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I've been buying planed timber from my local builders merchant for various simple interior jobs.

Recently I noticed warping across the width of some of my shelves. Attached shows a 20mm thick piece cut in half and compared with itself. I wouldn't have expected such a thick piece to be bent across such a narrow width.

I don't know if this is normal for softwood (this is Scots Pine) but clamping a bunch of sawn pieces together for 24 hours made some decent improvement.

My worry now is that the warping will return. The wood will be painted, but is there anything else I can treat it with to avoid warping?

One piece in particular will be a shelf above a radiator - would you expect heat to cause further warping?

Scots Pine warping across the width

  • Will the boards be nailed/screwed to a frame, or just resting on supports? How heavy will the items on the shelf be? Concave side down will help some. Less noticeable and weight on shelf will tend to straighten it. – Mattman944 Jun 24 at 8:01
  • Screwed to brackets. But with some earlier jobs I found this wasn't enough and I see some curling up at the back of the shelf. Pretty heavy books didn't help much. I agree about concave side, but if flat to start with I don't know which way it'll go. – Tim Jun 24 at 8:04
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    @Tim look at the end grain and you can see which way it is going, so any other piece will bend the same way. – Solar Mike Jun 24 at 8:07
  • Good tip, thanks. I guess I'm curious whether this is normal or whether the merchant has exposed it to moisture. (product claims to be kiln dried). Also whether heat is likely to make worse. – Tim Jun 24 at 8:10
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    Install the same as decking, bark side down. – Mattman944 Jun 24 at 8:10
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The problem:

Welcome to the joys of working with a natural product!

Wood will move year in, year out. Some woods are more stable than others, but they all have cells in them that were designed to move and hold water when the tree was alive. Now that the tree is dead, they're still there, they're just not actively working, but they still work just great passively. The first couple of paragraphs of my answer here go into some detail about it.

The thickness of the board will have some impact on the amount of cupping you'll see, but you'll need to go significantly beyond 20mm (~3/4") before you'll notice a difference. Head back to the builder's merchant and look at a board like a 2x8" (~50x200mm) - you'll see that even along the 200mm dimension the boards will curve (put the board on the 50mm edge, with the 200mm dimension vertical, then sight along the board, you're likely to find some that curve up or down - this is called "crown" and it's necessary to put the crown up when using this lumber in a floor or ceiling).

All lumber will dry out with age (roughly 1 year per inch/25mm to air dry when properly spaced). Kiln dried wood has been heated to speed up this process. It costs money to run the kiln, but it saves time - you pay extra for the process - but otherwise, it behaves essentially the same as air dried wood.

The Fix:

If you want to minimize the chances of your boards cupping, you need to purchase quarter sawn lumber. This will be significantly more expensive than the plainsawn lumber you show in your picture, and it will not guarantee that it won't cup on you, but it will significantly reduce the chances of cupping.

You can tell a quartersawn board by looking at the grain. The face grain will be very consistent along the length of the boards like this oak is:

enter image description here
Source: wiseGeek.com. No affiliation, just the first pic I found

You can also look a the end grain. Where the boards in your picture show the growth rings curving through the end, in a quartersawn board, they will run vertically (or near vertically) from one face to the other, like this:

enter image description here
Source: Bell Forest Products No affiliation, just the first end grain pic I found

It is possible to rummage through the piles of lumber at your local home center to find the boards that were plainsawn from the center of the log and exhibit these grain features. They will exhibit the same stability and resistance to cupping and expansion that quarter sawing will yield for the price of painsawn wood, but you're going to spend a lot of time looking for them.

You indicated that you clamped some pieces together and that the cupped one uncupped, at least a bit. Congrats! Give it 48 hours or so and it will, most likely, return to its curved shape.

A more permanent fix is to cut a series of grooves along the inside of the cupping to relieve the stresses. Unfortunately, this also weakens the board and it won't support as much weight when working as a shelf.

Painting is probably your best, simple, way of minimizing the cupping. Paint will slow the absorption and release of water by the wood, but it won't stop it completely. The same applies to a couple of layers of polyurethane or any other covering finish (stain will soak into the wood, not sit on top - it's only there to dress up the wood, not protect it). The key to minimizing the warping via coatings is to cover all 6 sides. Paint the top and bottom and edges and ends. If you cover only the visible sides, you'll actually accelerate the warping as you'll reduce the water absorption on one side while leaving it at "full rate" on the other side. The uncoated side will absorb more water and expand faster.

The best solution, one that is probably serious overkill for your fairly narrow shelves, is to rip the boards into narrower strips, arrange the strips so that the growth rings (viewed from the end) alternate up and down, then glue them back together into the width of board you need. This is the technique used to make wide planks for things like table tops out of boards wider than the ones you show in your picture. It'll work for your shelves, but it is serious overkill. If you want to find out more about this methodology, visit the Woodworking stack and look at the tabletop or table-making tags. You can also look at the wood-movement tag to see other thoughts on the topic.

To reduce the warping in a practical manner, place the boards on the shelves with the growth rings "down". That is, arcing from the bottom of the board, up in the middle, then back down. This will use the weight of whatever is on the shelves to help resist the wood's desire to curve upward, but won't prevent it. Unless you're clamping your books and nick-nacks down.

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    Thanks for such an interesting and thorough answer. – Tim Jun 24 at 16:41
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Pine boards from local home improvement stores will always warp. Try to install them as soon as you get them. Especially screwing down each corner so it can't warp is the best. But if i don't have time right away or the boards aren't going to be screwed down I usually put them in my garage and sit heavy tool boxes on top of each end so they won't warp as much. That usually helps until they adjust to the air.

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    Screwing them down may prevent warping, but the wood will still move. You'll probably end up with splits, checks or cracks, instead. – FreeMan Jun 25 at 10:48

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