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Wood is a natural polymer — parallel strands of cellulose fibers held together by a lignin binder. These long chains of fibers make the wood exceptionally strong — they resist stress and spread the load over the length of the board. Furthermore, cellulose is tougher than lignin. It’s easier to split a board with the grain (separating the lignin) than it is to break it across the grain (separating the cellulose fibers). Remember this when you lay out the parts of a project. Always orient the grain so the fibers support the load. Whenever possible, cut the parts so the grain is continuous, running the length of the board. This also applies to wood joinery! When cutting a tenon, for example, the wood grain must run the length of the tenon and the board so the grain is continuous.
Straight-grained boards are stronger than those with uneven grain, knots, and other defects. Parts such as shelves will support a heavier load if the weight rests on straight grain. SPECIFIC GRAVITY When strength is paramount, grain direction may not be your only consideration. Some species of wood are naturally stronger than others. Chairmakers, for example, typically use maple, birch, and hickory for legs, rungs, and spindles. These parts are fairly slender, and weaker woods won’t hold up. A good indicator of a wood’s strength is its density — the weight for a given volume. This is measured by its specific gravity — the weight of a volume of wood divided by the weight of the same volume of water. Generally, the higher the ratio, the denser and stronger the wood. This is not always the case, but specific gravity is a useful reference nonetheless. ADDITIONAL MEASUREMENTS OF STRENGTH In some woodworking situations, “strength” is an ambiguous term. To say oak is strong doesn’t tell you whether an oak shelf will sag when loaded with heavy objects, or whether its surface is hard enough to resist scratches and dents. You may need better information. Engineers have devised ways to measure specific types of strength. Compressive strength tells you how much of a load a wood species can withstand parallel to the grain. How much weight will the legs of a table support before they buckle? Bending strength (also known as the modulus of rupture) shows the load the wood can withstand perpendicular to the grain. How much weight can you hang on a peg? The stiffness or modulus of elasticity indicates how much the wood will deflect when a load is applied perpendicular to the grain. How far will those shelves sag? The hardness reveals how resistant the surface of the wood is to scratches, dents, and other abuse. How long will that kitchen counter stay looking new and unmarred?
Compressive Or Crushing Strength
Compression across the grain is very closely related to hardness and transverse shear. There are two ways in which wood is subjected to stress of this kind, namely, (1) with the load acting over the entire area of the specimen, and (2) with a load concentrated over a portion of the area. (See Fig. 2.) The latter is the condition more commonly met with in practice, as, for example, where a post rests on a horizontal sill, or a rail rests on a cross-tie. The former condition, however, gives the true resistance of the grain to simple crushing.]
Figure 2 Compression across the grain. The first effect of compression across the grain is to compact the fibres, the load gradually but irregularly increasing as the density of the material is increased. If the specimen lies on a flat surface and the load is applied to only a portion of the upper area, the bearing plate indents the wood, crushing the upper fibres without affecting the lower part. (See Fig. 3.) As the load increases the projecting ends sometimes split horizontally. (See Fig. 4.) The irregularities in the load are due to the fact that the fibres collapse a few at a time, beginning with those with the thinnest walls. The projection of the ends increases the strength of the material directly beneath the compressing weight by introducing a beam action which helps support the load. This influence is exerted for a short distance only.
Figure 3 Side view of failures in compression across the grain, showing crushing of blocks under bearing plate. Specimen at right shows splitting at ends.
Figure 4 End view of failures in compression across the grain, showing splitting of the ends of the test specimens. When wood is used for columns, props, posts, and spokes, the weight of the load tends to shorten the material endwise. This is endwise compression, or compression parallel to the grain. In the case of long columns, that is, pieces in which the length is very great compared with their diameter, the failure is by sidewise bending or flexure, instead of by crushing or splitting. (See Fig. 5.) A familiar instance of this action is afforded by a flexible walking-stick. If downward pressure is exerted with the hand on the upper end of the stick placed vertically on the floor, it will be noted that a definite amount of force must be applied in each instance before decided flexure takes place. After this point is reached a very slight increase of pressure very largely increases the deflection, thus obtaining so great a leverage about the middle section as to cause rupture.
The lateral bending of a column produces a combination of bending with compressive stress over the section, the compressive stress being maximum at the section of greatest deflection on the concave side. The convex surface is under tension, as in an ordinary beam test. (See Fig. 6.) If the same stick is braced in such a way that flexure is prevented, its supporting strength is increased enormously, since the compressive stress acts uniformly over the section, and failure is by crushing or splitting, as in small blocks. In all columns free to bend in any direction the deflection will be seen in the direction in which the column is least stiff. This sidewise bending can be overcome by making pillars and columns thicker in the middle than at the ends, and by bracing studding, props, and compression members of trusses. The strength of a column also depends to a considerable extent upon whether the ends are free to turn or are fixed.
Figure 6 Unequal distribution of stress in a long column due to lateral bending.
The complexity of the computations depends upon the way in which the stress is applied and the manner in which the stick bends. Ordinarily where the length of the test specimen is not greater than four diameters and the ends are squarely faced (See Fig. 7.), the force acts uniformly over each square inch of area and the crushing strength is equal to the maximum load (P) divided by the area of the cross-section (A).
Figure 7 Endwise compression of a short column. It has been demonstrated4 that the ultimate strength in compression parallel to the grain is very nearly the same as the extreme fibre stress at the elastic limit in bending. (See Table 5.) In other words, the transverse strength of beams at elastic limit is practically equal to the compressive strength of the same material in short columns. It is accordingly possible to calculate the approximate breaking strength of beams from the compressive strength of short columns except when the wood is brittle. Since tests on endwise compression are simpler, easier to make, and less expensive than transverse bending tests, the importance of this
relation is obvious, though it does not do away with the necessity of making beam tests. When a short column is compressed until it breaks, the manner of failure depends partly upon the anatomical structure and partly upon the degree of humidity of the wood. The fibres (tracheids in conifers) act as hollow tubes bound closely together, and in giving way they either (1) buckle, or (2) bend.5 Compressive strength is the measure of the capacity of a material to withstand axially directed crushing forces. The forces may be caused either by 'live' or 'dead' loads. It is an indication of the maximum compressive stress that a material is capable of developing. The compressive strength depends on the type of material in question. A brittle material fails in compression by fracturing. In such cases, the compressive strength has a definite value. However, in the case of materials which are ductile, malleable or semiviscous, the value denoting the compressive strength depends on the levels of distortion of the material. Importance of Compressive Strength Common construction applications of polyiso insulation require compressive strengths adequate for durability during installation and use. Wall application requires the product to support flexible siding materials. In roofing, it must withstand limited installation traffic, support fastener loads, and sustain the total roofing system. The results of the tests provide information about the behavior of polyiso insulation under compressive loads and are important to ensure proper performance
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