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Moisture Content and Wood Stability in Turning

When it comes to woodworking, one of the critical factors that can significantly impact the outcome of your project is the moisture content of the wood you’re working with. If you’re a seasoned woodturner or just starting out in the craft, knowing how moisture content affects wood stability in turning is essential. We’ll delve into the intricacies of moisture content, its impact on wood, and how you can optimize your woodturning projects for the best results.

What is Moisture Content in Wood?

Moisture content in wood refers to the amount of water present in the wood fibers, expressed as a percentage of the wood’s overall weight. It plays a vital role in determining the suitability of wood for various applications, including woodturning. Wood is a natural material, and its moisture content can vary significantly depending on several factors.

Moisture content in wood is a fundamental property that defines the amount of water present in the wood’s cellular structure, expressed as a percentage of the wood’s total weight. It’s a critical parameter for anyone working with wood, including woodturners, as it profoundly impacts the wood’s behavior and suitability for various applications.

Examples of Moisture Content:

High Moisture Content

Wood with a high moisture content, typically above 20%, is considered “green” or “wet.” This means it contains a significant amount of water and has not undergone sufficient drying. Green wood is heavy, soft, and relatively easy to dent or mark. It’s also more prone to warping, cracking, and deformation as it continues to dry, making it unsuitable for many woodworking projects.

Example Scenario: Imagine you’re trying to turn a green wood bowl on your lathe. As you remove material, you notice the wood becoming more oval-shaped, and cracks start to appear on the surface due to the rapid drying process. This can be frustrating and lead to a ruined project.

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Ideal Moisture Content

For woodworking, including woodturning, the ideal moisture content usually falls in the range of 8% to 12%. Wood within this moisture range is referred to as “kiln-dried” or “seasoned.” It has been carefully dried to reach a balance with the surrounding environment, making it stable and suitable for various applications.

Example Scenario: You decide to turn a beautiful bowl from a piece of kiln-dried hardwood with 10% moisture content. The wood remains stable throughout the turning process, maintaining its shape and integrity. Your finished bowl is free from cracks and warping, showcasing the beauty of the wood grain.

Low Moisture Content

Wood with very low moisture content, often below 8%, is considered “over-dried.” While it may be exceptionally stable, it can become brittle and challenging to work with. Over-dried wood is susceptible to splitting and splintering during woodworking.

Example Scenario: You attempt to turn a pen from a piece of over-dried wood with 5% moisture content. While it doesn’t warp or crack during turning, you notice that it’s prone to chipping and splintering, making it difficult to achieve the smooth finish you desire.

Knowing the concept of moisture content in wood and its practical implications is essential for woodturners. It allows you to select the right wood for your projects, minimize issues related to wood movement, and achieve the best possible results in your woodworking endeavors.

Factors Affecting Wood Moisture Content

Several factors influence the moisture content of wood:

1. Ambient Humidity

The surrounding environment’s humidity levels have a direct impact on the moisture content of wood. Wood absorbs or releases moisture to reach an equilibrium with the humidity in its surroundings.

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2. Wood Species

Different wood species have varying levels of inherent moisture content. For instance, some hardwoods naturally have lower moisture content than softwoods.

3. Wood Processing

The way wood is processed and dried after harvesting also affects its moisture content. Kiln-drying and air-drying are common methods used to reduce moisture content to suitable levels for woodworking.

4. Wood Storage

How and where wood is stored can influence its moisture content. Proper storage in a dry environment can help maintain an ideal moisture level.

Why Does Moisture Content Matter in Woodturning?

Now that we’ve established what moisture content is, let’s explore why it’s crucial in the context of woodturning. When you turn a piece of wood on a lathe to create beautiful wooden objects, such as bowls, pens, or spindles, the moisture content can make or break your project.

1. Wood Movement

High moisture content in wood can lead to significant movement and warping as the wood dries. This movement can ruin the shape and balance of your turned object. It’s essential to select wood with the appropriate moisture content for your project to minimize these issues.

2. Cracking and Splitting

Excess moisture in wood can cause cracking and splitting during and after turning. These defects can be disappointing and waste your time and effort.

3. Difficulty in Turning

Wood with high moisture content tends to be softer and more challenging to work with on a lathe. It can lead to tear-out, tool chatter, and an overall frustrating turning experience.

Finding the Right Moisture Content

To ensure a successful woodturning project, it’s crucial to find the right moisture content for the wood you’re using. A moisture meter is an invaluable tool for this purpose. Aim for a moisture content of around 8-12% for most woodturning projects.

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Testing Moisture Content

  1. Collect a Sample: Take a small sample from the wood you intend to use.
  2. Use the Moisture Meter: Insert the moisture meter’s pins or sensors into the wood sample. The meter will display the moisture content percentage.
  3. Interpret the Results: If the moisture content is too high, consider further drying the wood in a controlled environment.

Wood Drying Techniques

To achieve the ideal moisture content for woodturning, you can employ various drying techniques:

1. Air Drying

Air drying involves stacking and storing wood in a well-ventilated area for an extended period. This method is suitable for reducing moisture content gradually.

2. Kiln Drying

Kiln drying is a more controlled and faster method of reducing moisture content. It’s commonly used by commercial woodturners and allows for precise moisture level adjustments.

3. Microwaving

In some cases, you can use a microwave to quickly reduce moisture content in small woodturning blanks. However, this method requires caution to prevent overheating and damaging the wood.

Wood Stabilization

Wood stabilization is a process that involves impregnating wood with resin or other stabilizing agents to prevent warping, cracking, and other issues caused by moisture content variations. This is especially useful for woodturners working with highly figured or unstable wood.


In woodturning, moisture content is a critical factor that can significantly affect the outcome of your projects. Knowing how to measure, control, and optimize moisture content in wood will empower you to create beautiful, stable, and long-lasting turned objects. So, the next time you embark on a woodturning adventure, know that moisture content plays a pivotal role in shaping your success. Mastering this aspect of woodworking, you’ll be well on