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To take full advantage of a wood’s strength, pay attention to the grain direction. 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.

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.
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