Why is air dried wood better?

More and more small-shop woodworkers are discovering that they prefer to work with well air dried hardwoods. This is, of course, contrary to the conventional wisdom promoted by the lumber industry for the last century.
Let’s not forget, however, that much of the world’s finest furniture was made before kiln drying technology was developed. Did those makers have secrets that we don’t know today? Not at all.
When we say well air dried lumber, what is involved? This is certainly not green lumber. In fact there is a considerable investment of time and science in the preparation of good air dried lumber. But the results are worth it. So then, just why is air dried wood superior?

  • There are no internal tensions “baked” into the wood. How many times have you ripped a board, only to have it clamp down on the sawblade, or twist off in some unexpected direction? Doesn’t happen with air-dried lumber.
  • Kiln dried wood is brittler and much more prone to chipping out when worked with hand tools or powered knife tools. A nice piece of air-dried cherry or walnut is a revelation to stroke with a hand plane or spokeshave.
  • Kiln dried wood has most often lost as much as 20% of its color. Even when not “steamed”, the high temperatures experienced kill some of the subtler color features of the grain.
  • Unless kiln dried lumber is kept in a fully climate-controlled building from the moment it comes out of the kiln, it will quickly re-absorb moisture from the ambient air, thus returning to the same moisture content as properly air-dried lumber. But the internal tensions, brittleness, and lack of color remain. How many lumber yards do you know of that keep their lumber in closed and air-conditioned buildings?
  • Typically, it is said that lumber must dry a year for every inch of thickness. My preferred formula is two summers for the first inch of thickness, then another year for each additional inch of thickness. Furthermore, planks thicker than 12/4 should season yet another year. Thus a 16/4 plank would take a minimum of 5 ½ years to be ready to use. All fine hardwood trees should be felled in the winter, when the sap is down, so that the first nominal year is usually more like a year and a half.

    There are many other considerations to the proper seasoning of lumber, such as sealing the end grain, proper stacking, weighting, covering, accounting for prevailing winds, etc.; but this is not intended to be a treatise on the whole process. You don’t have to worry about all those details (unless you are especially fascinated by the process) because we have done the work for you. We have tens of thousands of board feet of all the domestic and some exotic hardwoods, ready for you to turn into that special project.