Natural Wood: Lessons and Gifts
“It’s all trying to turn back to dirt.” I remember hearing this as a young boy regarding wood used outdoors. In many ways wood is the optimal material to use in an outdoor classroom because of its beautiful natural qualities and versatility. Wood creates countless learning opportunities for children, but it also comes with its own set of challenges. Yes, wood wants to decay. We may have an impact on how long it takes to decay, but decay it will. So what might we know about wood that could help alleviate some of the concerns we may have? Here are a few points to consider.
- Understand your tolerance for maintenance
Be frank with whatever group is responsible for maintaining your outdoor space. Selection of materials, location of wood objects and types of coatings can have a big impact on necessary maintenance. Understand time available and skills possessed when making material choices.
- Select a species
Some lumber is more resistant to decay than others. You have probably heard of redwood or cedar but other species may not be so well known. Cypress, Black Locust and Osage Orange are also decay resistant but may be less readily available. You may know of others. One thing I recommend is checking into what wood species have been used historically in your area for fence posts, sign posts or other direct bury applications. These species may not always be the best for finished lumber, but they may be handy for furniture legs, bridge stringers, raised beds, fencing and edges or borders.
- Consider location
Moisture levels and ultraviolet light intensity are primary factors affecting wood longevity. If the location of the wood object can be under cover it will last longer than if it’s in a totally open location. Understand that it is not improper to have wood objects in the open, it’s just that they will need increased care.
- Know your coatings
As with the selection of species, choice of a coating can have a big impact on longevity of wood objects in the landscape. White pine or spruce, which would normally decompose rapidly if not coated, can last a very long time when properly treated. A few options include prime and paint, oils, varnishes, and stains. Primer and paint are usually associated with softer woods. Oils are typically hand rubbed which takes time and usually needs to be repeated a couple of times a year. Soy based oils are showing some promising results and are non-toxic. Be careful with linseed oils as they can blacken in sunshine. Spar varnish is nice on hardwoods and can be durable. Stains are usually easy to apply and also can be durable. They are generally most effective on softer woods. Above all be careful with toxicity issues. Do your research carefully. Seek sage advice on coating selection and save yourself time, money and disappointment.
- Give careful consideration to species selection and be aware of the sustainability impacts of your choice.
- Keep a simple 4-way wood rasp (looks like a file) in your backpack along with small sheet of 100 or 150 grit sandpaper. Use it to take care of rough spots before they become bigger problems.
- As part of your daily walk-thru look for insects (the mean ones!) and eliminate their early nests before they cause larger problems.
- Let loose parts such as tree cookies and log sections remain uncoated. Their natural process of decomposition provides wonderful learning opportunities (turning back into dirt).
Have fun with wood!