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  • Moisture Meters & Douglas Fir: Common questions about moisture meters for wood

    Posted on July 12, 2011 by Nicole

    What’s a moisture meter? When should I use one? And, Do I really have to use a moisture meter on my new Douglas fir floors? These questions might pop up as you’re starting a home project or major renovation. What follows is some moisture meter Q & A, starting with the basics, that should help you decide if using one is right for your current project.

    Q: What’s a moisture meter?

    A:
    A moisture meter measures the percentage of moisture in something. There are moisture meters for ceramics, concrete, soil, and most commonly, wood. It comes in handy during a renovation or building project, usually before a material is installed, like wood flooring.

    In this post, we’ll be referring to moisture meters used specifically on wood.

    Q: Why should I use a moisture meter?

    A:
    A moisture meter is a prevention tool. Taking a moisture reading of your floor boards before installation tells you how much water or moisture is in the wood – too much or too little at time of installation can cause big problems later. It’s sort of like taking the temp of a turkey in the oven – too hot and you’re left with a brittle bird; not hot enough and you might find yourself leaving the dinner table repeatedly throughout the meal. In cases like this, prevention is the best medicine.

    moisture meter

    A pin meter can be used to measure the moisture in Douglas fir.

    Q: What types of moisture meters are there?

    A:
    Pin and pinless models are two of the most common types of wood moisture meters. The latest models have an LCD screen. Wood moisture meters should also have settings specific to ‘wood species’. On these, the user can adjust the meter to the species being read, such as Douglas fir or Cedar. Different species have different characteristics, so they all give different readings even when the moisture content is the same.

    Q: How does a moisture meter work?

    A:
    Pin moisture meters commonly have two pins – Pin A + Pin B – that are inserted into the wood. Once the pins are in, a current passes from Pin A to Pin B. Since moisture conducts electricity, a strong current indicates high moisture content. A low current means low moisture.

    A pinless or surface moisture meter sends electric wave signals into the wood. These signals create a field. The level of moisture – high or low – affects this field.

    Q: Is one type of meter better than the other?

    A:
    A pin moisture meter is the most accurate. But, if the material will be featured in highly visible areas, the pin-holes can be an eyesore for the homeowner. And, the pin detectors may be more challenging to operate; some have tiny cables that tangle easily.

    Pinless moisture meters are easier to use, but also more likely to give a faulty reading if there is moisture on the surface of the wood. However, there’s no piercing involved.

    Q: When do I use a moisture meter?

    A:
    You can use a moisture meter before, during, and after any wood installation project -- for products like flooring, decking, paneling, and trim. Tracking readings is important throughout the project. Why? You’ll learn that in the answer to the final question.

    Q: What’s a good moisture-reading?

    A:
    A good reading is one that is compatible with its working or end-use environment. It is referred to as the equilibrium moisture content (EMC), when the wood’s moisture is in sync with its surroundings. Because environments, seasons, and climates change, so does the EMC. That’s where the average moisture content figures into “a good moisture-reading.”

    Builders and contractors tend to rely on an average moisture content of 8% which is common in most of the US, even in the rainy Northwest. Hot ‘n’ humid places along the central and southern coast of California and the South have an average moisture content of 11%. In desertscapes like Arizona and Nevada, the average moisture content is close to 6%. Knowing the average moisture content of where you live (and where the wood will be), helps you achieve EMC, creating wood + environmental harmony.

    Q: Do I really need a moisture meter?

    A:
    The quick answer is, “That depends on the homeowner.” Most contractors, builders, and wood-working shop owners rely on moisture meters – it’s a tool of the trade. This is why proper acclimatization is an essential step for homeowners who don’t have or use a wood moisture meter. Installing Douglas fir flooring right after it lands on your doorstep is bad practice and not recommended. Wood needs time to adjust to its new home, whether that is your living room, the attic, or even the deck. If the moisture content is too high, way above the EMC, the floor boards will shrink and gap along between the seams. If the content is way below the EMC, you’ll end up with floor boards too big for their own britches: replacing cracked and split floor boards isn’t fun for anyone.

    However, if you want to take the guesswork out of knowing when your new Douglas fir (or any wood) is ready to be installed, use a moisture meter. Using one may help to prevent warping, shrinking, or splitting problems later on, giving you piece of mind now.

    And if you do go the moisture-meter route, be sure to read the instruction manual.

    - Nicole Morales



    This post was posted in All Entries, Douglas Fir Flooring, Care & Maintenance and was tagged with Douglas fir flooring, douglas fir floors, douglas fir trim, warping floors, douglas fir paneling, douglas fir decking, wood moisture meter

  • Douglas Fir in California Vacation Homes

    Posted on May 3, 2011 by Jennifer

    With summer on the horizon we’re thinking about how Douglas fir is put to use in vacation homes old and new. We’re traveling to California -- in this post and future posts -- to start our adventure. As part of the Douglas-fir’s native habitat, how has its lumber been used in California homes?

    The California landscape, from its majestic mountains to its sandy beaches, has long beckoned vacationers as a perfect getaway destination. And when it comes to building a vacation home, Douglas fir has been a material of choice for California cabins. A native West Coast species that’s both attractive and durable, Douglas fir echoes the best qualities of the California landscape and brings them into the home.

    From the Douglas Fir Plywood Association vacation home catalog.

    For much of America’s history, having two homes—one for daily life and the other solely for vacationing—was feasible only for the wealthy. It wasn’t until the middle of the twentieth century that average Americans began thinking about owning a second home. According to a 2004 article in Old House Journal, “The mid-20th century was the era of the ‘second everything,’ when postwar prosperity made second televisions, second bathrooms, and second cars the just desserts of middle-class American life. Signs at hardware stores and ads in popular magazines took the idea to the next step, declaring, ‘Every family needs two homes!...one for the work-week, one for pure pleasure.’”

    When the idea that vacation homes could be affordable and accessible caught on, Douglas fir was the material many Americans turned to in order to build them. The Douglas Fir Plywood Association was one of the first trade groups to tap into the growing market. In 1958 it issued a book called “Leisure-Time Homes of Fir Plywood” that included plans for five different models of vacation house. The plans relied extensively on use of pre-formed Douglas fir beams and panels, for a streamlined construction method that owners could do themselves. The publisher promised that the simple Douglas fir panels would age well, weathering the home “into a glistening castle of driftwood.”

    Douglas Fir Plywood Association beach house model.

    Author Chad Randi, in an article written for the Society of Architectural Historians, said that these early, modest vacation homes, with their reliance on natural materials like Douglas fir, “exhibited a harmony with nature and blurring of the distinction between interior and exterior through the creative use of glazing and natural, unfinished materials.”

    As the ‘50s moved into the ‘60s, California vacation homes began to get more elaborate. The Sea Ranch, in Sonoma, Calif., is a planned vacation community developed in 1960s by architects Lawrence Halperin, Charles Moore, William Turnbull and Joseph Esherick. The houses were intentionally designed to reflect the natural surroundings of the Northern California coast. They used local lumber mills to supply Douglas-fir and Redwood as the main building materials, and the homes feature unpainted or muted stains on the exterior, allowing the natural materials to blend with the beauty of the landscape. Interiors of the many of the homes also feature floor-to-ceiling vertical Douglas floor paneling as a way to bring the natural world inside. A 2008 article in the New York Times described a visit to the Sea Ranch, calling a Turnbull-designed house featuring Douglas fir interiors “poetry in wood.”

    Now, contemporary Californians are restoring the beauty of some of the mid-century vacation homes that have been neglected over the years. In Encinitas, Calif., stucco and sheetrock had covered up the original Douglas fir of a beach house overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The new owner stripped away the decades of neglect and the house now features exposed Douglas-fir beams and soaring ceilings. The cabinets and walls also feature Douglas-fir, in a deliberate effort to use as many of the original natural building materials as possible, according to a 2010 article in California Home & Design.

    Designers of new vacation homes as well seek to mimic earlier generations’ use of Douglas-fir in new construction, while using reclaimed wood when possible to create a sense of history. A vacation house in Stinson Beach constructed in 2007 features reclaimed Douglas fir on the ceilings—boards that were originally part of the gymnasium at Stanford University, built in 1914 and deconstructed in 2004.

    In 2011, the California Home and Design award for residential architecture went to a mountain home in the Sugar Bowl, one of the oldest of California’s Lake Tahoe Ski Resorts. Hearkening back to early vacation home plans, designer John Maniscalco went for a simple, geometric design with extensive use of native materials—although this modern 3,000-plus square foot house is a far cry from those early do-it-yourself vacation homes. Narrow-planked Douglas fir covers the ceiling and huge windows frame the snowy, pine-dotted hillside surroundings.

    From tiny mountain A-frames to luxurious beachside getaways, Douglas fir continues to be prized by Californians as a material to make vacation homes as beautiful inside as the landscape outside.

    - Jennifer Rouse



    This post was posted in All Entries, History and Interest and was tagged with Douglas-fir, Douglas fir flooring, douglas fir floors, California vacation homes, douglas fir paneling

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