Too Wet or Too Dry Woodworking: A Sticky Situation

Man Planing Wet Wood Plank in Carpentry Workshop

Everyone who has spent time working with wood knows that the moisture levels can vary from piece to piece and from source to source. They also may have seen their wood change after it was delivered to their shop or job site – twisting, cracking, warping and otherwise not retaining its shape or dimensions. When working with wood to create your own projects, this can be problematic. When working with wood flooring, this can be disastrous.

Why does it happen? Wood is a hygroscopic material that absorbs and releases moisture from its environment, and until it is fully sealed, this is an ongoing, never-stopping process. Sawmills and wood product manufacturers invest heavily in monitoring wood’s moisture content (MC) and removing excess moisture from the wood. However, even with their care, once the wood is transported to another location, the moisture cycle of wood will continue to work to try to balance with its environment.

How does that present a problem for the people and professionals who work with wood? Any time MC is too high (or too low) for its use and environment, the end result is put at risk, along with a few other things along the way.

The Stakes of Unknown Moisture Content

First, let’s look at some of the challenges if the wood is too “wet” or has a high MC.


Wood that has a high MC level will begin to shrink in all dimensions as it begins to lose that excess moisture. Most impacted, though, is width and thickness. If you have fit wooden floorboards together that have excess moisture, that change in dimension can lead to cupping, gaps, or buckling. Not a pretty sight and, in extreme cases, a safety hazard too.

Tool Wear

Tools for Wood FlooringTrying to put “wet” lumber through a planer, a jointer, a sander or even cutting it with a saw can cause both damages to the tools and danger to you. Wet sawdust or shavings catch on blades and other moving parts and can effectively “gum up” the works inside a machine, or promote rust on metal parts (like knives) and shorten their lifespans. High MC wood is also more prone to catching or kick back.

Wood Damage

Wood with higher MC levels is also at risk of additional damage during the working process. Because the wood fibers are, in effect, softened with the additional moisture, tools are more likely to tear or rip the wood instead of cut it. Tear-out, checking, and gouging is more likely on high MC lumber. Even sanding can tear up the surface, rather than smooth it when the wood’s MC level is high. It’s also a must to remember that after the wood dries, the chances of cupping, raised grains, burring or dimensional changes mean the wood may only need to be worked again.

Adhesive Problems

Unless you use glue or adhesive specific to wet situations, high wood MC can mean glued joints do not hold properly over time. If the wood dries after it has been glued, that inevitable shrinkage will put joins at risk as it tries to pull away from the other woods. For furniture joins or glued-down flooring, where use adds stress to the join, this can be disastrous. Moisture can also slow glue curing times.

What about the reverse situation? What if wood’s MC level is too low?


Wood Swelling


Just as drying wood shrinks, wood that is absorbing moisture from its environment will swell in size. While that might cause a tight fit or even a potential split, in some wood projects and in wood floors it can also cause crowning or buckling.


Overly dry wood can be more brittle, meaning nailing, sawing, or other aspects of installing or woodworking can lead to splits, cracks, knot loss and other damage, particularly if working across the grain. Trying to carve or turn overly dry wood can also lead to more splintering on the surface.

Tool Wear

Chisels, saw blades, drill bits, and other tools can also dull tools faster than wood that is at the correct MC for its area and species.

Ultimately, there is a variety of reasons to monitor wood MC, as both levels that are too high and too low can be problematic. How can you tell which is which?

Like many situations, the answer is, “It depends.”

Free Download – 6 Reasons Your Wood Project Failed

When Is Wood Wet (or Dry)?

Fresh-Cut-Birch-TreeIf a living tree has just been cut, it’s wet. That’s a guarantee. After that, though, any rule of thumb will be no more than an estimate.

While there are many guides or tables available to help identify the correct MC for a wood species or a geographic region, ultimately MC is best monitored with an accurate wood moisture meter. Even within one geographic region, temperatures and ambient humidity can vary. In interior installations, the operation of the HVAC system will play into wood’s MC levels.

Wagner Meters’ wood moisture meters give you fast, accurate and easy-to-operate assessments of wood MC. Their non-damaging pinless technology even lets you “scan” many board feet of lumber to help identify potential wet spots or changes within wood stock or wood flooring. Once wood or wood flooring is delivered to its job site, a pinless meter lets you easily monitor the changing MC of the wood.

The target, really, is to identify the point when the wood has reached a balance with its environment, a state referred to as equilibrium moisture content or EMC.

The True Target: EMC

Think of EMC as MC in context. The natural give and take in wood with the moisture of ambient humidity will eventually come to a resting state, and that will be the best time to move ahead with the woodworking or the wood flooring installation. And knowing that your wood has reached its EMC will give you the confidence to move ahead with less risk of a project damaged by an MC level that is too high or too low for conditions.

Last updated on May 4th, 2021


  1. Bryan E Howisey says:

    How long would you wait and dry out a maple tree log round? I want to make a side table out of it.

    Thank you.

    • Jason Wright says:


      As with all wood it is a matter of MC (Moisture Content) in the wood and its conditions in which its drying. I can’t give you a specific time on this as every situation is different. Thanks for writing in.

  2. Stan Amesbury says:

    I’ve just purchased redwood for a fence project and it’s all been delivered to my driveway. The weight of the boards generated concern about moisture content.. The all heart 1×6’s measure between 28 and 58% moisture content. The 2 X 6’s that I will be using as a cap measure up to 45%. It’s a lot of lumber and I have no location to store it to dry further. Is this too high of moisture content to proceed with building the fence?

    • Jason Wright says:


      Thanks for writing us. The moisture content seems pretty high, although I would check with the manufacturer of the fencing to see what they suggest. They will have the best information for you.

  3. Doyle R Parnell says:

    This may sound off the wall but I can’t seem to find any information humidity’s affect on making incense wood or cones. If I leave incense outside overnight it acts like a water magnet and glistens with moisture. They’re made of either wood(punk) or charcoal. The fragrance oil varies in viscosity and usually you cut the oil with DPG (dipropylene glycol) solvent at a 2 DPG:1 Fragrance oil and soak 24-48 hrs.. It seems to me that the dryer the wood, the more fragrance oil it will absorb and have a stronger scent. I dry my incense in a dehydrator. It takes longer to dry so I’m wondering if it’s just a trade off and I’m just wasting time, oil and energy. The only answer I get from vendors, manufacturers and so called experts is “we don’t know” or “we haven’t tried it”.

  4. Ellen Wood says:

    If I just purchased a few pieces of 1 1/2′” walnut burled wood that were old and dried, then proceeded to rinse them a hose at home – have I just started over with the drying process as if they were freshly cut wood?


    • Eric Wagner says:

      The good news, Ellen, is that the wood probably didn’t soak up much water at all in the big scheme of things. I’d be very surprised if the boards weren’t back to their previous condition in a couple of days at the very most. A good quality moisture meter will tell you for sure, though, and if you’re working with wood, it’s an essential tool. Wood seems to take longer to dry than people assume, especially thicker slabs, and it’s always the best practice to measure before using it in any woodworking project.

  5. Josh says:

    I leveled off sanded and spar urethaned and couple pine tree trunks for a couple side tables. from a tree cut down a couple weeks. I only let dry for maybe 5 days. Will these trunks be no good now cause moister is probably sealed inside?

    • Eric Wagner says:

      You’ve got quite a delicate situation there, and it probably deserves a detailed conversation about moisture measurement. Give us a call to talk to one of our experts.

  6. Molly Howell says:

    Thanks, Ron. I’ll do that!

  7. Molly Howell says:

    I live in north Florida and have a trailer full of cherry, cedar, and camphor that was my late husband’s (and his late father’s before that) that I would like to sell. It was all cut, planked, stacked, and stickered before 2001. Is it possible that it is too dry to effectively use?

    • Ron Smith says:

      Possible, but I think it will be fine. I would check it with an accurate moisture meter, though.

  8. Steve Kirby says:

    My western red cedar privacy fence has aged to have gaps so large that when you drive down the alley at night, you can see into the back yard like looking through edison’s kinetoscope. I want to take the pickets off, and relocate them to have minimum gap width. If I soak each picket before nailing it back on, can I butt them together with the confidence that after drying, and then getting wet in a day long rain, they will not buckle?

    • Ron Smith says:


      I would not soak them; they already dried (and shrunk) substantially, and no reason to start over. If it were me, I would reposition them with an acceptable (to you, maybe ½”) gap. I cannot imagine them swelling that much in the rain to cause the boards to swell and butt against each other.

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