fpp?) about the Greene brothers. Oh, wait: there is.
posted by Red Loop at 1:49 PM on January 15, 2013

Don't have time to read the links right now and this may well be covered, but there really are 'coping strategies' for joining trim work like crown molding. The quick and dirty way is to miter on a chop saw right? when the parts shrink the joint will open up. But not if you cope one piece to the other like this. It's pretty fun when you start to get the hang of it.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 1:53 PM on January 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

....within certain size limits, you could exploit the flexibility of nails, as in the common 6 board chest. Chris Schwarz' blog has instructions for building one.

Cool java app.
posted by bonobothegreat at 1:54 PM on January 15, 2013

The Bros. Greene apparently got a lot of their inspiration from the Chinese and Japanese pavilions at the 1904 Worlds Fair. And they have a couple pieces of Greene and Greene furniture in the St. Louis art museum (AKA The 1904 World's Fair Palace of the Fine Arts). Last time I was there I noticed that the little plaque telling you about the pieces doesn't make the least mention of this fact.

posted by Kid Charlemagne at 2:01 PM on January 15, 2013

Mostly stuck to construction issues, so I didn't mention coping trim at all. The other strategy for that is thinking about which way the joints will look their best and installing your trim so that they're always best face forward from the POV of a viewer (who is likely to be sitting on a couch, or coming through a door, but unlikely to be behind the television.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 2:05 PM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's why spinning wheels generally depend on friction-fit joints, and why those of us who try to restore them to functionality have a deep and abiding hatred for glue. A spinning wheel is a living machine, and over the seasons of the year the joints will drift and shift with variations in humidity. Sometimes, in the summer, you have to give a support post a firm whack with a rubber mallet to line the drive wheel and flyer back up again. Sometimes, in the winter, you have to wrap a cargo strap around a drive wheel and pull the rim joints back together after they've opened up from the centripetal force generated by spinning. Many a beautiful wheel has been ruined by some fool who pumped glue into all those working joints - with nowhere for the force to go, the whole machine will warp and twist and become unusable... a grotesque carcass, a fine working tool reduced to a dead and useless decoration.
posted by Mary Ellen Carter at 2:16 PM on January 15, 2013 [9 favorites]

I believe the Greene brothers invented (or perhaps merely championed?) the double keyed scarf joint, featured prominently in the Gamble house. That's all I got. Wanted to get my one piece of woodworking trivia out there.
posted by Ad hominem at 2:47 PM on January 15, 2013

Anyone with a solid-wood guitar will be intimately familiar with wood movement. I used to live in Calgary where I had a soundhole humidifier which required that the guitar be kept in the case at all times when not being played. I struggled to keep the case humidity at 30% in the winter. The humidity in the house in general was probably closer to 10%. Now that I'm back on the west coast the house hovers at a perfect 50% and the guitar loves it.

A dry guitar's top will shrink and pull the neck down enough to significantly affect the action, and even crack the top in the process. Modern guitars have adjustable truss rods in the neck which allow for easy seasonal adjustments for mild changes in humidity. Older guitars would often require that summer and winter saddles be used. Keeping the guitar as close to 50% as possible and tweaking the truss rod seasonally means that you can keep playing with nice action year-round.
posted by jimmythefish at 2:56 PM on January 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

I was in the wood business for 25 years, give or take. Most of that in moulding and millwork. It can make you crazy - I cope everything, including shoe moulding.

The most important thing in minimizing shrinking and swelling is starting with wood that has been properly kiln-dried. If a piece of wood has been correctly dried, the moisture-holding cells in the cellulose have been essentially "exploded" which makes them less able to absorb moisture. Air drying can't do that.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 3:24 PM on January 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

> If you've ever had a door or drawer that sticks

you reach for an old candle end and rub it on the pieces of wood that slide against each other--or that ought to but won't. (You more modern households that have moved on to whale oil for lighting, sorry, it just doesn't work nearly as well.)
posted by jfuller at 3:34 PM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yes yes yes. This is why the door to my bathroom will close and stay closed from roughly April through December, but will not stay closed no matter how hard you slam it starting in January and lasting through March.
posted by caryatid at 4:55 PM on January 15, 2013

Kid Charlemagne, I thought it was just public knowledge that the Greene brothers stole their ideas from Japanese architecture. Like, any kid would know it. But then, I grew up in Pasadena...
posted by gusandrews at 7:22 PM on January 15, 2013

I don't know why that wasn't more exciting.

I will say this- i notice my wood tends to swell and shrink too.
posted by Colonel Panic at 9:37 PM on January 15, 2013

I will say this- i notice my wood tends to swell and shrink too.

I believe you are looking for this thread.
posted by TedW at 8:50 AM on January 16, 2013

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