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Adejobi, Olakunle. Degradation Process of Timber Name: Adejobi, Olakunle.

Course: AR50373 Year: 2011/12

Introduction Degradation is the process through which a material loses its quality or required properties due to interference with external elements or factors, often classified as Photochemical degradation, Chemical degradation, Thermal degradation, Mechanical degradation and Biological degradation, based on the manner of degradation.

Timber Timber is available in different species in its natural state mainly categorised as Softwoods and Hardwoods. Softwood includes woods such as Douglas fir and Scots pine, while

Hardwoods include woods such as Oak, Chestnut and Iroko.

Structure of Timber

Dinwoodie (1989a, p.5) explained that wood constituents can be classified into four, with three primary constituents serving as the building blocks, which are Cellulose, Hemicelluloses and Lignin, while the fourth constituent is Extractives which form an external coating to wood with varying proportions of the constituents across the different species of soft woods and hardwoods; Cellulose (40% -50%), Hemicelluloses (25% - 35%), Lignin (26% -30%) and Extractives (0-10%).


Adejobi, Olakunle.

Cellulose Hemicellulose Lignin Extractives

Figure 1: Structure of Timber

Appearance of Timber

The colour and texture of Timber are most significant in its appearance, with varying colour across the different species of wood as described by Dinwoodie (1989b, p.28), but less colour differences among the same type with distinct colour bands, uniformly dispersed colouration, or veins of dark gums across, while the arrangement of wood cells and their sizes determines its texture, ranging from finetextured in Timber specie such as Box, and coarse-textured in Timber specie such as Keruing

Figure 2: Douglas fir Timber (Source: Elmond Reclaimed Timber, n.d.a)

Figure 3: Chesnut Timber (Source: Elmond Reclaimed Timber, n.d.b)






Figure 5: West African Iroko Timber (Source: Rosenfed kidson, n.d.b)

(Source: Rosenfed kidson, n.d.a)


Adejobi, Olakunle.






Mahogany (Source: Rosenfed kidson, n.d.c)

Timber as a facade material

Timber is used in its natural state and also used as a by-product in the manufacture of other secondary materials such as Plywood, Particle board and other engineered timber products to increase its durability or to meet specific physical and chemical requirements such as size, weight, density and resistance to fire.

Degradation of Timber The loss of strength, or other required qualities of Timber due to exposure or attack by external elements or factors can be described as the degradation of Timber.

Photochemical degradation Exposure of timber to direct sunlight over a long period of time, due to strength of shorter waves of the solar spectrum results in the damage of lignin, the wood component that absorbs ultraviolet (UV) light. The Ultraviolet portion of the solar spectrum is mainly responsible for the degradation, although the visible light also contributes to it; the process of degradation of wood due to lignin absorbing ultraviolet light is described by Kutz (2005a, p.278) as Photo-oxidation. The continuous drying and wetting of wood by rain and sunlight enhances the weathering process while also generating stresses at the wood surface which cause cracks or warping.


Adejobi, Olakunle. There is a loss in structural integrity during the cycle of wetting and drying, depending on dimensional properties of the timber, which makes timber brittle and resistant to load due to the reduction in strength, accompanied with a noticeable change in colouration and texture.

Kutz (2005b, p. 281) described that light coloured woods often tend to be darken due to the degraded lignin, while dark coloured wood tend to fade due to the presence of rich phenolic, while most wood depending on the climatic conditions tend to give a gray fading when exposed to direct sunlight for a period of 6-12 months due to the presence of photo degraded lignin leaching out to the surface of the wood.

The rate of Photochemical degradation in Timber is relatively slow, as the degraded surface as described by Dimwoodie (1989c, p.116) serves as a protective cover to the inner layers of Timber, even though other forms of degradation such as Biological degradation by fungi tend to take place afterwards.

Figure 7: Photochemically degraded wood (Source: Carpenter S. 2010)

The effect of Photochemical degradation on the service life of Timber is dependent on the climatic conditions, rate of exposure and the dimensional properties of the material; smaller dimensions tend to lose a high percentage of their strength, larger dimension lose a negligible fraction of its strength, and where aesthetics is of great concern, Photochemical degradation can reduce the service life of Timber from 100 years to as low as 1 5 years. 4/12

Adejobi, Olakunle. Chemical degradation Continuous exposure of Timber to strong acids and bases will cause degradation, which is also more rapid at higher temperatures. Although Timber it is regarded as a good resistant to chemicals, Dimwoodie (1989d, p.117) described the resistivity of Timber to chemicals, as mainly dependent on its impermeability and density therefore causing varying resistance across the different species of Timber, with varying reactions to different chemicals such as acids, alkali solutions and iron salts.


Strong acids when in contact with wood dissolve cellulose and hemicelluloses wood constituents, thereby causing a loss in strength, as they form the larger percentage of its body mass. Wood in highly polluted areas absorbs atmospheric sulphur dioxide (SO2), to form a Sulphuric acid that degrades wood.


Dimwoodie (1989e, p.116) explained that Timber has an inferior resistance to alkalis, as alkaline conditions above pH11 will cause an attack to the lignin and hemicelluloses constituents of wood rapidly, while the solvent nature of alkaline solution will cause the leaching of coloured extractives.

Iron salts

Timber when in contact with metals in the absence of water is not susceptible to corrosion, but Iron salts in the presence of moisture, usually by a metal fixing as described by

Dimwoodie (1989f, p.117) will cause hydrolytic degradation of wood, thereby weakening the wood at the point of contact and forming a blue colouration.


Adejobi, Olakunle. The effect of Chemical degradation on the service life of Timber depends on the quantity of chemical, duration of exposure and temperature. At extreme cases, the Timber may suffer a total loss of strength.

Thermal degradation: Change in temperature

Timber when exposed to high temperatures, experiences an increase in the rate of chemical reactions that cause degradation, kutz (2005c, pp.280 - 281) described such reactions as photo-oxidation and hydrolysis, and at high temperatures such as 1000C might begin to experience slight damages causing a loss in strength.


Dimwoodie (1989g, p.121) described that Timber when exposed to an adjacent flame, which raises its surface temperature above 2500C will causes the wood to decompose by the heat radiation from the flame; as the wood decomposes it produces an inflammable gas and if ignited causes the wood to combust on the surface and gradually losing its materials to the formation of Char. If the Wood burns continuously, internal temperatures are also increased, thereby releasing more inflammable gas, causing more mass of wood to combust gradually from the exposed surface to the depth of the wood. The rate at which Timber burns is dependent on its density; therefore its fire resistivity varies across the different Timber species. In the case of fire, Timber as a structural frame in a building may not lose its entire strength to a point of failure, as the formation of large quantities of Char will form a protective cover protecting the inner layers of larger sections of timber, access to the sufficient heat it requires to burn.


Adejobi, Olakunle.

Figure 8: Thermally degraded wood wall by Fire (Source: 123RF)

The effect of thermal degradation on the service life of timber is dependent on the extent of wood that is consumed, but where only a fraction of the timber is consumed, a minimal loss of strength which might not be a threat where the wood can still accommodate the service load. There is instant loss in aesthetics once the surface begins to decompose.

Mechanical degradation: Stress and abrasion can be described as the most prevalent forms of Mechanical degradation in Timber; abrasion affects mainly the appearance of wood, while stress often causes a weakness or loss in strength.


Timber due to stress while in service might develop kink bands and compression creeps; when these occurs based on an experiment by Dinwoodie (1978, cited in Dinwoodie, 1989h, p.123), that though the wood loses 10 -15% of its strength in tension, the loss in toughness could be as high as 50%. Also, when stress in applied on wood at intervals or cycles over a period of time, there is a significant loss in strength.


Adejobi, Olakunle. Abrasion

Physical impacts such as due to use, act of vandalism or environmental elements, such as windblown sand will deface the appearance of Timber. In extreme cases, where the surface layer is completely damaged, the inner layer of the wood is exposed, which might enhance other forms of degradation such as Biological and Chemical degradation.

Figure 9: Mechanically degraded wood wall (Source: Searson C.)

Thermal degradation by stress or applied load tends to cause more damage to wood than abrasion. Cycles of applied stress can reduce the service life of wood from 100 years to 50 years, where in excess. Abrasion does not necessarily cause a reduction in service life where Timber is a structural member, but might cause an immediate failure where aesthetics is paramount.

Biological degradation As an organic material, Timber is often attacked by various organisms. Fungi and insects are the most aggressive of the organisms in an attempt to source for food, causing severe damage to Timber. The type of timber and other environmental factors such as temperature, sunlight and presence of moisture can either enhance or reduce the rate of degradation. 8/12

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Fungal decay is described by Harris and Keiller (1999a) as one of the main forms of wood degradation, noting that while the heartwood of some species of Timber are not susceptible to fungal attacks, the sapwood of all the Timber species are vulnerable. Dimwoodie (1989i, p.111) explained that the fungi that are associated with degradation of wood in the presence of moisture can be classified into three; the Moulds, which are only present on the surface on timber and do not cause a loss in strength, the Sap-stain fungi, which feed on sugar in the Sapwood ray cells of Timber, causing a slight discolouration and a relatively low loss of strength, and the decay causing Fungi.

Figure 10: Biologically degraded wood by Fungi attack (Source:


Dimwoodie (1989j, p.115) explained that insects do not often attack Timber in service or storage, but experienced occasionally, noting that some types of Timber are attacked by the adult form of insects such as termites while others are attacked by the larva. The insects and Larva eat through the wood, creating a tunnel, with varying sizes depending on the type of 9/12

Adejobi, Olakunle. insect. An attack by any of the forms, either adult or larva of the insect over at an advanced stage will cause a loss in strength and toughness.

Figure 11: Biologically degraded wall by Termites (Source: n.d.b.)

Conclusion The service Durability of Timber varies across the different natural species as some are highly durable while others are treated to enhance its durability, likewise the manners of deterioration also cause varying effects on the service life of Timber.

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Adejobi, Olakunle. REFERENCES:

123RF. Image of Thermally degraded wood wall [online].Available [Accessed on from: 13 November 2011]. Carpenter, S. 2010. Image of Degraded wood


from: 2011]. n.d.a. Image of Biologically degraded wood

[Accessed on 13 November


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Adejobi, Olakunle.
Dinwoodie, J.M., 1989h. Wood: Natures cellular, Polymeric Fibre-composite. London: The Institute of Metals. p.123. Dinwoodie, J.M., 1989i. Wood: Natures cellular, Polymeric Fibre-composite. London: The Institute of Metals. p.111. Dinwoodie, J.M., 1989j. Wood: Natures cellular, Polymeric Fibre-composite. London: The Institute of Metals. p.115. Edmond Reclaimer Timber, n.d.a. Image of Douglas fir Timber [online].Available from: [Accessed on 13 November 2011]. Edmond Reclaimer Timber, n.d.b. Image of Chesnut Timber [online].Available from: [Accessed on 13 November 2011]. Harris, R. and Keiller, A., 1999a. Durability of Facades: A Scoping Study. Bath. CWCT. Kultz M., ed., 2005a. Handbook of Environmental degradation of Materials. New York: William Andrew Publishing. p.278. Kultz M., ed., 2005b. Handbook of Environmental degradation of Materials. New York: William Andrew Publishing. p.281. Kultz M., ed., 2005c. Handbook of Environmental degradation of Materials. New York: William Andrew Publishing. pp.280 281. Rosenfed Kidson, n.d.a. Image of European White Oak Timber [online].Available from: November 2011]. Rosenfed Kidson, n.d.b. Image of West African Iroko Timber [online].Available from: [Accessed on 13 [Accessed on 13 November 2011]. Rosenfed Kidson, n.d.c. Image of West African Sapele Mahogany Timber [online].Available from: [Accessed on 13 November 2011]. Searson, C. n.d. Image of Mechanically degraded wood wall [online].Available from: [Accessed on 13 November 2011].