Checking Concerns with Massive Wood Posts

A custom home project calls for 15-inch-wide solid timber posts. Here's a discussion of the inevitable checking that will occur, and how to minimize it. November 13, 2005

I have a customer who needs some 15" x 15" x 10' posts, Monterey Pine, for interior use in a custom house. They are for decoration only. My question is, how will they dry out? The customer doesnít want huge checking and cracks. I have a selection of Monterey pine - some fresh cut and others in the firewood pile - that have been cut for about a year or so. What about making a plunge cut into the ends of the logs to relieve stress in the drying process? What would you suggest?

Forum Responses
(Sawing and DryingForum)
From contributor A:
If they are square why not just glue up some 15" wide 4/4 boards and make it hollow on the inside? You could have two faces quarter sawn and the opposite two faces plain sawn. Miter the corners and it will look like a real solid hunk of wood.

From contributor B:
It's asking a lot for a solid piece of wood that size not to check. I'd agree with contributor A, except all 4 faces should be flat sawn as that is how it would look in reality. I would use 8/4 so if someone thumps it, it would have a good solid sound to it. I think there was another thread about kerfing beams and the hidden side to confine checking to that face. You might want to use the search engine for that thread. If all four sides will be visible, that wouldn't work though.

From the original questioner:
Thatís what I told the customer, but he wants solid wood. He understands there will be some checking, and I just want to minimize that. Would a chainsaw plunge cut down the ends reduce the checking?

From contributor C:
No matter what you do, this wood is going to do what it wants. You can end seal, cut kerfs or drill out end grain, but if itís not dry wood, it's going to shrink. One thing comes to mind, you could make 4 posts, move them in where they will be, and pick the best 2 after a year. I just don't think you can guarantee perfect 15 x 15's. There is risk involved, when this wood dries, something has to give. It shouldn't be your bank balance because a post opened up a large check.

From contributor D:
Why not use the old tried and true method of laminating 2 x 15 planks together after they are dried and past the checking and shrinking mode? Use the method of sawing the planks out of consecutive cuts from the same cant and marking them as they are cut so you can glue them back together when properly dried, thus keeping the grain intact. The glue line will be invisible. By laminating, you will achieve the solid post required and it will also provide strength.

From contributor E:
The cants are going to split. If there is one side that is hidden, use a circle saw and cut full length. This way you control some of the checking. Log home builders sometimes use this method when laying wall logs and put the saw cut on top or bottom where it won't be seen.

From the original questioner:
These posts are to be installed in a finished great room. They will be on slate pedestals and trimmed on the bottom with a slate trim. There is no structural need for them at all, just to look massive and pretty. I will run the skilsaw idea by the owner. That may be the best way to make it work for him.

Should I charge on the board foot? Where would I find a comparable cost factor? These logs are big and require a bunch of extra handling. I have a Lucas Mill Ė I was thinking maybe $ 1.00/bdft?

From contributor C:
I would price these by the hour, and figure your time. Thereís lots of extra work here.

From contributor B:
I don't think you can charge a client a just because your equipment does not allow you to handle a product as efficiently as someone else can. You need to charge the going rate in your area for that product. That said, is there anywhere locally they could get such a unique item? That's where the premium pricing enters in.

From the original questioner:
Regardless of how the equipment is set up, any mill will have a little extra work to handle a timber that big, As for the local area, I know of nowhere else that he can acquire a Monterey pine 15" x 15" timber. The load that the road will bear is significant to the cost. I run a grinder, and when I bid out jobs I may charge more than the guy with the larger grinder. Iím not going to do the work if Iím not making the money that I want to. If I was making these 15" x 15" timbers with an adz and draw knife, then I would charge whatever it took to make the desired profit. I understand your point in regard to someone digging a ditch with a 20 hp backhoe (if they make such a thing) where it takes two days to do what a 100 hp unit would do in an hour, if the little guy was charging the same price as the big guy. That is wrong.

From contributor E:
I don't think $1.00 bdft is unreasonable considering the size of the timbers and the extra handling involved. Charging by the hour would not be a good idea as I could mill all four in just over an hour.

From Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
Who is going to pay if the customer declares that there is too much checking? You can reduce the checking if you can bore a very large hole from end to end.

From contributor F:
What time frame are you working with? Hopefully you are able to cut them and let them dry before installation. Otherwise it's really asking for trouble. If I had to do it I'd try cutting four 8 x 8s with the pith in the middle of a cross. Then weight them down and hope they dry reasonably straight. Next, plane up the inside surfaces and glue the beam back together again. As it was one log it should all match up pretty close, minus a saw kerf/planing. Planing the beams can be done by bolting a router to your Lucas and milling off the top of the beam.

A 15" beam or post of Radiata pine will check as it dries out. They are used here in NZ for things like pole sheds or applications where checking isn't an issue. The idea of running a saw kerf down the beam is good. It creates an artificial check in one spot.

From contributor G:
Regardless of drying treatment, most large solid-sawn dimension pieces of wood check. Your customer, like most of the public, wants wood aesthetics but also wants wood that behaves like plastic. Tell your customer if he wants an aesthetically stable wood post, buy a microlam beam and stain it to look the way they want it to. If they want real wood, checks and all, then you can help them!

From contributor H:
I have done this with logs before and Bass Pro Shop has done it in their store in Springfield MO. Many times it is done to fit a beam around a steel post that is supporting something. You split the log down the middle with a band mill, and then hollow out the middle with a chain saw, leaving at least 3 inches of wood on the sides. Then you can dowel and glue the log back together around the post and hold with straps till dry. Cut a 15 x 15-1/2Ē timber then split it 7-1/2Ē up on the 15-1/2Ē side. Take a skill saw and cut out the middle of the timber and plane the faces, and glue back together. Trim to proper size. Checking should be slight. The seam will be hard to find. You could split it corner to corner to hide the seam but it would make for tougher work.

From contributor I:
I'd try to find reclaimed timbers. What you see is what you get.

From contributor J:
If he doesn't want to have the posts slit open and glued back together after the pieces dry, at least paint the posts. That way they will dry out a little more evenly and result in less checking. I use ordinary latex paint as you don't want to seal the wood totally, only retard the moisture loss on the surface.

From the original questioner:
The customer now has a sample of the wood. It will be stained, not permanently sealed. He saw a piece of the wood that had been neglected outside for a couple of years and the cracks were small, and it was not an issue for him