By Merensky Timber
With the dwindling supply of tropical hardwoods caused by major deforestation of natural forests, and the subsequent high prices of sustainably-sourced tropical hardwoods, there is a need for alternative sources of wood that don’t carry a hefty price tag – for the user’s pocket, or for the environment.
There are many alternatives that can be used for interior applications, but woods suitable for exterior use are a completely different proposition, as explored in this article.
Merensky Timber is researching exterior-use wood for various reasons. “This allows us to utilise our fifth-generation Eucalyptus Grandis hardwood to its fullest extent and to provide existing customers with practical advice on the use of timber,” says George Dowse, researcher at Merensky Timber.
“We offer affordable, sustainably-sourced alternatives to tropical hardwoods, and place much emphasis on testing the various options in our South African climate, which differs considerably from the climatic conditions in many of the countries where large-scale tests are typically performed.”
Walkway exposure testing under high foot traffic conditions
Wood used in exterior applications such as decking, or walkways needs to be both strong and durable. One option for improving timber durability is to alter its physical properties through impregnation, heat treatment, or a combination of these processes.
This works for certain applications but in most cases the overall costs end up as high as for tropical hardwood alternatives, and producers require large capital investments.
“With this in mind, Merensky has turned its focus to surface treatments, and understanding what best suits our timber in various applications, so that we can give practical advice to our customers,” says Dowse.
“Our exposure testing covers the majority of South Africa’s commercially-available surface treatment options, including oil-, solvent- and water-based alternatives. Our testing also covers combinations of these as well as the use of additives such as waxes and UV-protective colour pigments.”
Dowse says the Merensky Research team has drawn up various conclusions through this testing, which form the basis of its recommendations to customers.
Location and climate
Samples tested and exposed in Cape Town (Western Cape) degraded much faster than those tested and exposed in the more tropical Tzaneen area (Limpopo province). Treatment selection therefore needs to consider environmental factors such as humidity, wind, UV index, rainfall, and wet seasons.
“Treatment selection therefore needs to consider environmental factors such as humidity, wind, UV index, rainfall, and wet seasons.”
Certain samples that weathered very well on exposure racks did not fare as well during walkway tests, when subjected to everyday use and wear and tear. Factors that play a role here are physical abrasion (such as foot traffic on a walkway or deck), orientation (whether the surface is flat or vertical, in the sun or shade) and construction (such as exposed areas at joints, or moist areas under decks).
During testing, our higher-quality or select-grade lumber was identified as least likely to exhibit surface checking, splitting, or cupping – all features that increase the risk of water ingress, which has a damaging effect on timber. Exposure to the elements, as well as drying and treating the wood, can further develop these defects, especially in lower-quality timber.
Type and density of wood
Not all treatments can be universally applied on all species and variations of wood. The Merensky exposure tests revealed that some treatments formed a good-looking surface layer after treatment but did not penetrate the wood surface layer – especially on higher-density hardwoods. These may therefore start to flake quickly when treatments dry out or are exposed to high-wear conditions.
Film-forming surface treatments such as varnishes were shown to start flaking or peeling when not maintained for prolonged periods and, in most cases, a complete removal of the treatment was required to remedy this. Most manufacturers recommend that a fresh coat be applied, either within a certain timeframe (for example, within 24 months), or when the surface appears dry.
Penetrating treatments such as oil-based products are similar, but with one key difference: they are far more forgiving when not timeously maintained, and a fresh coat can usually be applied without the need for any remedial action. In such cases, though, the wood’s appearance might have changed, depending on how long the surface remained unmaintained.
Certain treatments were shown to provide very good alternatives to regular oil or varnish products, with regard to both penetration and maintenance requirements. Significant advancements were demonstrated with penetrating sealers and water-based treatments.