Wood and water

It all started so well…A nice sunny Saturday, a good opportunity to get going on some of those jobs that you’ve put off for too long.  So I put a final coat of paint on the door and, with that task out of the way, I decided to move to tackling the pergola that sits over our deck area. Scrubbing it clean, sanding it before painting it are not really tasks to look forward to, but it was a good excuse to spend the day listening to the cricket so I made a start.

Before I go any further with this story, I wish to emphasize that we acquired this structure when we bought the house. I played no part in its design, the choice of material, or its construction. As far as I am concerned, it has always been there, painted white, showing up the dirt.

Cleaning the thing started well enough. In fact, I got thinking that perhaps I didn’t need to paint it after all, just a good clean would be sufficient. Then the problems started. At the top of a pillar, where no-one usually touches, chunks of the structure started coming away with the scrubbing brush. A bit of unenthusiastic prodding with a screwdriver showed me that there were large patches of wood that were anything but solid anymore. In one place I could push the screwdriver through a supporting pillar and see it come out the other side. I’m not a builder, but I don’t think that is meant to happen. The ‘wood’ inside is very, very wet. I think what has happened is that water has got in at the top of the pillar, and worked its way, probably for years, down inside slowly destroying the structure.

Methinks the whole structure is riddled with patches like this, and probably the only thing for it is to come down. Water and wood, not a good combination.

But that’s not completely true, is it?  Boats can be made quite happily of wood, so long as the wood has been looked after properly. In fact, wooden boats have a couple of nice features. First, they don’t sink – (most) wood is less dense than water – and, secondly, damp wood swells and that helps to seal the gaps between the boards on a wooden boat.

Several years ago in Portsmouth, in the UK, I helped re-launch an old wooden yacht that had been out of the water for quite some time, for maintenance. Within just a few seconds back on the water, it was clear that she was leaking. The wood had shrunk, which had opened up small gaps in the hull, and, when back in the sea, the water started coming in. We watched from the shore as she got lower and lower in the water, with the solitary crew member assigned with the task of rowing her to her mooring getting very, very wet. But of course she was never in any danger of sinking, and, once she was nicely damp, the boards swelled, plugged the holes, and, after the water had been bailed out she was back as she should be – nicely watertight and floating happily.

So wood and water can work quite well together,  in the right place.

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