The ultimate guide to Timber

Timber is a traditional building material and hardwood timber frame properties date back to medieval and Tudor times.

It certainly isn’t going anywhere. In the UK, more and more builders are choosing to use timber to build houses and apartments, of all shapes and sizes. Timber is already used throughout the domestic home from floor joists, internal walls, roof trusses, window frames, flooring through to staircases and doors.

According to the Structural Timber Association (STA), softwood timber frame homes have been built in increasing numbers since the 18th Century and timber frame accounts for about a quarter of new housing in the UK and more than two-thirds in Scotland.

It’s easy to see its appeal of timber – with the increased need to conserve energy to save money and to minimise climate change, timber frame has the lowest CO² impact of any building system. As buildings need to meet new energy efficiency standards, timber is often the material of choice.

What is timber?

Timber is processed or ‘milled’. Raw logs are brought to a timber mill where they are de-barked and run through machines to transform them into chips for making sheet material or other products, or run through a mill to create various sizes of lumber (timber). Lumber is produced in beams or planks and usually dried in a kiln and sometimes treated with chemicals to preserve it.

Flooring is sourced from many different countries, each having different grading rules and industry standards. The UK produces its own products, but Scandinavian timber is generally of a higher grading as the timber grows slower due to the colder climate.

As with any commodity, prices rise and fall based on numerous factors, global demand being the biggest influence at the moment. Timber can be purchased from a number of reputable merchants in the UK.

Timber frame

How sustainable is timber?

Timber frame homes use less energy to build because wood grows naturally, needing minimal energy to fell, mill, transport and construct. Wood is a renewable building material.

Using hardwood timber provides many environmental benefits in home-building and within the home. For years, many people have opted for PVC for windows and doors as it’s cheap and widely manufactured. As consumers become more aware of their carbon footprint, this plastic option is being traded in for timber.

Timber is widely agreed as the best material to use for staircase manufacturing, as its alternatives – concrete, metal and glass – produce higher levels of carbon and are more expensive.

How to avoid potential problems with timber

With any type of construction, using all types of materials, poor performance and durability issues can occur.

Timber frame has a history of longevity and poor performance in buildings is often linked to errors in construction quality.

Research into the performance of timber frame construction has been executed by the Building Research Establishment (BRE) who have provided an independent view of the construction method. The BRE looked at the durability of timber frame (BRE - Timber- framed housing - a technical appraisal - Freeman et al - 1983). This report concluded that properly constructed timber frame buildings did not have durability issues but that the construction method required controlled design and build processes ­and, of course, good workmanship.

Timber cladding

Timber cladding is growing in new-build and recladding projects. Correctly installed with the appropriate type of timber, it can last for decades but regular maintenance is required.

Its popularity lies in its green credentials and its visual effect. Cost of timber usually does reflect durability and finish, though chemical treatment by the supplier or buyer can improve weathering.

Most external timber cladding is softwood, and red cedar, Siberian larch or douglas fir can be used without preservatives. Western red cedar is a popular choice because of its resistance to decay: it has a 60-year service life and does not need preservative treatment. European redwood is a cheaper option but should only be used if treated. Recoating may be necessary.

Timber cladding

Taking care of timber

Timber for all purposes should be stored in a dry, clean and well-ventilated space which is free of moisture like a shed or garage. It is not advisable to store your timber in your new build as it can be subjected to moisture from appliances and building materials. It’s best stored on pallets off the floor space to avoid moisture which can cause warping.

When it comes to external woodwork it can naturally fade and discolour over time, under constant weathering. It can be freshened up by cleaning, sanding and re-finishing it. Summer is an ideal time to do this as the warm dry weather allows the paint to bond better with the wood, making for a more durable finish.

What kind of timber and where?

From domestic homes to skyscrapers, floors to ceilings, timber is a versatile building material which creates the spaces in which we live, work and play.

In order to choose the correct timber, you must understand the intended method of application, as well as the wood species, its durability, and whether or not a flame-retardant treatment is needed.

Softwood is widely used for decking and is sourced throughout Europe. Species such as western red cedar and southern yellow pine are also used for decking being virtually clear of knots. The durability depends on the use of pressure treatments involving chemicals and, if maintained, can last for up to thirty years. Softwoods typically grow more quickly and therefore cost less than hardwood, however clear softwoods are similarly priced as hardwood.

Hardwood timber is used for many interior designs. Hardwood is typically a lot denser than softwoods, making it ideal for the more hard-wearing home installations, including doors, window frames and stairs.

Wooden decking in garden

Recycling timber

When it (finally!) comes to the end of your project you may find you’re left with unused timber. Recycling any untreated timber (not painted, varnished or chemically treated) leftover from your project can be sent to landfill but sending it to a recycle centre does wonders for the environment and can be cheaper.

Wood recyclers charge a gate fee per tonne to take your wood from you. These will vary around the country and at different times of year but in the majority if not all cases, gate fees remain a cheaper option than landfill.

Untreated soft and hard timber is often turned into woodchips for use as mulch. Chipboard can also be recycled, but you’ll need to check if your recycler takes it. Some timbers can be salvaged for re-use, being sent to a recycled timber yard. Wood recyclers vary in the products they make from waste wood but common products include biomass fuel, feedstock for panel board and animal beddings.

Alternatively, you may wish to save your unused timber for future projects but do ensure you store it correctly.

Plasterboard in loft

Did you know?

Timber merchant International Timber supplies an extensive range of Tropical and Temperate hardwood species harvested from Europe, South East Asia, West Africa and North America, species include White oak (USA), Bangkirai (SE Asia), Iroko and Sapele (West Africa), Western Red Cedar (BC, Canada) and a little closer to home from Europe Beech and Oak.

International Timber’s range of American White Oak and European Oak provides a choice for stair industry that are available ex stock for flexible ordering and guaranteed deliveries. The Intelligence range combines hardwood timber with engineered products to create bespoke solutions which are coming much more in demand with architects and specifiers who need solutions and support to move their projects toward timber.