Over the past months, I’ve done quite a few videos and blog articles about live edge wookworking and chainsaw lumber milling. Many folks have questions about how to dry wood slabs, cookies, or boards after cutting or milling them for live edge woodworking projects, building furniture, or wood crafts. In this blog, I share an easy method for drying out wood fast, right at home, that greatly helps eliminate cracking, splitting, checkering, etc. I’ll also share the most accurate method for how to tell when wood is dry enough to be used for woodworking.
There are two main ways to dry out wood: you can do so with a kiln…which most people don’t have access to…or you can air dry it, which is what we’ll be looking at here. After getting your lumber cut out in the woods and brought back home, the first thing to do is get it cleaned up and ready to store and dry. As a preliminary step, trim or break away any soft, rotting, or bug-damaged bark on the outside of the wood with a large chisel or the backside of a hammer. Next, use a stiff-bristled brush to sweep away all the loose bark, dirt, and sawdust, and then go over each board – on both sides – with a shop vac to finish things off.
If there’s evidence of insect activity in a particular piece of wood, as a precautionary measure, you can spray the board down with vinegar, which acts as a natural insecticide that won’t discolor or damage the wood.
After all the wood is cleaned up, give the ends of each board or slab a good coat or two of woodgrain end sealer such as Anchorseal. While you can use a few coats of plain, latex paint for this purpose as well, which I did in the past, I’ve found that a product like Anchorseal works much better as far as preventing the wood from cracking, checkering, or spitting as it begins to dry out. Something else you’ll want to do is put some wood sealer on any areas of the wood that might have slight cracks forming, or what looks the beginning of a crack.
After applying wood sealer and letting it dry, stack the wood up in a dry, well-ventilated place…which for me is the corner of the garage on my wood rack and outside under a covered porch for the bigger pieces. It’s very important to promote and maintain good airflow between each piece of wood as well as in the area that you’re drying in general. To do that, you’ll need to put “stickers” or small planks of wood in-between each slab or plank of lumber. I typically use sticks that are around ¾” to 1 ½ inches thick and place anywhere from two to five stickers in a uniform fashion in-between each piece of wood, depending on how long it is. It’s also important to make sure you use the same size stickers for each piece of wood to help prevent warping while it dries. And as a final measure of precaution to help keep the wood from warping while it ages, I’ll place heavy objects on top of each wood stack…again, in a balanced, uniform fashion.
After all that, it’s a matter of letting nature take its course and dry out the wood. As a rule of thumb, it typically takes a year of drying time per each inch of wood thickness. Now it may seem like it will be forever until you can finally start working with the wood you’ve cut and processed, and it can be very hard to be patient. There are, however, ways to greatly accelerate the drying process. One way that’s worked great for me is simply to run a box fan on your wood stack. I keep a fan going on medium speed year-round in my drying area and position it so that it creates a constant flow of air all around the entire space, which greatly reduces the drying time. I’m usually able to dry out one to two-inch thick wood in a matter of months, instead of years using this process.
The next issue is the question of how to know when your wood is dry and ready to use. The most accurate way to do is to use a moisture meter. Keep checking the moisture level of the wood until it stabilizes and holds steady at the lowest number or level you can get for several weeks or months in a row. There’s no magic number to look for, however, the key is for that number to stabilize. Once you get the level down as low as you can go for an extended period of time, that’s probably going to be as low as it will go, and thus it’s ready to be used. But again, this will take several months, to even several years, depending on how thick the wood is and the environment in which you’re drying it in.