The proverb “Well begun is half done” was actually referred to as a proverb by Aristotle, who died 322 B.C., so it was a well-known saying even before his time. As we all know, the effects of an error or omission multiply through the job, so a job well begun has much better odds of staying that way. A good beginning is almost always the result of good planning and preparation. Pity the traveler who doesn’t double check their passport before leaving for a trip to another country!
Wood has been used as a construction material for thousands of years. With a trillion tons of wood in the world’s forest and 10 billion tons of new wood growing each year, we have a dependable resource and one with which we have plenty of experience. Try as we do to replace wood as a building material with synthetic alternatives, it remains an incredible material because of its unique properties and availability. No material has ever been found to be perfect, but Mother Nature has done a wonderful job in giving us wood. One of the laws of Nature is that most things seem to seek equilibrium. Whether it’s temperature, electrical charge, or moisture, forces naturally move to equalize within a body or environment. Wood is reactive to its environment but we can predict how it will behave. Using it properly and preparing it well give us the results we all aim for. Ignoring the laws of nature will disappoint us, predictably.
When a piece of wood is milled, it is finished to a smooth surface and somewhat resistant, on its own, to moisture transfer in or out of the board faces. The cut ends of any board are somewhat the Achilles’ heel in that the open grain can soak up or release moisture quite easily through capillary action. Most of us found out about capillary action in elementary school science when we watched a stalk of celery soak up colored water through its stem. Wood is very much the same, and the most important things we can do for any piece of wood are to 1) carefully dry it to match it to its ultimate environment and, 2) seal the surfaces and especially the ends of each board to slow down the absorption or exit of moisture. What we do know is that proper sealing reduces cupping warping, bowing, splitting and checking. These are all symptoms of wood fiber that get stressed by drying too quickly or too severely.
The problem with end sealing is that if it isn’t called out in the beginning, no one is even sure whose job it is to do it. The framer may feel like they’re not getting paid for it and it’s the painter’s job, but the painter is not even there to do it at the time the trim goes up or the decking goes down. The bottom line is that sealing wood is like paying an insurance premium instead of having to take the risk of paying an insurance claim. Pay me now or pay me later applies here and frankly I’d rather buy the oil filter than pay for the engine!
So if you’re paying good money for wood, don’t be penny wise and pound foolish. You’ll never win in a battle with Mother Nature, but play according to her rules and you’ll come out on top. After all….Well begun is half done.