Timbers are natural — that’s why we love them. And yes, they “check” or produce small openings. Here’s why, structurally, it’s not an issue.
Stewart Elliott doesn’t want to come off sounding like a know-it-all. But, truth be told, he is — at least when it comes to designing and building timber homes. As project management team leader for Pennsylvaniabased Woodhouse (timberframe1. com), Stewart’s decades in the business have convinced him that homeowners “no longer want cookie-cutter houses that stand a little more than a decade; they want something permanent.” A big part of that permanence, of course, comes from the timbers. Stewart notes that some homeowners worry about small grain separations or splits knows as checks.
QTo most people, seeing a timber with a 3/8- to 1/2-inch check running half its length is alarming. What’s going on here?
ATrees, once they’re cut down and milled, are going to adjust to their new environment, which includes the indoor air temperature and humidity levels. They will shrink and twist, which will cause checks. Visually, it’s natural and, many believe, quite beautiful.
QIn most materials, a crack isn’t exactly a good thing.
ATrue. But, with timbers, the integrity isn’t lost. Remember, a check isn’t a crack — that’s why checking is harmless. Think about this: If you have a 3,000-square-foot home, it weighs about 300 tons. Three timber posts can support all that weight. And sure, some of those posts will have checks.
QIf you aren’t a purist and really don’t want checking in your timbers, what can you do?
AYou can use recycled timber from old barns and mills, which did its twisting years ago. It dried on its own terms. You also can choose dead standing timber, which is structurally sound despite its name — dead wood is just dryer wood. Reclaimed timber — wood fished out of river and lake bottoms — also won’t check because it’s been in cold water for years. Also, kilndried timber doesn’t check as much, if at all. Finally, pre-fabricated timber, while unusual, won’t check.
QIf timbers twist, shrink and check when adjusting to an indoor environment, won’t this impact the materials, such as flooring and sheetrock, that they’re nudging up against?
AYes. But your builder will compensate for this movement. For flooring, he’ll notch the timber so it doesn’t make contact with the floor, and for sheetrock, he’ll place a furring strip between the timber and your wall. It’s fairly standard stuff, but be sure to discuss this with your builder.
QAny other solutions to checking you’ve come across?
AWhen a check opens up, you’re looking at “fresh” timber. If you really don’t like the look, the most I’d do is simply apply tung oil or stain into the gap. I get pretty passionate about this — I personally love the checking, as it shows the character and texture of the wood. That’s part of your investment, so enjoy its natural beauty. Timbers are alive even in their “dead” state, and they’ll tell their stories for generations.